ELK RAPIDS — Austin Wolfgram had more on his mind than taking the ACT test last month.
“The day I took the test was the day of my dad’s brain surgery,” he said. “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 one 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.