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Brain Drain 

We know words like "propinquity." So are we smart enough for Mensa?

Wednesday, Nov 5 2003
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The last time Dog Bites took an IQ test, we were 4 years old and classified as "gifted." Figuring we had nowhere to go but down, we were always deathly afraid of taking another one. So it was with some trepidation that we found ourselves spending a recent Saturday at -- gulp -- Mensa National Testing Day, determined to find out whether our childhood smarts were a fluke, and whether this curious organization would welcome us as a member.

As we shuffled into an S.F. State classroom and picked up our No. 2 pencil, we remembered something: Standardized tests suck. And as with the SATs, we'd come completely unprepared, with nary a practice test under our belt. Hell, we didn't even know if there were practice tests for Mensa.

We took a seat at our desk/chair combo with about 15 other test-takers. To our surprise, most of them were young -- including a college-age guy in a shirt that said, "My roommate is an iddiot [sic]." We were relieved when our test proctor, wearing a pink dress shirt and a salt-and-pepper beard that screamed "wise," explained that the Mensa test doesn't actually yield an intelligence quotient. Instead, we'd receive an invitation to join if we scored in the top 2 percent of the 1,000 hopefuls testing that day. (We remembered this magical phenomenon from our college days: a curve.) If we didn't qualify through this test, we could try other avenues: psychologist-administered IQ tests (132 or higher makes the cut), GREs, and SATs. Immediately, a hand shot up in the front row. A young man wanted to know what you had to score on the SAT to get into Mensa. (A few minutes later, his hand shot up again: "What if you don't know your Social Security number?")

This is one reason Mensa never appealed to us. It seemed less like the gifted schools of our youth, when we were grouped with all the smart kids and took rigorous classes such as "Time Capsule" and "The Vikings," and more like National Honors Society, wherein smart kids posed for yearbook photos and compared SAT scores. But as it turns out, the 51,208 members of American Mensa actually do stuff, like volunteer, stage board-game competitions, and form special interest groups with others who share a fascination with, say, Monty Python. Or Vikings.

Now to the test. The two-part exam began with the curiously named Wonderlic Personnel Test, which, to our disappointment, was not a pre-employment screening for an escort service. Instead, we had 12 minutes to answer 50 questions and were told to cram our answers into the tiny brackets provided in the right-hand margin. When the form asked, "position held/applying for?" we wrote, "pastry chef," just in case that was part of the test. Mostly, Wonderlic measures logic and reasoning, with lots of geometric shapes, calculations, and word puzzles. When time became a factor, we began skipping the math questions. Hey, answering all 50 questions probably equals instant genius status and, really, we didn't want that burden.

Next up was a part of the test we could really get into: the break. We schmoozed our fellow test-takers and met a frumpy young guy who answered 44 Wonderlic questions -- but who also took practice tests on the Mensa Web site. So they do have practice tests! "Yeah, they have some cool games on the site, too," he said, then reconsidered. "Well, I don't know how cool they are."

Before the verbal part of the test, the class had a few questions of its own. One guy, clearly concerned with the procedural difficulties of the Wonderlic test we'd just taken, stammered, "If the answers don't fit in the brackets, will they be scored? And if the answer asked for two numbers, do you separate them with a comma?"

"That's part of the test!" someone yelled from the back row. Nerds understand sarcasm.

The latter half of the test was a bit more like the SAT -- if the SAT folks were trying really, really hard to trick you. The object wasn't just to choose the right answer, but to figure out what, exactly, the question was asking. For example, we had to examine five pieces of hokey clip art and determine which two were opposites. One scenario presented a drawing of a gemstone (presumably a diamond) and asked which was its opposite: a drinking glass, a gingerbread house, a nut, or a stone wall.

Okaaaay.

Some of the drawings were so bizarre we wondered if the exam's supposed to test our knowledge of archaic implements or if it just needs updating. "Some of those pictures were so '50s," observed Mensa hopeful Jessica Saunders after the test. "Are people even going to know what a slide rule is?"

After the clip-art section, we came upon the dreaded mathematical word problems. You know the kind: If Gary borrows $40 million at 15 percent interest, how many chickens does he have to sell? We probably answered 75 percent of them, with correct answers for, say, zero percent. We hoped to make it up on the word section and were heartened to see one of our all-time favorite words, "propinquity," on the synonym section (The answer? Nearness).

When we put down our pencil and headed out of the testing room, we were glad to hear that most of our compatriots were also humbled by the math. We also found that most of the Mensa wannabes wanted to join the society for two reasons: to see if they were as smart as they thought they were (in our case, the answer was a resounding "no") and to socialize.

"I'm still single and in the middle of all those life-path questions," said Saunders, a 37-year-old mortgage lender from Fremont who's also the product of a school gifted program. "So it's a social thing. But it's not like I want to meet an intelligent man to breed a superbaby."

Chris Hong, a 28-year-old from Sunnyvale, seemed interested in the test for the same masochistic reasons we were. He hadn't taken an IQ test in 20 years and wanted to see how his brains held up. Unfortunately, none of us will know the verdict until the letters from Mensa arrive in a couple of weeks. Until then, Hong has just one more question: "I wonder how a hangover affects your score?"

About The Author

Nancy Einhart

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