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shutterstock.com. photo illustration by Josh Ferrin, Deseret News

WEST VALLEY — Jeanette Liu just found out she won't be going to her dream school — MIT.

She knew it would be hard to get in. That's why she applied to 14 colleges, many of them Ivy League and nearly impossible to get into — especially this year.

"I applied to a lot because the admission rates are so low," said the 17-year-old senior at Waterford, a Salt Lake City private school. "I am a pretty good student, but for a lot of schools it's about chance or who you know. I applied to as many as necessary to get into one or two."

Not only are admission rates going to be perhaps the lowest in history this year, but this comes at a time when a degree is more essential than ever. Due to the recession, students who would normally enter the workforce right out of high school are going to college instead. And with this heightened amount of competition, many students are no longer applying to three or five schools, but instead are applying to seven or more.

MIT only accepted 9.6 percent of students this year — down 5 percent from 2005. Last year, Harvard had a 6.9 percent acceptance rate, which is expected to drop even further with its 35,000 applications this year, making it perhaps the college with the lowest admission rate in the country. Many other Ivy League schools and even state colleges are seeing record-level applications as well as record-low admission rates.

Places like the University of Chicago used to accept about 70 percent of students. Last year it accepted just 18 percent. Even schools in Utah have seen acceptance rates drop in recent years. Brigham Young University had a 64 percent admission rate last year, down from 69 percent the year before and 78 percent in 2005. Westminster College expects its acceptance rate to drop by 11 percent this year to 67 percent, as the number of applicants jumped from 1,900 last year to 3,200 already — Westminster is still accepting applicants this spring.

Utah public colleges are fairly unique in that most are open enrollment, like Utah Valley University and Salt Lake Community College, or have no cap on enrollment, like the University of Utah and Southern State University, which means if a student gets a certain ACT or SAT score and GPA, they are automatically enrolled in the university. These universities follow a state academic index, which weights GPA and the ACT or SAT equally in deciding whether a student gets in or not.

But with three years in a row of state funding cuts and surging enrollment numbers, some of these schools may toughen their standards.

SUU upped its standards by five points on the academic index this year, which is either a .2 higher GPA to get in or four points higher on the ACT or 190 points higher on the SAT. The University of Utah plans to change its academic index next year to put more emphasis on grades, said Barbara Fortin, admissions director for the University of Utah. Grades are a better predictor of academic performance in college, she said the school has learned through research.

The U. also does not plan on giving out its minimum requirement for students next year. School officials believe that will allow the school to be more flexible in which students it decides to enroll and to help it deal with the recent application surge.

During February and March this year, the admissions department at the U. closed on Wednesday morning to the public to allow more time to process the applications.

"It is just much more challenging," Fortin said of dealing with more applicants this year. "We are just overwhelmed with transcripts."

Although the U. will be putting more of a focus on grades than on admission test scores, colleges nationwide still see the ACT or SAT score as more important than overall grades in high school, except when it comes to grades on college prep courses.

In a nationwide survey of colleges in 2009, 86.5 percent of colleges, the highest percentage of respondents, said they put considerable importance in the admission process on grades in college prep courses, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC).

Other schools like BYU and Westminster say they look at more than just grades or college admission scores.

"I don't believe the public is fully aware of the fact that a certain GPA or ACT score will not guarantee admission to the university," said Kirk Strong, admission director at BYU. "We are truly looking at each applicant as a whole person — new freshmen and transfer students can no longer make assumptions based on academics alone."

Many selective colleges are taking this approach, putting more emphasis on essays, teacher recommendations, extracurricular activities, work and portfolios, said Melissa Clinedinst, assistant director of research at NACAC.

A former admissions director at Dartmouth College, Michele Hernandez said after seeing students struggle to get into their top college choice, she started her own business called Hernandez College Consulting about 10 years ago to help students navigate the application process.

She even holds Admission Boot Camp in Cambridge, Mass., in the summer for students as young as eighth graders to help them develop an application strategy and give them application advice.

More high school seniors are applying to college as well as more immigrant and international students, she said.

"Everyone wants to be educated in the U.S.," Hernandez said. "People now realize the best way to make it in this country is to get a good education."

The main reason she believes admission rates have been so low is because Harvard and Princeton decided a few years ago to no longer accept early decision students, or students who would lock in that they would go to the school if accepted. She said these top students then started to apply to more colleges and that has in turn caused other admission rates to drop. Then the students who apply to those schools apply to more schools.

"It's a trickle-down effect," Hernandez said.

From 2005 to 2009, the number of students applying to seven or more schools rose 5 percent and is expected to be even higher this year, according to NACAC.

Another reason why students are applying to more schools is because of the ease of applying online. Some students can fill out one or two applications and send them electronically to dozens of different schools.

That's the reason why Liu and others said they applied to so many schools. Portia Cao, also a senior at Waterford, applied to 11 schools this year and said if it wasn't for the Common Application, which is accepted by many schools, she would have applied to at least a few less if not several less than she did.

In 2005, four-year colleges received an average of 58 percent of their applications online. In 2009, that number was 80 percent, according to NACAC.

Raeleigh Jones, a senior at Brighton High School, said she narrowed down her list of colleges she wanted to apply to, to five. One major component she is looking for in a college is affordability and said she will probably go to the U. because of it.

And students both in and out of Utah are doing this — searching for the college that can give them the best financial aid or scholarship package.

"We see it on tours," said Trent Hunsaker, spokesman for Utah State University. "Everyone is shopping around, and rightfully so, trying to get the best bang for their buck."

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Admission rates have gone down for the last 10 years, said Hernandez, but she expects this year to be the lowest nationwide at 66.5 percent for four-year colleges.

Joel Bauman, vice president for enrollment at Westminster, offered some advice to students waiting to hear back from colleges. Most students who applied to colleges with deadlines are expected to hear back this week.

"I would say don't panic," Bauman said. "Despite the surge, there will still be great schools and affordable schools that will be open until the May 1st deadline."

Email: slenz@desnews.com