THE institutional choices facing college-bound high-school seniors in the late 1980s are bewildering. There are nearly 2,000 four-year colleges in the United States and Canada, and yet few students have the time for -- or care to incur the expense of -- applying to more than a handful. Guidance counselors can help, but before consulting them it behooves a student to make some effort at narrowing the field. The recommended first step in the search for an appropriate college is to get hold of a guidebook and start browsing.

Even among guidebooks, however, discretion must be exercised. Some are pallid but crammed with useful information. (At Pace University in New York City, "graduate students teach no undergraduate courses." -- Peterson's Guide to Four-Year Colleges.) Others are piquant but quirky. (The University of Montana, in Missoula, "is divided unofficially into three groups: the 'regs' (regular people), the preps, and the granolas." -- Lisa Birnbach's College Book.)

Indeed, one can make sense of the guidebooks only by recognizing that they fall into two distinct breeds: the formal and the informal or the "objective" and "subjective." Although there is some overlap in the basic information provided by the two breeds, one would no more consult The Insider's Guide to the Colleges to find out how many English majors Purdue graduates a year than he would Cass & Birnbaum's Comparative Guide to American Colleges to size up the "epic" party scene at the University of Florida, Gainesville. Savvy educational consumers will want to consult (if not purchase) at least one book from each category -- which leaves two medium-sized welters of books to conjure with instead of one huge welter. In an effort to help students and parents cope with this subdivided array of choices, I talked with a number of counselors and spent many hours poring through books. What follows is an opinionated but not, I hope, biased survey of college guidebooks.

Objective Guides

ALL FIVE leading objective guidebooks are organized in dictionary style, either alphabetically by college or by state and then alphabetically within each state. Two of the five received favorable mention most frequently from high-school counselors in my informal poll:

Barron's Profiles of American Colleges (15th edition, $12.95) and The College Handbook (College Entrance Examination Board, 25th edition, $16.95). Published by the College Division of Barron's Educational Series, Barron's is thorough -- 1,500 four-year colleges covered -- and includes a graphic breakdown of each institution's Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores. For example, with the aid of this table, one can compare the 47 percent of students at the University of Colorado at Boulder who score below 500 verbal on their SATs with the 58 percent at U.C. Colorado Springs. James McClure, director of guidance at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, calls Barron's "the bible" among guidebooks.

Produced by the College Board, The College Handbook covers 3,100 "postsecondary institutions." It may be the guidebook most used by students: as reported by the Carnegie Foundation, in its new study College: The Undergraduate Experience in America, "only The College Handbook . . . is read by more than half the seniors who plan to attend college." In addition to its breadth of coverage, the Handbook provides an introductory worksheet for students to use in reducing the selection process to manageable bits.

Though not mentioned as frequently in my informal poll, Lovejoy's College Guide (Prentice-Hall, 17th edition, $14.95) has its adherents. Evelyn Wilson, director of guidance at Wakefield High School in Arlington, prefers Lovejoy's for its career orientation. The student can look up careers in which she is interested in a special index at the front of the book and find a list of colleges with programs in that field. For the athletic, there is also a Sports Index for ascertaining which colleges have what sports. (Only seven colleges, for example, offer trap and skeet, and of these only the University of Cincinnati offers scholarships to riflewomen.) Lovejoy's is edited by Charles Straughn and Barbarasue Lovejoy Straughn, carrying on a family enterprise begun by pioneer college guidance counselor Clarence E. Lovejoy.

Also-rans in my informal poll were the Comparative Guide to American Colleges by James Cass and Max Birnbaum (Harper & Row, 13th edition, $15.95) and Peterson's Four-Year Colleges 1988 (Peterson's Guides, 18th edition, $15.95). In their defense, however, a few points should be made. Cass and Birnbaum open with a heartening plug for liberal education -- "business executives have, in the past four or five years, become increasingly aware that students with a sound liberal arts education make excellent employees." And along with The College Handbook, Peterson's appears to be the most current of guides, at least with regard to tuition figures (see accompanying article).

Two other books deserve mention. The Right College 1988 (Prentice-Hall, $14.95) is so brand-new that counselors have not had a chance to evaluate it. It is based, however, upon The College Admissions Data Handbook, published in regional editions for the counseling profession, which is highly regarded. Though not a guidebook in the typical dictionary format, The Public Ivys by Richard Moll (Viking, $18.95) provides an overview of the country's many excellent and relatively inexpensive public universities.

Subjective Guides THERE ARE three leading subjective guides, and some counselors have little use for them. "We keep single copies of the subjective books," said James McClure of T.C. Williams -- in contrast with multiple copies of such objective treatments as Barron's. Most counselors, however, advocate referring to the subjective books to supplement the categorical, statistical data found in the objective ones. "I like to use the subjective books in conjunction with the others," explained Julie Gilbert, an independent college admissions counselor in Potomac. "They give students a flavor of the schools they're interested in."

Each of the three subjective guides has its partisans and detractors. Gilbert says she most frequently turns to The Selective Guide to Colleges by Edward B. Fiske, education editor of The New York Times (Times Books, 4th edition, $10.95) but quibbles with an assertion made in the third edition about her own alma mater, Denison University in Granville, Ohio: Contrary to Fiske, Denison does not hand out athletic scholarships. (The error has been corrected in the new, fourth edition.) Georgia Arrington-Booker, a guidance counselor and college coordinator for Wilson High School in the District, prefers The Insider's Guide to the Colleges, produced by the staff of the Yale Daily News (St. Martin's, 13th edition, $10.95). "It gives a good sense of a school from the students' point of view," she said. However, a friend of this reporter notes that the entry on his alma mater, Cornell, remains substantially unchanged from the version he wrote for the Insider's Guide 10 years ago as an undergraduate.

The most controversial subjective guidebook is Lisa Birnbach's College Book (Ballantine, $9.95). Bonnie Vega, the college counselor at St. Louis University High School, a Jesuit institution in St. Louis, doesn't "take {Birnbach} seriously." She added, however, that the book was stolen from her office after only one day on the shelf. On the other hand, William Morse, president of his own educational consulting firm in Westport, Conn., and a former admissions officer at Yale, called Birnbach "insightful." "She says all the things the respectable books are afraid to get into," he added.

The Insider's and Selective guidebooks are more comprehensive than Birnbach's, with 290 and 295 college entries respectively compared with her 186. Insider's is revised every year -- though if my friend's experience is indicative, some of its information may nonetheless be stale. The fourth edition of Selective has just appeared. Birnbach's came out in 1984, and as of this writing a new edition is not in the works.

As might be expected from student-authored entries from all over the country (frequently the job is assigned to a reporter for the campus newspaper), Insider's does not always make for scintillating reading. This pedestrian sentence apropos of the Stanford-Cal football game bogs down the 1987-88 entry on the University of California at Berkeley: "The entire Bay Area goes wild for the week preceding the Big Game."

The Selective Guide sends questionnaires to colleges, which distribute them to students for completion. The information generated is then worked up by a staff of "mostly young journalists and free-lance writers" and edited by Fiske. The resulting product exhibits judicious editing and readable prose. To underscore the informal atmosphere at Maine's ecology-oriented College of the Atlantic, the editors quote a student informant: "There are no titles here. I have anatomy with Butch and art with Joanne and Eric." Concerning the academic climate at New Jersey's Fairleigh Dickinson University, the book notes drily that "any tension about intellectual matters tends to be limited to finals week."

The irrepressible Birnbach, who originally rose to fame as author of The Official Preppy Handbook, personally visited every campus she wrote about. At the end of each entry, she provides capsule answers to a range of questions, including some that no one else bothers -- or is bold enough -- to ask: best professors, favorite drugs, gay situation, best speakers brought to campus. The book is so entertainingly written -- "One of the greatest things to ever happen to students at Brigham Young University, the Mormon university in Provo, Utah, was the invention of caffeine-free soda" -- that it can perform double-duty as a model of colorful expository prose.

A few years ago the administration at Carleton College in Minnesota asked 50 of its students to review the three subjective guides. The outcome, as reported in The Carnegie Foundation's College study, was as follows. "Measuring them on their overall accuracy of each description of Carleton, thirty-eight students thought The Selective Guide to Colleges was the most accurate, eleven chose the Yale {Insider's} guide, and one student chose {Birnbach's} College Book." As the foundation notes, this is a small sample from a single school, but the margin of "victory" for The Selective Guide is impressive.

Other Resources HIGH-SCHOOL students in the Washington area may be able to select a college by computer. Using Guidance Information System, a program available from the Hanover, N.H., office of Houghton Mifflin, a student can input his academic qualifications and collegiate preferences and get back a print-out of colleges that suit his specs. According to Jerry Hunt, marketing manager for the system, it is accessible at about 170 high schools in Virginia, 100 in Maryland, and 15 in the District, as well as some public libraries.

The Guidance Department at T.C. Williams has published an excellent brochure to help students search for a college. Called "Selecting a College," it not only offers sensible advice (before visiting a college, call ahead for an appointment) but also breaks the selection process down into manageable tasks that can be checked off as completed. The school has graciously agreed to make the brochure available to the public as long as the supply lasts. Write James McClure, Director of Guidance, T.C. Williams High School, 3330 King St., Alexandria, VA 22302. ::

Dennis Drabelle is a Washington writer and editor.