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Victoria Au always knew she'd like to go to the University of Utah.
"The programs here are great," said the 18-year-old studying to be a physician assistant. "You have to take advantage of what's in your backyard."
As a first-generation college student, Au turned to counselors at Itineris Early College High School for help with the somewhat-lengthy application process. She earned an associate's degree at the public charter high school in West Jordan before she graduated.
Au is one of 3,494 freshmen at the U. and part of the first class admitted under a new holistic admissions process, a system that goes beyond GPA and test scores to take into account activities, honors and course rigor. Administrators hope it will help boost the school's graduation rate, which in 2011 was the lowest among its new neighbors in the Pac-12.
"It really gives students the opportunity to tell us who they are, the things they've done," said Mary Parker, associate vice president for enrollment management.
The acceptance rate dropped slightly this year, to 82 from 83 percent, even as the school saw an increase of 234 applicants.
"As we are growing as an institution and looking at the type of student we are recruiting, certainly the U. wants to make sure we are admitting students that can succeed," she said.
Hopefuls filled out a 17-page form nine pages longer than the year before that included questions about whether the student lived in a single-parent home, had to work to help support the family, or served as a caregiver during high school. It also includes a full page each for awards and community service, though it doesn't require an essay question.
Parker said the new process will also benefit underrepresented groups, such as minorities and first-generation college students. While the number of minority students in the U.'s freshman class did grow by 4 percent, that's slower growth than in years past in 2010, for example, it grew by about 27 percent.
Though the portion of minorities in the freshman class also grew to a high of 27 percent, that's in part because those groups held steady while enrollment among whites declined.
"Holistic is not meant to be the be-all end-all to diversity at the University of Utah," Parker said. "I don't think we did this to help one part of the class or another; we did this for all students."
The makeup of this year's freshman class was also shaped by a major cultural change The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lowered its age requirements for missionaries, down to age 18 for men, sparking a 10 percent drop in the size of the freshman class.
The student body overall shrank only about 1 percent, though, which Parker attributed to a targeted recruitment effort and an influx of merit aid money for high-scoring students, particularly women.
"We were very aggressive, being more strategic in terms of community outreach to those individuals," Parker told the U. board of trustees this week.
The number of out-of-state students is also up, making up 22.6 percent of the freshman class this year compared to 20 percent last year.
One of those is Ben Biesterfeld, from Conifer, Colo., who was looking for skiing and a good computer science program, specifically in video game design. The U.'s program is ranked No. 1 in the country.
The new holistic admissions process is "probably why I got in," he said. Though his GPA could have been higher, he said admission officials likely saw that he played sports and participated in activities throughout high school though he noticed the reply from the U. came later than other applications he submitted.
"I like it here," he said. "It feels a lot like home."
The average high school GPA of the new class held steady at 3.55, while the average ACT score dropped slightly, from 24.5 to 24.2. Bruce Hunter, a counselor at the college prep private school Rowland Hall, said that while general admission didn't seem to get more difficult, he saw some students rejected at the school's more selective honors college who would have been admitted before.
"In years past, admission to honors had been just as admission to the university, very much strictly data-driven," he said.
Kaye Poulton-Timm, a college and career readiness coordinator for Granite School District, said the new process has been helpful for kids who are "on the bubble" those who are solid college material even though their GPA and test scores aren't top-tier.
"Many of those are having to work to help their families ... sometimes that has affected their GPA in high school," she said. "The U. can now look at that and say, 'This is a kid who has the potential to succeed, we don't want to lose them because they don't meet our number on the admissions index.' "