Ah, the infamous Israeli Psychometric Test.
In our profound ignorance, we did not realize just how crucial this exam is to determining the average Israeli’s future.
There are different types of psychometric tests, depending on their intended audience.
Students take the psychometric exam to get into university; and despite top high school grades and top scores on their matriculation exams, if they fail the psychometric test, Israelis won’t get into the university of their choice.
You might have a stellar resume, but if you blow the psychometric exam required by your employer, you can forget your job prospects.
The army uses similar tests to recruit their top echelon for the elite officers’ corps.
Similarly, if you want to join a “closed” or vetted community (yishuv), moshav, or kibbutz, you will be required to take the psychometric exam.
I asked both native Israelis and olim (immigrants) what to expect. They sighed, rolled their eyes, and said, “You’ll do fine.” But when I asked them to be more specific about the exam itself, the types of questions asked or the subject matter covered, they just shook their heads. “We’d tell you but we’d have to kill you. You’ll do fine, don’t worry,” they repeated, and so I didn’t give it much more thought.
That was my first mistake.
I figured I am a woman in my late fifties; my husband is in his mid-sixties; so how seriously should we take the psychometric exam, anyway? We’re not depending on results to better our lot in life in the job market or in an academic field. We’d already spent Shabbatot in two communities in Israel that we were interested in. They had interviewed us, had us interact socially with community members and administrators and religious leaders, and things seemed to be going well. Our attitude was that if we were going to get rejected on the basis of our psychometric test results alone, then it probably wasn’t the type of community we’d want, anyhow. Since historically I do not test well, I decided to enter the exam with a fatalistic yet carefree attitude. There was just no point getting anxious over the psychometric exam!
I found out only afterward, that Israelis take the psychometric exam very, very seriously. So seriously, that they often sign up for preparatory courses – – some lasting as long as six months! – – on how to achieve good results when taking the psychometric exam, kind of like Americans who take prep courses for the SAT, GRE, LSAT, and MCAT exams.
We received one really bad piece of advice from every immigrant we talked to: Since you already speak Hebrew, save yourself the extra $150 cost of taking the exam in English. Especially since even though you are supposed to get the exam in English, much of the test is still in Hebrew anyhow! Well, since the exam was quite expensive in the first place, we certainly were in no mood to pay more for an English version. Our Hebrew may not be great, but it’s good – – good enough, we thought, to save ourselves from paying even more for an English translation of the test. That was our second, biggest mistake.
Our psychometric exam was scheduled to begin at 8 a.m. in the center of downtown Tel Aviv. (We found out afterwards that there are also Keinan Sheffi testing centers located in Jerusalem, Haifa, and Be’er Sheva.) There was no way we were going to travel to Tel Aviv in our rental car, handle the traffic and find a parking place, all by 8 a.m. So we stayed with friends in the city of Rehovot (home to the famous Weizmann Institute of Science) and took the train. Like New York, the middle of Tel Aviv is crowded – that’s an understatement – – with loads of everything: noise, traffic, tall buildings, and people rushing somewhere. Everyone is focused only on where they need to go, and getting there on time, rather than the names of actual city streets.
Asking directions was futile. When you ask directions of any Israeli living anywhere else in the country, they point in one direction and tell you with utmost confidence, “yashar, yashar!” which means “keep going straight ahead!” even if that is not even remotely correct. Israelis are not doing this to intentionally mislead you; they just want to be helpful and chatty and friendly, even at the expense of being dead wrong. In Tel Aviv, we got the same result as asking for directions elsewhere in Israel – – we weren’t getting anywhere with any kind of accuracy – – but in Tel Aviv, we encountered only blank looks and shrugged shoulders whenever we asked passersby for directions.
Finally we found the building of Keinan Shefi Testing Center on a side street, and took an aging elevator to the 5th floor. Miraculously we made it on time, but it was more a case of “hurry up and wait.” There were dozens of people ahead of us. We left our names with the receptionist, paid the 750 NIS test fee (about $200), and were told to be seated until we were called.
Around 8:15 we were led into a room with 8 other test-takers and handed a stack of forms to fill out, several pages long, and all in Hebrew. None of the tests were done at computer stations: Israelis also take graphology (handwriting analysis) very seriously.
The first page was a basic form asking for name, address, birth date, etc. The second page asked us to write our “life story.” We were also asked to write about why we desired to live in a yishuv; how we thought we could benefit from that lifestyle as well as what we could contribute (idealistically, not financially). There were also many test sections that were timed: We were given stacks and stacks of pages that were answer sheets based on a supplementary workbook, where we were to do various exercises including “fill in the blank.” The facilitator instructed us that “the key is not to think too hard about your answers, but rather to just write the first thing that pops into your head. It’s kind of like a word association game.”)
Clearly they were trying to see if we had been scarred for life by our parents (LOTS of sentence completion questions regarding what parents should or shouldn’t do, say, or how they should act); if we were prone to depression; or had interpersonal relationship issues:
“My mother is . . . “
“A father should never . . . “
“A good mother does . . .”
“I feel overwhelmed when . . .”
“When people make fun of me, I . . . “
“I feel sad if . . . “
“What really makes me happy is . . . “
“When I want something, I . . . “
“Success means . . .”
Another segment had 2 pages of little cartoon characters involved in 16 different sticky situations that would make most people upset, alongside another cartoon character with a dialogue bubble above its head. We were supposed to fill in the 2nd cartoon characters’ responses.
Waiter talking to customer: “I’m sorry, but we do not have what you ordered.”
Customer to waiter: (fill in the bubble)
Man to second person: “I’m sorry I hit your car, but it’s really nothing.”
Second person to man: (fill in the bubble)
Man to woman: “You should not have done that!”
Woman to man: (fill in the bubble)
Boss to employee: “This is all wrong!”
Employee to boss: (fill in the bubble)
Driver to bicyclist: “Next time watch where you’re going! I almost hit you!”
Bicyclist to driver: (fill in the bubble)
Despite allowing us to use a dictionary which my husband fortunately thought to bring with us to the exam, we struggled to understand the Hebrew vocabulary so we could grasp the meaning of the questions, and yes, it took us considerably longer to fill out the forms than the other test-takers (all native Israelis except for a Russian immigrant who was taking the test in Russian). We were racing against the clock! Our concentration was broken when a different proctor called us out of the room. (“Not to worry,” she assured us, “you’ll have time to finish the first set of questions after our meeting.”)
In this other room we were given yet more forms with test questions.
First, we had to rate certain personality traits on a scale of 1 to 10, “1” being “strongly disagree” and “10” being “strongly agree.” There were questions such as,
“When I am in a bad mood, everyone knows about it.”
“When I am sad, I think of killing myself.” (Come on, what person hoping to pass this test is going to write “10”?)
“I like to take charge.”
“I see myself more as an observer than as a participant.”
“I am a team player.”
Then we had to do a really strange exercise, also under the clock. We were given a list of 32 words written in Hebrew letters, but they weren’t really Hebrew words. We had to circle those whose definition we understood. I think the idea was to separate the “intellgentsia” from the “chaff”, as well as to see how much exposure one had to the outside world intellectually, academically, scientifically, medically, and journalistically . Many of the words were in fact “trick” questions, as they were close to a real word, but slightly off . . . or was it that it just sounded different in Hebrew? This should have been easy – – after all one is reading mostly English or Latin words transliterated into Hebrew. But reading words that are not Hebrew words in Hebrew letters is a killer for a non-native speaker, since one is struggling phonetically with the Hebrew letters and trying to make sense of it.
Here are some approximations:
Perontitis. (fake. Should be “peritonitis.”)
Peroncardial. (that’s a fake one – – I think the correct one would have been “pericardial”)
Endocretin (another imaginary one – (I hope )- – I believe the correct version would have been “endocrine”)
Dyspepsic. (No. Should read, “dyspeptic.”)
Anthropog. (should’ve been “anthropologist”)
There were several more tests like these – – I can’t remember all of them, and believe me, memory was a very important part of the day in general as you will soon see in other test examples.
After completing this set of exercises, were told to return to the first room and finish up those papers we had been working on.
I had written maybe two sentences of my “life story” when we had been called away the first time. Now I had to take extra time to re-read the instructions and review what I had written, so there would be some continuity to my essay answer. But only 3 minutes after resuming writing my life story (I don’t think my husband was even at the life story part yet, he was still sweating over the basic info part of the first questionnaire), we were once again interrupted and told to follow yet another examiner into a different room for a “private” interview. She wanted to probe our relationship as a couple.
The psychologist/therapist wanted to know about the quality of our marriage. It’s not that problem marriages don’t exist in yishuvim, but the yishuv did not want people with rocky marriages thinking that moving to a small, closed community would be the panacea for their conflicts. Fortunately we had nothing to hide, and we are clearly in sync.
“I have to tell you,” the psychologist began, “that most of the couples I interview are much younger than you. They’ve been together – – either married or as partners – – for only a year or two. It’s a bit unusual that I’m interviewing a couple that’s been married for more than 35 years, on the quality of their relationship. I mean, I guess by now you probably have lots in common.”
Together, as one, we snapped, “No way! We have nothing in common!”
Taken completely aback, she was momentarily speechless. So we continued,
Me: “We don’t have the same hobbies.”
Spouse: “We don’t share the same interests.”
Me: “We don’t have the same taste.”
Spouse: “We don’t share the same politics.”
The psychologist’s eyes kept getting wider and wider; she was looking downright alarmed.
Me: “But that stuff doesn’t really matter.'”
Spouse: “Yeah. It’s just stuff.”
Me: “We have the same goals.”
Spouse: “We have the same ideals.”
Me: “The same things are important to us.”
Spouse: “We are best friends.”
Me: “We love each other and our kids and grandkids very much.”
Spouse: “Life is good. We are truly blessed and we know it.”
We smiled at one another. The psychologist looked uncomfortable, and before it got too sappy she ushered us out, back to the first room. Suffice it to say, I think we passed this part of the exam.
I re-read the four lines of my life story, and continued writing the saga. But soon enough we were once again interrupted, and instructed to go to yet another room.
There, we sat with six other test-takers, including the Russian immigrant, whose Hebrew was better than ours though more thickly accented, and who refused to answer any questions in Hebrew because he had paid extra for the Russian version of the test; a philosophy student hoping to get into grad school; a 60-ish kibbutznik hoping to get an industrial managerial position on his kibbutz; a congenial former naval officer who was applying to be a firefighter; a middle-aged Arab who was applying for a job with an Israeli company; a fellow who was applying for a position as a security guard; my husband and myself. I was the only woman other than the facilitator. We were asked to introduce ourselves by name and tell about ourselves briefly.
We were each given an identical piece of paper containing a list of nine imaginary candidates for the Israel Prize (Israel’s top award for Biggest Mensch/Innovator, similar to the Nobel prizes). Each of us was also asked to come up with our own idea of an ideal candidate, and promote his or her contribution to society as being worthy of an award. We were to pick one candidate from the eight personal suggestions invented by each of us, along with two other candidates from the list of nine. There was to be a first, second and third prize, but we all had to agree on the order of the prizes and we had only nine minutes to do so. (One “candidate” on the ” list” was a doctor who discovered a successful cancer treatment; another was a rabbi who helped the poor; yet another was a high-ranking military officer who began an integrative rehabilitation program for disabled soldiers; another was a painter who created a major work of art; another was an educator who worked with underprivileged youth; yet another was a hi-tech innovator who created something bigger and better; another was a person who encouraged Arabs and Israelis to work cooperatively to develop cultural, social and economic ties; etc.).
First each person presented their imagined ideal candidate. Then we proceeded to vote on the top three choices from the entire list. Then we attempted to come to an agreement as to which order the prizes would be awarded – – this decision had to be unanimous. We had nine minutes to accomplish the entire process.
This sounds easier than it actually was. What was fascinating about the exercise – – and I suspect was the true point of it all – – was to see how various personalities evolved. There was the complainer; the leader; the shy one; the argumentative one; the passive one; the follower. At the end of the nine minutes (and we still had not come to a final resolution, so I guess we “failed”) the facilitator asked us what we could have done better to ensure that our mission would have succeeded. Then she asked us to write on a piece of paper which participant we thought was the most successful, and why – – and then asked us to write which participant we liked the least – – and why. (She assured us that only she would be reading the answers; the idea wasn’t to defame others but to examine our thought processes and analytical sense, as well as how well we worked as a team and independently.)
Then we were given drawings of shapes. We were told to copy the shapes on a piece of paper, and continue the pattern. The shapes looked something like this:
Aha! Trick question? Should one continue the pattern horizontally – – or perhaps also as a mirror image beneath?
She then collected our drawings. Then she had us take out another blank piece of paper, and requested that we re-draw the shapes, this time from memory. Since my own short-term memory skills are poor, I could not remember all the shapes – – but neither could most of the participants, so I didn’t feel too terrible. Fortunately I had not only memorized the shapes, but I had counted the number of repeats, so I was able to re-draw those I remembered with accuracy.
Then came a really unusual exercise having to do with perception, coordination and memory. We were told to look at the following shape:
We were then instructed to put an “X” inside the center of the main circle, which was about the size of a salad plate. Then we were told to put “x’s” in each of the small circles.
Now we were instructed to close our eyes, and with our eyes closed, to draw an “x” in what we thought was the center of the circle, as well as inside what we thought was the location of the four small outer circles. The results were not particularly impressive. We were allowed to make 3 attempts at this exercise. After the third attempt, we were instructed to write our accuracy rate at each attempt (how many x’s were placed correctly in attempts 1 – 3).
Next we were given a test in cryptography. We were given numbers 1 thru 9. Each number had a graphic symbol associated with it. Then we were given a series of numbers and told to place the appropriate symbols next to the numbers. We had to complete the exercise in three minutes or less. This was an exercise in hand-eye coordination, as well as seeing how long it took our brains to process and translate visual information.
Then came a very tricky brain teaser. We were given a paper with a series of shapes. We had to re-draw the shapes, but we weren’t allowed to cross or repeat a line and our pens could not be lifted from the page. If we made a mistake, then we were required to put our pens down and not proceed further with that particular segment of the test. We would have 5 minutes to complete all the shapes.
Clearly I did not work well under pressure. Instead of thinking about the exercise logically and thoroughly, I instead grew more concerned with the time limitations, which impeded my rational thought. I only got as far as the third puzzle before I realized I was “stuck” and could go no further. Not only did the exercise require logic and perception, it required planning and forethought and the ability to stay collected and focused under pressure. Let’s just say I am not that person!
Once again we were ushered back into the first room; once again we tackled the first set of questionnaires including our life story. Alas, once again we were interrupted and requested to go to another room. I realized that they were also studying our reaction to interruptions – – annoyance, our ability to multi-task, our ability to regain focus, our attitudes, our levels of fatigue.
The same eight of us once again were put together in the same room. We were each handed a blank sheet of paper. We were told that we would have to make a cohesive drawing so that the eight papers would fit together as one. We would be given the topic of the drawing as a single keyword, and have 5 minutes to make the drawing, but after the subject matter of the drawing was announced by the facilitator, we would not be allowed to communicate verbally or via hand motions as to what the drawing should look like or how the picture should be drawn. The main thing was that it should be a cohesive unit from 8 separate papers. We would be allowed to come up with a plan on how to accomplish this before the subject of the drawing would be announced; we could take 10 minutes to discuss it before the exercise would begin.
After discussing whether the picture would be vertical or horizontal, in one, two or four rows, we told the facilitator we were ready to begin.
Announcing the keyword, “Miracle,” she then clicked the stopwatch and signaled for us to begin.
We just looked at one another. I thought of being the initiator and drawing a part of a splitting sea, but before I could act, another participant drew the beginning of a menorah. Despite what should have been a fairly easy concept to carry out (I thought the menorah idea was much better and less complicated than my idea of the splitting of the Red Sea), we were not particularly successful in getting the pages to line up. Actually, it was an epic fail. We were then required to analyze our failure as a team.
Finally we were escorted back to the first room to finish up our essay questions and life story. It was now 4:15 p.m. and we had been at this for almost 8 hours (there were bathroom breaks but no lunch break). The Israelis were able to finish up quickly, but we were still breaking our teeth over the Hebrew.
“No worries,” the staff assured us, “we’re here until 5 p.m. anyhow.”
We turned to the remaining, final questions. The first page was a picture of a farmer, his back to the observer, plowing a field, with every muscle strained. To the side was a woman, heavy with child, leaning against a tree and gazing off into the distance. In the foreground was a teenaged girl, looking at the observer with a steady, calm and determined look; she was holding a stack of books. We were instructed to compose a story based on what we saw.
The next page also requested us to write a story based on what we saw: a blank page. By now I was so exhausted from intense concentration, the many hours of writing and thinking, and the constant struggle with Hebrew reading and writing, that I was nearly slap-happy. I started expounding on what was probably the worst and most clichéd writing of my life: “Life is like a blank page,” it began. The result was so bad I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Clearly my brain was shutting down. I quickly finished up my life story, which by now was completely incoherent, disjointed, and sounded nothing like my life. I had been at it for 8.5 hours and simply needed to escape.
But my husband was nowhere near done, and was hardly having an easier time of it.
My husband is no dummy. He has an advanced graduate degree from a top university and he is a genuine guru when it comes to anything having to do with computer software design, engineering and architecture. He is a very literal, rational, and logical person, but creative thought is not his forté. Any creative writing assignment is a form of torture for him.
But a blank page! That was a lot to ask.
So he wrote two lines:
“I see a blank page. That’s it.”
Fatigued and cranky, he declared himself “done.”
The examiner collected our papers and glanced at my husband’s final exercise.
“Oh, no, this will not do,” she said. “The instructions say that you must write a minimum of ten lines.” About a blank page!
Groaning, he took the paper from her hands, and looked at the blank page. He then wrote, like a true Mainer:
“I see a white house in the middle of a snowstorm. There is a person inside of the house trying to get out, but he is trapped until the snowstorm is over. . . ”
(He did not know how to say the word “shovel” in Hebrew so that is why the person was trapped until the snowstorm was over!)
He handed the paper to the woman. By now it was 5:15 and he had been at it for nine hours.
We were both completely spent to the point of being ga-ga. I had that deer-in-the-headlights look; my husband was nearly catatonic.
Riding the train back to Rehovot, we rehashed the experience. My husband felt that the results would be meaningless because of our poor language skills. Instead of writing in an articulate manner, and revealing facts about ourselves in a thoughtful way, our limited Hebrew vocabulary reduced us to the level of fourth graders, with spelling, grammar, and comprehension mistakes that reflected on us very badly. I think I might have actually enjoyed the test had I taken it in English, because I love essay questions which allow room for creative expression. Instead my answers in Hebrew were stilted and canned.
But my reaction was completely different from my husband’s. True, we ended up looking like bozos and probably “failed.” But I felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment: I had taken a 9-hour exam completely in Hebrew, and survived to tell the tale!
“It was kind of like childbirth,” I gushed. “Long; shleppy; painful; but afterwards . . . empowering!”
My husband looked at me and rolled his eyes.
“You have got to be kidding,” he said.
But I knew that if I could do this, I could do anything!
Now all we had to do was wait for the results of our tests to be sent to Moreshet and Mitzpe Netofa.
No one could tell us how long it would take before we’d get the results, but we knew it wouldn’t happen before we returned to the U.S.