The Wonderlic Cognitive Ability Test, formerly known as the Wonderlic Personnel Test and commonly referred to as just “the Wonderlic,” is a test the NFL administers to potential draft prospects to evaluate intelligence. E.F. Wonderlic, Director of Personnel for Household Finance, created the test in 1937 to help his business with hiring. The test consists of 50 multiple choice questions, but testees have only 12 minutes to complete the exam, making it a test of quick thinking. The Cowboys popularized the Wonderlic in the 1970’s and the Scouting Combine began administering it shortly thereafter.
The average score is around 19 or 20, higher for quarterbacks and offensive lineman and lower for some other positions. Test results are not made public, but occasionally they leak to the media. While the Wonderlic is occasionally given as a reason for a player’s failure (such as Vince Young’s rumored 6), there are plenty of examples of players who struggled with the test but went on to NFL success. For instance, Hall-of-Fame quarterback Dan Marino scored a 16 but retired as the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns.
Like many standardized tests, the Wonderlic draws criticism for being centered on white, educated, middle-class testers. Scott Pioli, former GM of the Kansas City Chiefs, explains, “The range of socioeconomic backgrounds is so vast, and there are certain players from different parts of the country who, because of their backgrounds, may not test well. Maybe they have a learning disability or they just don’t test well.” The top scorers are often players who went to academically-prestigious institutions; Harvard alum Ryan Fitzpatrick scored a 48. Another Harvard alum, Pat McInally, scored a perfect 50 back in 1976.
A 2009 study of 762 players over three draft classes found almost no correlation between player performance and Wonderlic score, with the exception of a slight negative correlation at tight end and defensive back—that is, players who scored worse went on to better careers. The Wonderlic Consulting Group, who administers the test, criticized that paper for relying on incomplete data and pointed to a 2003 study that showed players with below-average Wonderlic scores were twice as likely to be arrested as players with above-average marks.
Teams vary in how much weight they put on the Wonderlic at draft time, but most likely fall in line with comments Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay made in 2006 (in Pete Williams’ book The Draft): “We’ve never eliminated a guy because he was low or high. I don’t know if it’s even a tiebreaker. It’s more of a red flag to make sure we’ve checked this guy out as much as we possibly can. More often than not, it’s not a reference of how he learns.”