Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Sitting at the table

I went to Lexington the other day to take the Mensa Admissions Test. It's something I've always wanted to do since I first took a mock-up IQ test that I bought at the bookstore when I was a teenager. I had always been under the impression that you had to schedule a one-on-one session with a psychologist to take the bona fide test. To some extent this is true...the Mensa Test no longer gives you a raw IQ score due to complaints from psychologists that, as it is not administered under certified criteria, doing so would produce uncertifiable results. The test simply tells you whether you scored in the top 2% of the population. I figured it was as good a time as any, so off I went.

There were seven other people besides myself there to participate. All were male except for one female. Ages ranged from 14 to probably about 55, although most were college-aged or slightly older. You would expect such a gathering of geeks to produce some memorable (if not particularly engrossing) conversations, and yes, there were a few, like a rather heated debate over whether the infamous #2 pencil is harder than an HB pencil, whatever that is (short answer: it varies). This was the first test I had taken since my Pharmacy Boards (somehow six years ago), so these discussions added to the sense of nostalgia for me. These guys and the things they were saying were just like the guys I had known in high school and college. Simultaneously annoying and entertaining. One casually tossed out his ACT score (35) with no prodding whatsoever and for no particular reason other than to, I assume, pre-emptively one-up everyone in the audience who scored less. He went on to tell a story about some bouncer in Boston who has an IQ of 400 and "gets wasted every night." He seemed a bit let down when our only response was one big collective blank stare. I bet this is like the conversations bodybuilders have about how much they can bench-press.

So the test itself? Actually there were two: a 50-question Wonderlic Personnel Test and the Mensa Admissions Test (about 150 questions divided into 7 sections). You only have to "pass" one to get into Mensa. The Wonderlic was geared more toward speed, the questions getting progressively more difficult as you go on. My mind wasn't quite as crisp as I would have liked (waking up at 7am does that to me) and I didn't finish it, having to make wild guesses on five or so toward the end. The Mensa Test was a bit better, since time wasn't as much of an issue and it was divided up into ~20 question bite-sized chunks with short breaks in between in which to catch your breath.

Several sections consisted of nothing more than groups of pictures, one asking you to pick out the one that most matched the others and another giving you two objects paired in some way and asking you to choose one that most matched a separate picture in the same way. I had read where they also offer a "culture-neutral" test, and after seeing these I can see why. One that jumps out at me was a group of pictures of a guy dressed like Confucius, a Junk, and a paper lantern. It was followed by a shark, a lamb, a panda, and a cat. It took me a moment to figure out that they wanted objects associated with China and marked the panda. Questions like this test applied intelligence...you have to have a basic knowledge of Chinese culture to get it.

There was also the expected vocabulary / verbal analogies section (new word learned: propinquity = proximity). And a tedious but surprisingly enjoyable coin-counting section that I'm sure I aced because it reminded me so much of work. This section gives you a 20-line chart with columns labeled "cents", "nickels", "dimes", "quarters", and "half dollars." Each row has a series of numbers under each column, telling you how many coins of each. The questions would give you an amount..."47 cents" for example, followed by four row choices. You then had to scan the rows and mentally add up the money to find which choice was correct. For some reason, this quick "scanning and adding" routine reminded me of checking stacks of prescriptions at 5pm on a Monday. I suppose six years of that has re-wired my brain. I also suppose it's sad that there is so much skill overlap between a rote task like counting coins and doing a job that I spent eight years of my life in training for.

The final section was unlike any I had seen in any of the practice tests I had taken, and it kind of worried me: short-term memory / recall. Just as work has adjusted my neurons for quick bursts of robotic accuracy, it has also taught me to ignore background noise...anything not prudent to the task at hand, which includes 95% of the questions, phone calls, crying babies, computer problems, insurance issues, and impatient customer noises going on at any given time. So when the proctor busted out his almost comically ornate 3-minute story at the beginning of the session, I gave it my undivided attention, even though I had no idea what questions would be asked about it later. After we had all had ample time to forget it all while taking the rest of the test, it was time to see what we remembered. Again cultural un-neutrality came into play (to my benefit), since the story was about something I already knew about: ancient Greek theater. I think I did well even though some of the questions were rote detail recall (directions, numbers, etc.).

So then it was time to patiently wait the ascribed "5 to 10 business days" to receive my results. When the envelope finally arrived, I had another flashback to my college years: thick or thin envelope?

Kind of thick. Just not thick enough to settle it without opening it.

My eyes stopped at the big "congratulations." I was in.

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