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Head Games

Trying out for Mensa seemed like a smart idea at the time.

by Elizabeth Lemond

id I have what it takes to gain membership in Mensa, the international high-IQ society? I was sure I was never going to find out because on my way to take the Mensa tests at the Raleigh Branch Library last Saturday morning I got so thoroughly lost – despite having detailed directions at my fingertips – that I had to get out at a tire-repair joint and ask for directions. This is not the ego-bolstering omen one hopes for prior to taking an IQ test, I assure you. I would have turned around and gone home, but I wasn’t really confident I’d be able to find my way back, either. My only hope was to press on toward my destination and then, from there, to follow my original directions backward to return to my warm bed.

Trying to regard the first 45 minutes of my morning spent in the car as a “screening test,” I finally arrived at the library, where I spent an additional five minutes inside my parked car chanting a Stuart Smalley-esque mantra (“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, I’ve already found my way to the library...”) to perk up my esteem.

I finally emerged from my vehicle with renewed zeal, and I approached the door where a smallish throng of would-be Mensans waited. (Actually, I only later discovered that they were would-be Mensans since, when I found them standing at the entrance, they were in a state of silent awkwardness that can only normally be imposed by the interior of an elevator. But no matter. We found the library. We made the cut.)

I sized up the competition: two other twentysomethings, a man and a woman, and an older man in his forties. I also identified our proctor, the president of Memphis Mensa, by his ominous-looking briefcase, presumably full of Scantron sheets and multiple-choice questions. (Deductive reasoning. I was ready to go.) Armed with three No. 2 pencils – that’s right, I’m as geeky as I need to be to get the job done – I prepared to rock the Mensa world.

As we filed into our room, proctor Isaac Kullman informed us that we would be taking two tests. A score above the 98th percentile on either test would allow us to join either the local or international chapter of Mensa. Memphis Mensa boasts 225 members, though only 20 or so regularly attend the group’s meetings. These gatherings often feature a speaker and are primarily designed to be social events at which the members can relax and enjoy each other’s top-notch intellectual company.

The first test, known as the Wonderlic Personnel Test, would last 12 minutes, during which time we would have to complete 50 questions. I figured that was either about 4 questions a minute, or I couldn’t do math well enough to have bothered getting out of bed. Less than 15 seconds a question – no pressure. An inquiry from the fortysomething:

“Do I have to use a No. 2 pencil, or can I use my mechanical pencil?”

Let the games begin!

The Wonderlic was a fairly predictable standardized test. The questions got progressively harder and it wasn’t really designed to be completed in 12 minutes. There was a smattering of standard math questions, vocabulary questions, logic puzzles, spatial-reasoning questions, antonyms, synonyms – you get the idea. No penalty for guessing, skip it if you don’t know it, yadda, yadda, yadda. While some of the questions simply involved scanning two columns of numbers and deciding how many pairs of numbers were the same, others involved reorganizing the mixed-up words of a sentence and then deciding whether or not the reformulated statement was true or false. I raced through them as best I could and zeroed in on the last question with about 18 seconds left:

“A magazine editor has an article of 30,000 words that he must publish using two types of print. The larger print allows 1,200 words per page and the smaller print allows 1,500 words per page. The article must fit 22 pages. How many pages of the smaller type must be used?”

Ding. Time’s up.

Naturally, my punishment for having worked for a newspaper for several years is that the last question of the IQ test is about fonts and typesetting, and I don’t have enough time to get the right answer. So it goes.

“Did anyone answer all the questions?” asked our proctor. I looked up at the other three test-takers (who were an easy bunch to survey since I was the only one not sitting in the front row). The twentyish guy answered affirmatively. Well, well, well. As long as he realizes nobody out-dorks me. Nobody!

Following a 15-minute break, we began the next test, which took about an hour. The first three sections deflated my confidence faster than getting lost ever could have. They were all pictorial and involved picking out opposites and finding matches for groups. But apparently the makers of this test have a different conception of what the word “opposite” means than I do, let alone the fact that the drawings were frequently indecipherable. (Said Kullman: “They’re a thousand times better than they used to be, believe me.”)

The first sample problem instructed that we pick out the item in the group that was the opposite of the first item shown. The first item was a picture of a man’s hat, and the last four were also all pictures of hats. Albeit, one was a paper hat, so this was clearly meant to be the answer. But is one hat really the opposite of another hat? I think not. Different, yes. Opposite? Hmm. Semantics are apparently not the point. A natural complainer, I struggled against my desire to object and tried to get down to work, my mental clock ticking all the while.

The following questions were even more seemingly inappropriate. What is the opposite of an ice-cream cone? A nuclear power generator, a man’s shirt, a diamond, or an unidentifiable metal object? As you can imagine, I was not pleased by the fact that my IQ was being assessed in this manner. They might as well have grabbed a seismometer and said, “Think about an earthquake. If you can make this dirt move with your brain, we’ll let you be in Mensa!”

The demonic picture-oriented sections were over soon enough and we entered the more comfortable realm of figuring out what coins were necessary to have a five-coin mix worth 71 cents. (Answer: one half-dollar, one dime, two nickels, and a penny.) Finally, in the last section, we were asked questions about a story that had been read to us before the test began. If it had been about the season finale of ER, I would have aced it, but I’m sure I was paying less attention to the charming narrative about primitive Greek plays than I usually do to the wacky foibles of Noah Wyle. Does that make me less intelligent? Maybe. But I don’t think so.

So the test was over and my fate regarding the international high-IQ society was sealed. The tests take about three weeks to grade and the results are sent directly to the partcipants, who can then choose to contact the local Mensa group if they desire membership. The tests, which cost $25, are given every month to six weeks, and Memphis Mensa is always looking for new members to bolster their organization. If you’d like to count yourself among their ranks, or if you just want a mental run for your money, give it a try. The next test will be on July 18th at 10 a.m. at the Raleigh Branch Library. Getting there is half the fun.

Mensa and Beyond

Most people don’t think of Mensans as the intellectual bourgeoisie. But then again, most people aren’t in the Mega Society – and that’s the idea.

As this 16-year-old society, whose members must have a one-in-a million IQ of about 165, proclaims on its official Web page: “If average human intelligence is ground level, Mensa is the base of the pyramid and the Mega Society its pinnacle.” The “Mega Test,” a battery of 48 questions that potential society members are given a month to complete, can be found on the Web. To gain entrance into Mega, 43 questions must be answered correctly. (Parade magazine’s Marilyn vos Savant squeaked by with 46 right answers.)

The Mega Society isn’t the only organization whose members delight in their preposterously overdeveloped cerebra. The One-in-A-Thousand (OATH) Society, IQuadrivium, The Triple Nine Society, and the International Society for Philosophical Enquiry (ISPE) all require IQs at the 99.9th percentile for membership (an IQ of 150, or 1 in 1,000).

Other novel IQ-based societies include the Prometheus Society (1 in 30,000); Energeia, the Christian high IQ society; and “Densa” – a society whose Web page, complete with parody IQ test, declares that fully 999 out of 1,000 people will make the cut.

Far more amusing than Densa, however, is “Giga,” the society whose Web page advertises free membership for anyone clocking an IQ of 196 – or one-in-a-billion. The founder of Giga, Paul Cooijmans of the Netherlands, generously offers to admit all qualifying computers as members. But his challenge to the rabble of the intelligentsia is clear: “A secondary goal [of the society] is to make members of other IQ societies realize they’re not all that, although they may think they are.”

You go, Giga. – E.L.

You can find a list of Web pages for the high-IQ-minded on the Giga site at

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