I Failed a Mensa Test, Twice
An inside look at a failed attempt to become a member of a select group of people who did well on a test.
American Mensa, an organization that admits people with an IQ in the top two percent of the population, claims nearly 60,000 members, including more than 2,300 in the Greater New York area (and a bunch of toddlers).
On a Saturday morning in late May, I went to see if I could become one of them.
The Mensa Admission Test costs $40, takes two hours, and consists of two separate exams: the Mensa Wonderlic® and the Mensa Admission Test. Anyone scoring in the 98th percentile or higher on either gains the right to pay $70 per year for membership. Benefits include unlimited miles from Alamo Rental Car, access to the Mensa Connection networking app, and an @member.mensa.org vanity email address. Membership is not, however, "necessarily an indicator of wealth, ambition, or career success. It simply indicates that a person has higher-than-average reasoning abilities." In the 12-month period before I took my test, 57 percent of the nearly 2,400 test-takers—2,368, to be exact—passed. (The organization also accepts scores from more than 200 other intelligence tests like the LSATs and offers a "Cultural Fair" test that includes the Cattell Culture Fair, the Nonverbal Reasoning Test, and the SRA Pictorial Reasoning Test. There is no lack of ways to qualify. Still, nearly six million Mensa-eligible Americans are not members.)
The last standardized test I took was the SATs. My preparation for that could best be described as "whatever." I did far more for the Mensa test, which I hope demonstrates my growing maturity but is probably a better indication of my preference for goofy stunts in the name of journalism over potentially life-altering bubble-filling-in sessions. I took the Mensa workout quiz and learned that I was much better at the math questions than the word ones. This is ironic, considering what I do for a living. But did you know that "banalities" is the only other 10-letter word one can make from the letters in "insatiable"? Because I did not. I scored 25 out of 30, which inspired both confidence and concern. I—more or less—stopped drinking alcohol for the two weeks before the test. While that decision was almost entirely the result of a half-marathon I was running, I made the executive decision to add it into the Mensa test prep category, too. I did a three-day juice cleanse, again not specifically for the test, but it was healthy and horrible so it counts. (Counter-narrative to the last point: Anyone willing to pay $150 to drink kale, cucumber, and cayenne for three days should be automatically banned from any and all societies that celebrate higher intelligence.)
I felt ready when the Saturday morning finally arrived. (I did not take the Mensa Home Test because it cost $18, which felt like highway robbery.) I knew the day was upon me in part because of the no-less-than-three emails I received the week before reminding me about my impending test. This was sweet and considerate but maybe also part of the test should be "Can you get yourself there on time on the proper day without a bunch of reminders?" I don't know. I'm not in charge.
THE ENTRANCE TO THE anonymous Financial District building that houses TRS Professional Suites Inc., the site of the test, is impressively nondescript. The glass doors sit under scaffolding, between a Blimpie and a shoe-repair business. Unnecessary-neon levels are high. The security guard at the desk in the lobby could not be less enthusiastic about directing me to the third floor. I can't blame him. It's a beautiful late-spring day outside, but inside is dark and depressing. The bright-eyed 20- and 30-somethings who arrive sporadically to pay money to take a test only enhance the tableau.
Three floors up, volunteer Mensa proctors administer both the regular test and the less-frequent Cultural Fair. I'm directed to the correct room, in which roughly 15 people sit at folding tables. Collectively, they seem nervous, which is both understandable because this is very obviously a testing situation and absurd because it means nothing. One couple chats conspiratorially or, perhaps, lovingly. I wonder if their relationship will get awkward if one makes it into Mensa and the other doesn't. Talk about an altered power dynamic. Or, you know, not.
The proctor, a pleasant, enthusiastic, slightly overweight woman wearing Avia sneakers, checks off my name on a computer printout and hands me a pencil and a paper form upon which to fill out questions including my name, address, date of birth, and credit-card information. American Mensa is adorably analog. I peak at the form of the man next to me and learn that he's 34. Oblivious to my wandering eyes, he casually twirls his number-two pencil in that way smart people learn to do while bored in 11th grade social studies.
THE WONDERLIC COMES FIRST, a 12-minute, 50-question sprint. Most people, we are told, do not finish and a score of 20 indicates an IQ of 100, or average intelligence. I take solace in the fact that NFL prospects take the Wonderlic as well, their scores deconstructed by ESPN's talking heads with their perfect, shellacked hair. I also worry that I won't be smarter than a group of men who have spent their lives dedicated to becoming gladiators, not philosophers. But I can worry about that later; the test starts, and I immediately panic. One answer every 15 seconds. Go. This is intense. Is this what it's like being rushed by a lineman? Of course not, but I can see why this is a good test for football players: a combination of basic knowledge, logic, and focus. I should probably mention here that I struggle under pressure.
The questions increase in difficulty as the test progresses. Because of this, we were told not to skip ahead, and because I'm a moron, I obey the rules.
The questions come in different formats. Mensa rules forbid me from divulging any specific details—a condition to which I agreed because the friendly testing people asked me nicely and also because there's-no-time-to-remember-anything-next-question-oh-man-I'm-never-going-to-finish—but there are general categories: Are the definitions of two words similar, contradictory, or unrelated?; take six words, make a sentence, and say if it's true or false; which one of these five words is different than the other four? A few questions, too few for my math-loving taste, feature geometric shapes or numbers.
The questions increase in difficulty as the test progresses. Because of this, we were told not to skip ahead, and because I'm a moron, I obey the rules. While question 23 might be harder than question 24 when averaged across the entire population, that's not necessarily the case on an individual test-taker basis. A few times I spend 30 or 45 precious seconds working on a problem, only to eventually guess, move on to the next question, and find I know the answer to that one instantly. Pro tip for future testers: Skip ones you don't know immediately. I'm on question 33 or 34 when the proctor calls time and reasonably confident I got about 26 correct. The rest are educated guesses at best. The adrenaline is still pumping. My heart might explode.
The second test consists of 120 questions divided into seven sections. Before the first part, the proctor reads a story and informs us that we will have to answer questions about said story at some point before the end of the test. Scrap paper isn't allowed, nor is written note-taking of any kind; we are supposed to remember.
I try to listen. I really do. There's a sunrise, dancing in a circle, and a Greek chorus. I know that much. But pretty soon, I notice myself not paying attention. Then I notice myself noticing my mind wandering, thus entering a non-recall vortex. Mentally, I blame the Internet. (After the test, I inquired as to whether recall rates had dropped over the past decade, but a Mensa rep said they didn't track that type of data.) A charitable person might give me credit for trying to take mental notes about the story while simultaneously attempting to make mental notes for this story, but that would be Bill Gates—a Mensa member, for sure!—Foundation-level charitable. I am just struggling to focus.
We begin Section 1 after being given—again—instructions not to write in our test books. We don't. Instead, we answer questions about how shapes relate to each other. Five minutes later, we move to Section 2: 15 or so questions relating to the definitions of words. Or maybe the section involving the value of coins came first. Or perhaps the one featuring groups of tiny, thumbnail images was second. There is a math one, too, which I enjoy. But the first six sections all run together: answer questions for a brief period, put the pencil down, breathe, change gears, repeat. The format lacks the instant pressure of the Wonderlic, but it's mentally exhausting nonetheless, an 800-meter race instead of a 40-yard dash. I answer every question in the allotted time, but I get the sinking feeling that I'm just not quite smart enough. Too frequently, the definite answers lie just out of reach.
The final section features two dozen questions about the short story. I confirm my earlier hypothesis about not paying attention by being almost completely unable to recall any information from the middle third. Whoops. But I make up some answers, fill in the bubbles, and we're done.
"You can keep the pencil," the proctor says. "It's a gift from American Mensa." I pocket it, take the elevator down to the lobby, and walk into the sunshine.
AN EMAIL FROM ADMISSIONS Manager Mary Burkhead Spencer pops into my inbox at 6:02:13 a.m. EDT on June 1, 2013. The second paragraph: "As you can imagine, a very small fraction of the population qualifies for membership in Mensa. The criterion for membership is a score in the upper two percent. Based on your recent testing, we cannot offer you membership at this time. There is, however, an alternate procedure to join Mensa that I hope you will consider…."
I stop reading. I can't say I'm surprised. Five days later, a small envelope confirms the news and includes my scores. I got a 32 on the Wonderlic, good enough for the 91st percentile, and a raw score of 86 on the admissions test, which means I did better than 86 percent of the people who took that version of the exam. It's good enough for the 95th percentile across the general population. Solid, but not Mensa-level. That's fine. It was an experience, and I won't have to pay the $70 in yearly dues. My above-average-but-not-high-enough reasoning capacity tells me this result is a win. That sounds smart.