"Why Bother?"

This article reprinted from the Orlando Sentinel by permission of feature writer Michael McLeod.

Mensa exam begs question: Why bother?

Michael McLeod
Sentinel Staff Writer

October 31, 2005

It is a beautiful Saturday afternoon. Worse than that: It is a beautiful, college- football Saturday afternoon. This practically qualifies it as a national holiday, at least in my mind, making it an especially tragic day to be trapped in a small room of an Orange County branch library, clutching a No. 2 pencil instead of a remote control.

I am here with a dozen other souls, leaning over a standardized, two-hour, multiple-choice test that is offered monthly by the Central Florida chapter of Mensa, the international, high-IQ society. People who score in the 98th percentile of the test -- meaning they score better than 98 percent of the people who take IQ tests -- qualify for membership.

I want to find out if this big-brain outfit is as snooty as it sounds. More specifically, I wonder who takes the test, and why they want to join Mensa.

As an ego boost? As a gesture of elitism? To seek out intellectual companionship? To prove how smart they are?

Please choose the correct response and fill in the bubble just to the left on your answer sheet.

Math is a cure for ego

I have no trouble with the word usage questions: synonyms, antonyms. Figuring out what word in a group of four doesn't fit. That's gravy. It's the math that terrifies me, as it always has. Math is nature's way of keeping my ego in check.

And neatness may or may not count, but it is beyond me now and always has been. So I accept with wry fatalism the midtest discovery that there is something wrong with the eraser on my No. 2 pencil. It's calcified, or something, so that making a correction is like rubbing a tiny little Brillo pad across the paper. My multiple-choice answer sheet soon takes on a tortured, moth-eaten appearance. So do I.

I sneak a peek at the answer sheet of the young woman on my right. She is cheerful and composed and finishes most sections of the test well before I do. Even more galling, her paper is pristine, all the little bubbles filled in neatly.

Her name, I discover after the test, is Melissa Williams. She is a 27-year-old University of Central Florida student who works for Hilton as a vacation planner and is in the midst of online classes to become a real estate sales associate.

"I always, from the fifth grade on, was a gifted student," she says. "I have no idea what my IQ is, and I don't really care that much. I'm just looking for the same kind of people I used to hang around with in high school. I miss my nerdy little friends."

It turns out to be something of a theme. All of the test-takers I talk to tell me they were exceptional students in grade school and high school, and I can tell they all miss that world, miss the instant-feedback loop of good grades and appreciative teachers. They aren't egotistical so much as nostalgic.

Yanis Rock, a 20-year-old Valencia Community College student, says he tried his hand in business, working as a real estate developer, before returning to school, where he always excelled.

"I guess I miss that feeling of accomplishment," he says. "I'm not really looking for an ego boost. I'm just, I think, revising my dream, and I thought this might help."

"Curiosity. A challenge," says Bill Leavy, 42, explaining why he turned up for the test. Leavy, an Orlando labor organizer who is currently working with Wal-Mart employees, says he listened to Mozart to prepare himself because he had read somewhere that hearing classical music stimulates the brain.

Did it work?

"Apparently not," he admits. "The math part blew me out of the water."

"I tried having breakfast at Einstein bagels," I say. "That doesn't help, either."

We'll both have to wait three weeks to find out for sure: That's how long it takes for test results to come back.

A meeting of the minds

There are more than 50,000 American members of Mensa, which was founded in 1946 by Roland Berrill, an Australian attorney, and Dr. Lancelot Ware, an equally idealistic British scientist. They chose the Latin word for "table" as the name of their group to represent their notion of a round-table organization in which every member is on an equal footing, regardless of background.

Famous members include comedian Steve Martin, actresses Jodie Foster and Geena Davis and the late science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov.

Earlier this year Mensa added its youngest member to the rolls: a 3-year-old British boy named Mikhail Ali, who has an IQ of 137.

Mensa members refer to themselves as M's; married Mensans are therefore M&M's. Last year, at a Mensa convention, 100 M&M's renewed their wedding vows.

Next year, in the first such meeting outside of England, a weeklong international gathering of Mensans will take place at Walt Disney World. Featured speakers will include a cosmologist and a scientist who studies bioluminescence -- the ability of some creatures to glow.

It all sounds very cerebral. But Jim Blackmore, Mensa's national marketing director, insists that most people in Mensa don't take themselves too seriously.

"They just want to be around people who get their jokes," he says. "Mensa people love puns. There's a staff member around here who sends a pun around every Tuesday. Some of them are real groaners."

Perhaps the punster would appreciate a sample question from a mock test that cropped up a few years ago as a product of Densa, a grass-roots parody of Mensa.

Q: Is there a Fourth of July in Great Britain?

A: Yes. It comes right after July 3.

The View From Here is a slice of local life by Sentinel reporters. Today, feature writer Michael McLeod contributes.

Michael McLeod can be reached at or 407-420-5432.

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