A-level Results Day dreams and nightmares

As sixth formers across the country wait for their grades, Emily Chan asks what can be learnt from results day dreams – even as you get them later on in life

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Turning up to school completely naked is a classic results day dream Photo: ALAMY

Scroll to the end to interpret your school based nightmares.

Whether you wake up in the middle of night dripping with sweat because you think you’ve failed all your exams, or mortified because you think you’ve turned up to school completely naked, Results Day dreams can affect everyone – even decades after you last sat an exam.

Professor Jim Horne, director of the Sleep Research Centre at Loughborough University, describes dreams as “a hotchpotch of what you’ve been doing and thinking over the last few days”. So it’s no surprise that it isn’t only sixth formers having the nightmares, but their anxious parents and grandparents too.

We usually dream for around 90 minutes a night, in four separate cycles, during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Prof Horne explains that, during this time, the ‘thinking’ part of the brain – the prefrontal cortex – is “switched off”, meaning that dreams are “unfocused” and “jump about”.

During REM sleep the emotional centre of the brain ensures that “we remain emotionally detached from dreams”, preventing us from waking up unless a nightmare develops.

Dreams are most intense towards the end of sleep, and we tend to remember only the last few minutes when waking up.

Although Prof Horne describes the idea that you can solve problems when you dream as “largely nonsense”, adding that “dreaming is really there to keep your brain entertained while you sleep”, Ian Wallace, dream psychologist and author of The Complete A to Z Dictionary of Dreams, believes that it is possible to learn a lot about yourself from your dreams.

He says that “exam dreams usually reflect a person’s need to always succeed in waking life and this can lead to them expecting far too much from their actions, whether it involves a major project or a trivial errand.”

Wallace argues that the people who are most likely to have the common types of Results Day dreams are those who are most likely to perform well and “achieve their objectives”.

“The reason that these types of dreams are becoming increasingly common is that there is an increasing tendency for us to judge each other in the binary manner of pass or fail,” he added. This can be seen in cultural phenomena such as the #FAIL hashtag and the emergence of so many talent shows with the focus on all-powerful judges.”

He continued: “Rather than just judging whether our performances are good or bad, right or wrong, true or false, it is far more valuable to see them in a wider context so that we can understand how to improve them in the way we choose.”

What do your dreams mean? By Ian Wallace

1) Being completely naked on results day/ at school
This suggests that the dreamer is feeling particularly exposed and vulnerable to a situation that seems to be outside their control. The clothes that you wear in waking life often symbolise the levels of competence that you would like to show to anyone who may be judging you. Being in the situation where you feel that someone else is assessing your competence can make you feel uncomfortable as your personal performance is open to external criticism.

Be more confident in revealing your knowledge rather than trying to hide your abilities away.

2) Getting grades that don’t exist (eg 3 Ps, Zs)
This reflects the dreamer’s deeper awareness that they have a need to explore their own deeper purpose rather than constantly judging their progress against the performances of other people. Instead of trying to analyse if they might be cleverer than someone else, this dream suggests that they are beginning to reflect on what makes them a unique individual and how valuable that is.

Work with any self-limiting beliefs you may have and give yourself the opportunity to move on from them.

3) Getting grades in subjects that don’t exist
This indicates that the dreamer is keen to have other people recognise their competence and experience beyond the formal exam process. A subject that doesn’t exist suggests that the dreamer has the wider awareness to explore new opportunities and challenges, and to make the most of them.

Review your academic performance in the wider context of your life skills and how you would like to develop them.

4) Not being able to open the results envelope/ get results
This suggests that the dreamer may have some waking life frustrations about actually putting their learning into practical use. Being unable to open an envelope can often indicate a communications problem and so although the dreamer may have a deep understanding of a specific subject, they might find it challenging to display it to other people. An inability to get their exam results reflects that they may have challenges in using their accumulated knowledge to actually achieve practical results in day-to-day life.

Consider some practical ways to make the most of what you have learned.

5) Having to take your exams over and over again
This is a common recurring dream for people who have a tendency to take on too much, and then judge themselves quite harshly for not measuring up to their own impossibly high standards. It is often experienced by people with a strong track record of achievements who drive themselves too hard, usually due to an inner fear of failure. Exams are how we judge our ability to perform, so this indicates a critical examination of performance in all aspects of waking life, not just in formal tests and exams.

Fully accept your talents by celebrating your knowledge and achievements, instead of constantly judging them.

6) Failing all your exams
This can suggest that the dreamer is basing all their assumptions about their value to other people on the result of a particular outcome. Rather than realising that any learning is a process of continuous improvement, they feel that they must continually meet or exceed the expectations of other people. This can lead to a situation in waking life where they feel like a total failure, whereas other people invariably view them as a consistently high achiever who seems to meet any challenges with the minimum of fuss and effort.

Remember these words from Samuel Beckett, “Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better”.