FOR A LOT of students, the final determining factor in where (and, in some cases, if) they'll go to college is not grade point average or test scores, but rather which way the ball bounces -- or more specifically, how well they can handle it.

Each year, the nation's colleges and universities award thousands of athletic scholarships, with anxious recruiters criss-crossing the country in search of top-notch talent, and anxious parents -- ever aware of escalating tuition costs -- hoping that at least some of those scouts will notice their sons or daughters.

There was a time when scholarship dollars went almost exclusively for men's football and basketball programs -- the big draw sports that can bring a school national recognition and lucrative television contracts. But that has changed. Title IX of the Education Act of 1972, which says in part that scholarship dollars must be awarded in proportion to the numbers of male and female atheltes, has helped bring women's sports out of the shadows.

Colleges large and small are offering scholarships or other forms of financial assistance in sports that do not draw large crowds, and the athlete who is not an All American, but knows how to seek out such scholarships, can also find a way to help put himself or herself through school.

The main ingredient necessary for landing an athletic scholarship is still talent, however, and for the most outstanding athletes, a search for one isn't necessary. College recruiters, through scouting services, alumni contacts, and personal visits, keep tabs on top players, and a prospective All-American invariably will attract a long line of coaches looking for a chance to tout their programs.

Soccer player Eric Myren, who graduated last spring from McLean High School, is one of the lucky ones. Myren made Parade magazine's All-American list.

"That brought recruiting letters from quite a few major schools," he said, including Columbia and American University. Myren finally decided on the University of Connecticut, which will pay two-thrids of his $4,500 freshman year tuition.

Like most students who win athletic scholarships, Myren says he's sure he'll feel pressured to devote lots of time to his sport. "But I don't think it will affect my studies . . . Once I get to school, it will be soccer and school," he says. "I'll make that my job."

Another area headliner is Cathy Grimes, a June graduate of T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, who is headed for the University of Virginia on a basketball scholarhip. As a senior, Grimes averaged 22 points per game, making her one of the most heavily recruited woman players in the country and bringing her a list of honors that stretched from All-League to All-America.

Like many sought-after playrs, Grimes felt the pressure of the recruiting process. She was contacted by more than 100 schools, she says, with the first batch of letters coming right after her junior year. At first, she adds, she enjoyed the attention, but, "As time went on I got tired of recruiters calling," Grimes says. "I couldn't get any homework done."

In fact, the recruiters proved such an annoyance that the family took an unlisted phone number, and Grimes' coach, Ralph McGirk, screened recruiters before allowing them to talk with the 5 foot 10 forward. All in all, Grimes believes that the pros of the recruiting process outweighed the cons, particularly since she has had her heart set on playing college basketball since ninth grade. "I really can't imagine life without basketball," she says.

But Myren and Grimes are the exceptions. Most athletes looking for a scholarship have to sell themselves to some extent, and success often is contingent only on one's performance, but on a number of factors, including a city's reputation for athletic excellence.

Washington, for instance, has sent many first-rate basketball players to colleges nationwide, and recruiters routinely add the city to their scouting itinerary. The city also has a good reputation for its football. Track, particularly women's track, is getting recognition these days, which means that high school athletes can count on good exposure.

The great debate over athletic scholarships concerns how hard a student should try for one, and how much importance should be attached to sports in the first place. Otto jordan, supervising director of athletics for the D.C. public schools, says that he tries to keep athletics within the entire educational structure and to emphasize competition rather than the quest for a scholarship. "We say that education is No. 1, and we try to let the kids know this at an early age," Jordan says. "The odds are long that a youngster will get an athletic scholoarship, so we don't push that too hard. Some are going up a blind trail."

Searching for a athletic scholarship can be a haphazard affair. But it is a game like any other and certain rules apply. Understanding those rules can give the student an advantage and save him and his parents time, effort and money in what could otherwise be a fruitless process.

The right contacts, for instance, are crucial, and it is almost always an athlete's coach that can open the right doors. Going it alone for student is both difficult and unwise. High School coaches usually work closely with their college counterparts and can steer their athletes toward schools where their chances for a scholarship are best. By the same token, a high school in the District, demonstrates a coach's importance. According to Moses, 10 of this year's graduating seniors at Wilson have received athletic scholarships -- four in football, two each in basketball and track, and one each in swimming and tennis.

Like most coaches, Moses contacts colleges for his players, sending out letters, along with game films, if available. But Moses does more. Last year, he loaded six of his students into his car and drove them to meet one college coach face to face -- a strategy which resulted in scholarships for three of them.

Less fortunate are student who attend schools in small communities, where sports programs get little publicity and coaches are not wired into college networks. Patty McCormick, a senior at George Washington University this fall, is typical. For two year she was the "most valuable player" on the Lackey High School basketball team, a small school in Charles County, Maryland. But her efforts to get an athletic scholarship were unsuccessful. Lackey is simply not the kind of school that usually attracts recruiters.

"I had a lot of difficulty getting people to come see me play," said McCormick.

After playing a year as a walk-on at George Washington, she was offered a scholarship. She believes that with enough exposure in high school, she could have been on scholorship all four years of her college career.

In contrast, McCormick's teammate, Laurie Cann, who graduated from G.W.U. in May, was an all-Prince George's County player and benefited from all the exposure that entailed. She played in post-season tournaments, and was offered scholarships to a number of schools, including American and Rutgers University. Four other girls on her high school team also were awarded scholarships, which Cann attributes to her coach, who worked closely with the players and mde the important contacts.

Coaches can't be expected to do everything, however. A student's own initiative can be crucial in landing an athletic scholarship, particularly if he or she played a less visible sport such as lacrosse or tennis.

So how does one conduct a search? Most coaches and athletic directors say the best approach is to look for an athletic scholarship and suitable school together. A college's academic caliber, size, and location, as well as its athletic programs and available scholarships, are all equally important considerations when choosing an institution.

Other suggestions include:

Don't wait until your senior year to get the process going. Coaches want to know where the talent is as early as possible, so they can build a file on an athlete and follow his progress. With spring sports, it is especially important that contact be made in the sophomore or junior year. A college baseball coach, for instance, may never get to see you play if he doesn't see you in your junior year. If the coach does get to see you as a senior, it may be once or twice; if you happen to have an off-day, your chances of a scholarship obviously won't be helped.

Be seen in action as often as possible. This means participating in interscholastic competition, summer leagues, camps, tournaments, or wherever a recruiter is likely to look. Although some coaches offer scholarships on the recommendation of someone they trust -- without ever seeing the student in action -- they prefer not to.

Explore all your options. If you think you may have an interest in a school, take a closer look. A good strategy is to send a letter to the athletic department with a resume detailing your academic and athletic background, and perhaps a few selected newspaper clipping. Inquiries of this sort usually elicit general information about a school and its athletic program -- including scholarsip information -- which will help you decide whether to give a school serious consideration. The college coach will also have an idea of how you might fit into that school's program. This might result in a follow-up conversation with your high school coach and a visit to see you play.

Be realistic. Coaches are always eager to see and hear from talented athletes, but realize your limitations. If a school is clearly out of your league, don't waste your time pursuing a scholarship there. Set your sights instead on institutions where you may have an honest shot. It's just not possible to go looking everywhere (more than 1,000 colleges have basketball programs, for example), so pursue only those avenues that could eventually produce positive results.

Just how much scholarship money is awarded each year for student-athletes is impossible to calculate, but schools award money for everything from badminton to bowling and riflery to rodeo. The majority of aid, however, is not in the form of outright athletic scholarships. Instead, most of the money given student-athletes each year is based on financial need, as well as athletic ability.

NCAA Division III colleges (i.e., those with relatively small enrollments), as well as members of the Ivy League, are prohibited from giving outright athletic scholarships. Instead, these institutions award aid based only on financial need, using the same needs assessment systems for all students. Still, they actively recruit athletes, and put together attractive financial aid packages.

Students should pay careful attention to filing financial need statement. Few schools are willing (or able) to pay the entire way for their athletes, and a combination of various types of aid, including loans, is increasingly becoming the rule. A student's actual need -- the difference between educational expenses and the amount the student and his family can afford to pay -- is the standard to which schools adhere.

With the prospect of government funds for college loans drying up, and tuition costs skyrocketing, more students appear to see athletic scholarships as a way of financing their college careers. "We were bombarded this year with people requesting information," says Emma Best, assistant director of athletics for women at the University of the District of Columbia. "They're becoming very conscious of scholarships. . . . The first thing they want to know when they call is 'Do you offer scholarships?'"

Yet even with the high interest in athletic scholarships, some colleges don't award all their scholarship money each year, sometimes because no one applies ofr it. One school in Florida, Broward Community College, even placed classified ads in local papers last year inviting students to try out for the tennis team. Scholarships, the ad said, were available.

Of course, not everyone, even those with excellent credentials, chooses to go the athletic scholarhsip route. Wayne Feldman, who graduated last year from American University, was No. 1 on his Stamford, Connecticut, high school tennis team and chose to attend American where tennis scholarships are available only to women.

Feldman became the team's No. 1 singles player and says he fared well against opponents with athletic scholarship. He believes that had he gone looking for a scholarship in an area of the country where less emphasis is put on tennis -- perhaps the Midwest -- he might have been able to find one. But he chose to stay in the East where his chances of winning aid were slim.

Today, he doesn't regret his decision concerning colleges and athletics. He says he didn't desperately need the money and the quality of play at A.U. made the competition enjoyable. "After freshman year," he says, "I realized there were more important things [than tennis]"

Boyd Moses sees it a little differently. Many of his students, he says, couldn't otherwise afford college without an athletic scholarship, so he tries hard to find those coveted "free rides" for his players.

"If it's a vehicle for education, then you can't put too much emphasis on it," Moses concludes.