PROVO — As long as he can remember, Dalton Griner knew he would come to BYU.
"Ever since I was little, BYU was it for me," the 18-year-old Sandy native said.
So when his long-shot application to Princeton was accepted, he was flattered and excited — but not swayed.
Students like Griner and Cody Pettit of Savannah, Mo. — who turned down Penn State and the University of Missouri for BYU — have pushed the Provo-based university to the top of the "Most Popular Schools" list compiled by U.S. News & World Report, ahead of Ivy League stalwarts Harvard and Yale.
The ranking is based on "yield," the percentage of accepted students who actually enroll at that university.
BYU and Harvard have danced around the No. 1 spot for the last three years, said BYU spokesman Todd Hollingshead. The first year it was a tie, and then BYU fell to second and this year it pulled ahead.
"To be above them means a whole lot to us," he said. "It means that the people who apply to BYU really want to be here. They take it seriously when they apply, that if they get in, they'll enroll."
BYU's yield was 78 percent, Harvard's was 76 and Stanford's 71.
The other top popular schools were the University of Nebraska, Yale, Yeshiva University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The University of Utah made the list at 17th, with 51 percent of accepted students coming to the school, according to the list.
"Not everyone ends up at their No. 1 school, but it's really good when it works out that way," said spokesman Remi Barron, adding that it helps that the U. has such a strong reputation among its past, current and future students.
Statistics and percentages aside, what the top ranking means is that BYU is rarely anyone's back-up plan.
Just ask Michael Slawson.
The 17-year-old from Sammamish, Wash., applied only to be a Cougar.
"BYU is the only place you can go and have fun being a Mormon," he said.
Allison Sanford, 19, of Tucson, Ariz., also only applied to BYU, even though she could have received a full-ride scholarship at some of the colleges in Arizona.
For her, the atmosphere and the ability to be around students with similar standards were perks worthy of the extra tuition — which is still low at $2,145 per semester for church members.
Because of BYU's affiliation with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, many students who are members of the church grow up with a desire to attend a church school and be part of that culture, Hollingshead said.
"I think if anything, this (ranking) confirms to students that they've made a good choice," Hollingshead said. "They're going to get a great education and going to be part of something they've always wanted to be a part of."
Lest Harvard students feel too sad, they can console themselves with their No. 1 ranking on the U.S. News list of top universities.
On that same list, BYU ranks 71st, but Chrissy Wishart, a junior from Yorba Linda, Calif., doesn't seem to mind.
"My dad had always told me to go to BYU," she said. "Having a bunch of members (of the LDS Church) around was important to me."
She said she would choose BYU over Harvard had she been accepted to both.
"I wouldn't want to live that far from my family," she said. "BYU is tough enough academically for me. A school like Harvard would have made me feel so insecure about myself."
And if Tom Beckstead, a senior studying psychology from Mission Viejo, Calif., had to choose between Harvard and BYU?
"I'd come here," he said. "Extracurricular (activities) are good here. I haven't seen Harvard on ESPN."
Contributing: Sara Lenz, Erica Teichert and Wendy Leonard
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company