TO HIGHLIGHT the similarities and differences among guidebooks, I set up a "college trail." Using the undergraduate college at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia (one of my alma maters) as a guinea pig, I compared the data and insights available in six leading "objective" guides -- Arco, Barron's, Cass and Birnbaum's Comparative Guide, The College Handbook, Lovejoy's, and Peterson's -- and the three "subjective" ones -- Birnbach's, Insider's, and Selective.

All six objective guidebooks provide such vital statistics as undergraduate population and tuition cost. Only Peterson's and The College Handbook, however, carry the current cost figure: $11,975 per academic year. (It should be noted that half of Penn undergraduates receive financial aid.) The books agree that Penn's admissions process is highly selective. All but Peterson's give the student a sense of where his SAT scores should be if he hopes to be admitted: incoming freshmen average between 610-620 verbal, 660-680 math (the numbers vary slightly from guidebook to guidebook). Barron's offers the even more sobering observation that "90% of a recent freshman class ranked in the top 10% of their high school class." The College Handbook adds that "special consideration" goes to children of alumni in the admissions process.

Arco, Barron's, the Comparative Guide and The College Handbook enumerate every undergraduate major; Lovejoy's and jump to page 21 Peterson's do not. Arco, Barron's, Lovejoy's and Peterson's mention that Penn undergraduates may take courses for credit at nearby Bryn Mawr, Haverford and Swarthmore colleges; the Comparative Guide and The College Handbook do not notice this privilege. Of special interest to the research-minded, Barron's observes that Penn has "the largest completely open-stack library of any American university."

Information on campus life varies widely from guide to guide. For example, Barron's conveys the existence of fraternities and sororities obliquely, in a sentence on student housing. The College Handbook puts a number on Greek popularity: 12 percent of undergraduates pledged. The Comparative Guide reports that "interest in fraternities and sororities {is} increasing." Arco suggests, in fact, that the Penn campus may suffer from "an overabundance of influence by the Greeks."

At the subjective end of the spectrum, the emphasis is on Penn's fence-straddling position as an admittedly excellent school not quite of the same rarefied caliber as a few of its fellow institutions in the Ivy League. Birnbach addresses this insecurity with characteristic saltiness: "Look, it was obviously an oversight. Harvard lost your application, at Yale it was burned in the famous fire, and your guidance counselor messed up your Brown application form. But really, you could have gone to any of those schools, you're thinking at the University of Pennsylvania."

The Insider's entry exemplifies the pitfalls of relying on a single informant. "Penn is a school whose time has come," it trills. "Once thought of primarily as a second choice among aspiring Ivy Leaguers, Penn today is the university for growing numbers of students." Insider's is three years more current than Birnbach's, and so this encomium may reflect a sea-change in Penn's fortunes. On the other hand, it may amount simply to wishful thinking on the part of a Quaker booster.

Fiske's Selective Guide strikes a thoughtful intermediary note. After noting that the university has surpassed Princeton and Yale in number of applicants for admission, the guide remarks that "Penn is strutting like a peacock and pleased to inform its Ivy brethren that not only does it have more applicants, but it has more applicants with higher test scores and class rankings than ever before. . . Although it may have been tough to be the East Coast's premier preprofessional institution in the hippie-sixties, in the yuppie-eighties, Penn's sitting in clover."