“I keep having the same unsettling dream. So I asked a psychologist what it means."


Last night I woke up twice from the exact same dream… well, nightmare.

I was back in high school and about to complete the performance portion of my HSC music exam. I’m sweaty and I’m nervous when I go to run through Gershwin’s Three Preludes on the piano before I play to a panel of examiners.

It then becomes very evident I know none of it.

So I panic.

I start berating myself for not having practiced the piano since the year before. Why would I do this to myself, I ask. I futilely start flipping over my sheet music and my vision goes spotty. I start sensing a mild panic attack when I suddenly wake up. And then a few hours later, the exact scenario happens again.

While the situation sometimes changes (normally it’s about my related texts for English), ever since finishing Year 12 almost seven years ago I’m haunted by that stressful period in my teen years, and I know I’m not alone.

Asking my colleagues to volunteer their recurring nightmares about the VCE, SATAC, TCE, HSC (or the equivalent) their experiences were a minefield of high school angst.

“I have to do my HSC all over again even though I know in my dream I’ve already done it. I’m in my uniform, studying for exams and shit and I’m like BUT I DID THIS ALREADY,” says Jessie.

“I used to dream about being in an exam and suddenly realising I was wearing my pyjamas,” added Polly.

“I used to dream about forgetting how to spell really, really simple words mid-exam like ‘you’ and ‘and’,” added Bella.


Can too much sleep cause nightmares? There’s a problem we’ll probably never have. Post continues. 

Video by MMC

To get the facts, Mamamia spoke to Amanda Gordon, psychologist and Director of Armchair Psychology, and Martina Kocian, dream therapist from The Dream Garden, to find out exactly why as (generally) competent adults we’re still being haunted by these exams from our adolescence. And it turns out there’s a very logical reason for it.

With over 30 years of experience under her belt, Amanda says even though she’s now a grandmother, she’s still plagued by her “HSC dream”, which includes scenarios where she can’t find the room to her history exam or realises she can’t read her exam paper.

“For many people their HSC exam [or your major high school exam] is a very traumatic time. I can still relate to it and I know that if I’m distressed about my life, or worried, or if I know I have something to confront, the most likely dream I will have is my HSC dream,” she says.

Explaining the reasoning behind this, Amanda says it’s two fold.

“One is the trauma we place young people under doing these exams,” she says.


“For many students they’ve invested so much of their identity in the success of their exams. They’re told, albeit wrongly so, that it’s the most important time in their lives and everything depends on it, which is a very poor message to be giving young people.

“Secondly, these exams occur at adolescence which is one of the most vulnerable times of anyone’s life. During this period our brains are very plastic which means we form memories very strongly so it’s no wonder the trauma gets imprinted.”

The combination of these two factors means that our brains will resort to replaying these memories when we’re in times of stress, whether we’re aware of this mental state or not. However, for people who have experienced other traumas earlier in life – like surviving a car crash or losing a parent – Amanda says that’s the memory which will most likely be imprinted in their mind during stressful times.

If you're still having nightmares about your Year 12 exams, you're not alone. Image via Getty.

Martina agrees, and explains the process as our "subconscious or dreaming mind referring to the past in order to provide similarities to help us understand and make sense of our current experiences".

"Dreaming about failing exams symbolises that we are feeling unprepared in regard to a challenging situation in waking life," she explains.

"The purpose of these dreams is to provide awareness and even solutions to our challenges and experiences."

Martina advises people to see these dreams as a way to analyse their current situation.

"After experiencing this type of stress dream it’s important to reflect and explore where we are currently lacking the skills or preparation for a certain task, challenge or even life event," she advises.

And to be honest, this is a much more positive and productive way to reframe forgetting all your quotes to Waiting for Godot or that algebra equation you needed for your maths test.

Do you dream about failing your high school and Year 12 tests when you're stressed? Group therapy is open in the comments below.