East High School senior achieves highest possible score on ACT

Haakon Pihlaja said he felt he did well on the ACT but didn't expect a 36. Haakon hopes to attend the University of Chicago next fall.

Duluth East High School senior Haakon Pihlaja scored a 36, the highest possible score, on his ACT this year. (Clint Austin /

East High School senior Haakon Pihlaja was on a walk with a friend when his mother, Jocelyn Pihlaja, called him.

“I knew he would think it was an emergency because we don’t do phone calls. We just text,” Jocelyn said.

She said when she told Haakon he got a 36 on his ACT, the highest possible score, he was speechless for a moment. Jocelyn said she had been playing phone tag with Haakon’s counselor at East High School, so when she finally got him on the phone she started talking really fast and went into an explanation mode until the counselor cut her off to tell her Haakon’s score.

“When I heard the score, I shrieked really loud,” Jocelyn said. “This year has been so tough and I know that standardized tests are problematic in terms of what they measure and how they measure it, but I had such a moment of joy for my child.

“I just felt like we could have one beautiful, glorious moment in this really tough year.”


Haakon said he was surprised to see he got a 36 on his ACT.

“I didn’t think I had done so poorly that I would need to do it again, but I just didn’t expect that I did that well because I was positive there were some questions that I got wrong,” Haakon said. “I was pretty excited because that’s a really great score and I’m pretty proud.”

In Minnesota, 56,706 students have taken the ACT so far and only 169 of them scored a 36. Nationwide, over 1.67 million students have taken the ACT this year and 5,579 scored a 36.

He couldn't take the test in the spring due to the pandemic. Luckily, he was able to take it in October and get his score back in time to apply for early decision at the University of Chicago, his first choice.

“I just felt like we could have one beautiful glorious moment in this really tough year.”

— Jocelyn Pihlaja, Haakon Pihlaja's mother

Haakon said he prepared for the ACT by taking a few practice tests as well as the SAT ahead of time to get a feel for what it would be like.

“Then when I went in, I just felt like I’m going to go for it and not feel too stressed about it because I’d just done the SAT,” he said. “I just didn’t want to go through worrying about it again. I felt pretty good when I was done.”

Like many high school students, Haakon has been distance learning since March when schools shut down. His dad, Byron Johnson, said Haakon really struggled with school during the spring, because it just wasn’t challenging enough.


“This year with taking just University of Minnesota Duluth classes, it has taken his learning to another level and he has had challenges and I think he’s finding that he’s learning a lot and doing well with it,” Byron said. “He’s a pretty self-directed kid in that he just kind of keeps track of his own assignments and gets them done and does the work.”

Haakon is enrolled in UMD through post-secondary enrollment options this school year after finishing up classes at East last spring. He said he was able to attend two classes in person up until this month, when they moved online.

“It was nice to be in person, just to have that sort of face-to-face interaction and discussion,” Haakon said.

During the course of his high school year, Haakon has participated in knowledge bowl, robotics, film club, National Honor Society and even fencing through the YMCA. Since the pandemic started, he hasn’t been able to participate in many of those activities, so he’s tried some new things.

“In the spring, when I got bored, I started learning the bass guitar just because,” Haakon said.

On top of that, Haakon works as a dishwasher at Sir Benedict’s Tavern on the Lake in Duluth.

He'll find out around mid-December if he is given early acceptance to the University of Chicago, and his 36 ACT score should give him a better chance. As for his hopes for the year 2021, Haakon said he just hopes to be able to attend college in person next fall.

“I want to physically go to college and have a good college experience,” he said. “One where I can actually meet people and not be stuck in a dorm room. One where I go to class and talk to my professors.


“I just hope I don’t have to stay at home because I don’t think it would really feel like I’m in college.”

This story was updated at 9:32 a.m. Nov. 26 to correct the name of Byron Johnson. It was originally posted at 7 a.m. Nov. 26. The News Tribune regrets the error.

Adelle Whitefoot is a former reporter for the Duluth News Tribune.
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