Can you ace the Wonderlic test?

A young man writes on a notepad.
A young man writes on a notepad. (Getty)

IQ testing is controversial, many experts agree. And there's no exception regarding using such testing in professional sports, where the Wonderlic has reigned supreme for decades. So, what is this test, and what does it tell us about athletic potential? Here’s what experts say.

What is the Wonderlic test?

Developed in the 1930s by its namesake, Eldon F. Wonderlic, the test was designed to be a quick version of a general IQ, or intelligence quotient, assessment. It aimed to efficiently measure the basic cognitive ability of job applicants or staff members being considered for promotion. The Wonderlic Personnel Test, as it was first known, consists of 50 questions to be answered within 12 minutes. These focus on verbal and mathematical reasoning and include addition and multiplication problems, some general knowledge queries and word problems, comparisons and more. A sample version (which you can take yourself here), asks multiple-choice questions like “Which of these states is on the West Coast?” “How many ounces are in a pound and a half?” and “Which of the following is not a whole number followed by its square?”

How did professional athletes end up taking it?

The Wonderlic’s introduction into professional sports is largely attributed to one coach: the Dallas Cowboys’ Tom Landry, who reportedly started using it to evaluate players in the 1970s. “They were America’s team; it was sort of a ‘if they did it everyone should do it’ kind of thing,” Jim Bowman, a psychologist and co-creator of another test administered to athletes, tells Yahoo Life.

The thinking was that “you need to have smart players or a smart quarterback,” and the Wonderlic measured “what they thought of as smart at the time,” Bowman explains. Giving pro-hopefuls the Wonderlic test became standard practice in the 1970s at the NFL Combine, the annual four-day event during which the country’s top eligible college players are scouted for the draft.

Does the NFL still use the Wonderlic test?

Officially, no, but it’s a bit complicated. In 2022, the NFL eliminated the Wonderlic test from the Combine. Players’ assessments, including their Wonderlic scores, are supposed to be confidential, but leaks were common. The decision was part of a broader effort to revamp the predraft process — which includes a battery of physical, medical and psychological evaluations.

Moreover, the test just didn’t work very well; studies showed it was a poor predictor of players’ performance in the NFL. One 2008 study found no link between quarterbacks’ Wonderlic scores and their effectiveness on the field. Research conducted in 2009 once again showed no correlation between the test and the capability of players in multiple positions. And, in 2011, a third paper found that, if anything, there was a negative correlation, meaning that high-scoring players might actually be worse on the iron grid than low scorers.

But what individual teams do to vet players outside the Combine is up to them. “The Wonderlic is still being used, but not as an official part of the draft process,” says Bowman.

Why the Wonderlic didn’t work

For one, it wasn’t designed to assess someone’s sports smarts. “The Wonderlic test looks at a lot of different factors like vocabulary, math skills and problem-solving things really closely tied to your schooling,” Bowman says. “So it’s not surprising that, when you have an academically oriented test, you wouldn't find relationships with performance on the field.”

Some of football’s best quarterbacks, including NFL Hall of Famers Dan Marino and Terry Bradshaw, reportedly got marks below the average score of 20. The test is simply too general, Charles Golden, a psychologist who works with athletes and specializes in neuropsychological assessment at Nova Southeastern University, tells Yahoo Life. “It works out well for a person [for whom] everything is kind of even,” in terms of cognitive ability, he says, “but for people who are extraordinary in one or more ways, it doesn’t work well.”

The Wonderlic also just isn’t a particularly good metric of cognitive ability (or, to put it plainly, intelligence), Golden says. He explains that the Wonderlic is a very abbreviated version of the kind of multifaceted assessments — involving as many as 10 different tests — he might use to assess individuals.

Tests like the Wonderlic are so lacking in detail that they are best used as “screening tools,” he says. An employer looking for intelligent workers might be able to use the Wonderlic to whittle down a pool of 100,000 applicants to 1,000 who scored highly, or choose between two otherwise equal candidates. “It simplifies things, but when you simplify things, you miss people,” he says. Namely, concerns have been raised that the Wonderlic (and similar tests) miss Black and brown people and come with racial and cultural biases.

Are there better tests for athletes?

Now, the NFL Combine uses the Player Assessment Test (PAT), which aims to gauge a number of factors, including a player’s intelligence, as well as a player's personality and traits like how team-oriented the player is and how the player handles stress.

While some teams may still use the Wonderlic test, various companies are trying to make and sell tests to teams that are better suited to evaluating athletes, including Bowman’s Athletic Intelligence Quotient, or AIQ test. It assesses many of the same factors as the PAT, as well as attributes such as a player’s visual-spatial aptitude, how quick their reaction time is, their capacity to learn quickly and whether they can make on-the-fly decisions. Bowman says his company contracts with seven or eight NFL teams, and the AIQ is used by some NBA teams. The company’s own peer-reviewed studies suggest it’s a better predictor of a basketball or football player’s professional success so far.

There’s the S2 test too, which looks at similar measures but includes fewer personality and motivation components. It recently caused a stir when C.J. Stroud was a coveted QB pick going into the 2023 draft, until his low S2 score was leaked, rattling teams, and the Ohio State University star’s prospects (briefly; he was picked second by the Houston Texans, where he had a standout rookie season).

So should athletes be given these tests at all? Bowman says the AIQ should only be used as a screening tool — to suss out, for example, whether a player is truly exceptional, or has stellar stats because the player was a big fish in a small pond — and perhaps to help both a player and a team to chart the prospect’s potential course to success. If someone struggles in the learning efficiency category, for one, “teams will probably find that out over time, but it can be frustrating,” Bowman says. If they know up front, “teams can provide extra support.”

And what does Golden think? “Much as I like psychological assessment, if I were running a sports team, I would not be using a psychological assessment,” other than to diagnose or treat an issue, he says.

Can you ace the Wonderlic test?

Here are some sample questions:

Pick the state on the West Coast:

  • Florida

  • Oregon

  • Texas

  • Maine

How many ounces are in a pound and a half?

  • 18

  • 32

  • 24

  • 16

The hours of darkness in May are most similar to which month?

  • November

  • July

  • October

  • February

Take the full 50-question test here or a 25-question quick test here and tell us your score in the comments below.