Mich. teen attains a top 36 ACT score

Austin Wolfgram had more on his mind than taking the ACT test last month.
AP Wire
Jan 25, 2014

"The day I took the test was the day of my dad's brain surgery," he told the Traverse City Record-Eagle. "It was a little rough."

But the Elk Rapids High School junior attained a top score of 36 on the Dec. 13 college admissions exam; he missed just two questions out of 210, a testament to his self-direction, said his dad, Vern.

"I was thinking about him that day," Vern said. "But he's on his own path, and that was a step in this path. I wished him well, and he did his thing."

To put the achievement in perspective, less than one-tenth of 1 percent of students who take the ACT earn a top score of 36, said Katie Wacker, spokeswoman for ACT Inc.

Austin's school performance this past year is impressive, as well, especially considering his dad's ongoing battle with brain cancer, said Terri Reisig, Austin's debate coach and advanced placement teacher.

"Sometimes when students have these traumatic circumstances to interfere with the everyday comings and goings of life, school gets put on the back-burner," Reisig said.

Austin not only stayed engaged, but is extremely active in a wide range of academic and after-school activities, she said.

"I think he's an amazing young man," she said. "He's on the debate team, he's a soccer player, he's absolutely intrigued with the world of ideas. He's an amazing writer. He's a performer. He's had major roles in the school musicals, and he's an accomplished singer. He's an example of the best of the Renaissance men."

Yet his dad was never far from his mind, or that of the community's. Vern's first surgery was in January; he had to take three months off his teaching job to recover. Community members showed their support last March with a fundraiser at Pearl's New Orleans Kitchen.

"Pearl's did a massive brunch and raised $12,000, something insane like that," Austin said.

Austin credited his dad for being an early "task master" when it came to getting ready for the ACT. He first took it as an eighth grader, and earned a 32. As a sophomore, he earned a 34. Despite earning a top score this last time, he's required to take the test again in March, he said.

All this test practice has made him a master ACT strategist. Austin said he breezes through the easier questions early on to give him more time for the more complex questions that come later. One of his tricks: if he doesn't know how to solve a math problem, he'll plug in the multiple choice answers to see which one works.

"It's not noble, but it works," he said.

Austin has been in the news in years past for winning local and regional spelling bees. In seventh grade, he went to Washington, D.C. to compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. He began reading at age two — about the time his family got rid of their television set.

"With Vern being a science teacher, we ... were out talking walks, in nature," said Austin's mother Laura Wolfgram. "We were a kind of science-y group of people. With me owning a toy store, we played of lot of games when they were younger. Just a lot of reading, playing games, spending time tighter. We weren't plugged into the TV."

But Austin said he did plug into video games and still does. He argues they can be as intellectually stimulating as books, which he also loves. As for future plans, he'd like to study musical theater at the University of Michigan, where his older brother attends school.

"It's a tough thing to get into, but that's definitely my favorite thing to do," he said.



What a wonderful, uplifting story - even though his Dad was a "taskmaster" - maybe that might be a road to success, having a "Dad" and his requiring some discipline.


Not so much having strict parents, but parents that actually care about their children. Many parents pretty much ignore their kids after they get out of school; the kids run off and play video games and modern parents rarely interact with their children; they pass that responsibility off to the teachers, and others, along with the TV.

I was lucky enough to be raised by a family that cared. While I did not do too good in K-12 (i never felt challenged so I simply and stupidly rarely did homework), my grandparents (my father was an over the road truck driver who was home like three days a month and my mom was always busy; both trying their hardest to support our family) stepped in at a very early age and truly cared about me.

By age 12 I was building lasers and interferometer's ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Int... ), audio amplifiers, a circuit that would automatically rotate a bank of solar cells to follow the sun and return to the eastern sky at nightfall, among MANY other projects. None of these were from kits, and my grandfather taught me how to do the whole shebang from scratch including actually designing the circuits without outside help (schematics from magazines, etc...), etching a PCB, and soldering it all up. Even built a laser light show that could draw images via mirrors mounted on high-speed servos (an electromagnet on one edge of the mirror with a hinge on the opposite edge) that operated on the X and Y axis. They were programmed on an old 386 PC which then wrote the programs to a reel to reel tape. Two of the tracks held an analog signal that would move the two mirrors, and then two tracks held the stereo audio. It was basic and drew still images by vibrating the mirrors in a set pattern at high speeds. The images were based on the lyrics of the song (would change images every few seconds, and they were horrid images since I had no artistic ability), but I thought it was really cool. In fact, it was very similar to how the Musical Fountain worked in its earlier years as far as the reel to reel system. I demonstrated it at my middle school and while the teachers thought it was neat, I was promptly ripped on by my classmates for being a nerd. This all gave me a firm understanding of electronics and electrical theory.

We also hand-built professional grade fireworks shells (some as big as 8"), model rocket engines (saltpeter, powdered sugar, and a few other ingredients which I will not name for safety reasons). We made batteries (and not the lame lemon or potato batteries) as well. This give me a firm understanding of many different chemical reactions.

He let me tear apart his riding lawnmower and many other things and then made me put it all back together to learn mechanical skills.

He was always there to offer guidance and lessons in all this, but he would let me make mistakes and learn from them.

Then there were the hobbies such as astronomy, model airplanes (including a few I designed and built myself), and model railroading (my grandparents basement was a MASSIVE HO-scale model train layout; the only area not a train layout is where the coal boiler and washing machine/dryer was).

We frequently went on 'field trips' to places such as the rail yard, power plant, landfill, sewage treatment plant, hydro dams, AC Delco spark plug factory, GM truck and bus plant, the long abandoned tunnels under Flint, MI, etc... I even got a tour of the palisades nuclear plant. On these field trips, he would urge me to ask questions about everything. I learned about many different careers, how stuff worked, and pretty much anything I wanted to know. These were ALWAYS one on one tours with someone who knew their stuff, and not the typical public tours. I often got to see and learn about stuff that the public tours didn't show.

I was typically not allowed to play video games except a half hour before bed, and even then, it was only a Nintendo.

When I hung out with friends on weekends, we went on adventures into the woods, or rode our bikes across town only coming home when the streetlights came on.

I learned so much just from having family that cared; it is sad many do not get that chance these days.

Sadly, even though I can design and build complex circuits, devices, and other stuff off the top of my head without much issue, without a piece of paper saying I went tens of thousands of dollars into debt to get said piece of paper, employers will not even count these skills as valid.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand (I have a really bad habit of drifting off on long rambles and I have been trying to get better about it)...

Sounds like this kid in the article has it figured out. He will go far in life if he just sticks to it. I also like the mention of his little scam on the hard math problems ;). I used to do the same thing on tests when I couldn't figure a problem out. Not cheating in my opinion, just creative problem-solving.


I really wish there was some entrepreneurial opportunity in which you could use your many skills. I am hoping something will click for you soon - you have so much to offer. I know you have mentioned the possibility of a custom bike building business - who knows? That might be the ticket.


Kudos! Your knowledge is vast and you should have some fun in life with it regardless of certificate or not. There is always a stage for displaying such great achievement and inspiration for others.


You go Austin. A classic feel good, uplifting article on the younger generation. Good stuff. Not everybody under 25 is clueless, unmotivated and in possession of a rotten attitude.

Much success to Austin whatever path he chooses and good thoughts to his dad too......


Congrats! Keep up the good work and don't fall into the habits many of your peers will. You will succeed.


I love this story. Austin - You seem like a great guy all around. Best Wishes to you in the future, and Congratulations on your many achievements. Our thoughts are with your father, as well.

(LTA - Pearl's New Orleans Kitchen, Elk Rapids, is a super-great place to eat when either heading up or returning to the Traverse City area - you must try it! They obviously care for their community by hosting a successful fundraising event).


Thanks for the tip, but after looking at the menu the chances of getting the other half in there to give it a shot is somewhere between never and no way in h***. She was difficult to talk into new things before the stroke, since then....not gotten easier. I'll have to save that one for sometime when I'm on the road by myself.


Good, good. Hopefully this young person won't end up in a factory or skilled trades.

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