STATUS IN WASHINGTON means belonging to the right clubs, living in the right neighborhoods, giving the right dinner parties. One of the most crucial status symbols of late is getting your child into the right kindergarten. A private kindergarten. An elite, $4,000-a-year, basic training site, the first step on an upward mobility treadmill which many parents hope stops at, say, the Harvard business school.

Competition is fierce. Some parents, panicked at the thought that available places in private schools dwindle with each succeeding grade, see kindergarten as the cutoff. Prekindergarten, in some cases. The children are tested, interviewed, examined and picked over like pieces of fruit. The parents are willing to do anything--plead, pressure and pay--to ensure that their child is picked.

It's never too early to start.

"We get phone calls at conception," says Georgia Irvin, director of admissions for Sidwell Friends, a private institution generally acknowledged to be one of the area's most elite. Last year, there were 121 applications for 24 kindergarten places. This year, the number has increased, although Irvin says she is reluctant to reveal the application figures for fear of fueling the already heightened hysteria.

The story is the same all over the city.

"The competition was the greatest this past year in all the 20 years I've worked here," says Gladys Stern, headmistress of Georgetown Day School. "There's a real kindergarten crunch." The school accepts 48 to 50 students for its prekindergarten and kindergarten classes. This year, the applications were four times that number. "There seems to be a great push now for parents to get them in at 4, rather than 5," says Stern.

It is, she says, just another one of the "byproducts of our time."

For many middle- to upper-class Washingtonians--black and white--children are seen as an extension of their own stress-for-success life style. The fast lane demands a certain level of excellence. That means shopping at Neam's, dining at Lion D'Or, hiring a Salvadoran housekeeper, tennis at St. Albans, golf at Burning Tree and building blocks at Beauvoir, the National Cathedral Elementary School.

"Suddenly, it's fashionable to decide you're dead if you don't go to the right kindergarten," says Stern. "There's rather a hysterical approach to it all."

Barbara Patterson, head of the Black Student Fund, says that although blacks generally make up a small percentage of the private school students in Washington, "blacks are definitely sending their children to independent schools." She also pointed out that private schools are eager to enroll black students and offer generous scholarships to both black and white students.

School officials say there are many reasons for the upsurge in applicants. Some point to widespread dissatisfaction with the public school system, leaving the relatively small number of private schools in demand. Some say it is heightened awareness of the need for quality early education. Others mention a recent mini baby boom among older career women. With the high interest rates, city residents who would have moved to the suburbs to enroll their children in public schools are staying put. And more suburban parents, faced with school closings there, are sending their children back to the District.

"My genuine feeling," says Stern, "is that if the public schools were doing the job, the parents would be there."

Above all, say school administrators, more and more two-career couples can afford the steep private school tuitions and tend to use the nurseries and kindergartens as quality day care.

What they're really buying is insurance.

"In a sense, yes," says Stern.

They are insuring their child a place in the school when it really counts--elementary and upper school--whether or not the child will thrive in that particular environment. "It's a ridiculous game to play with 4- and 5-year-old children. It's a fact that parents do that," says Stern.

Some parents say they have no choice. "The system is the system," says Claudia Coonrod, a 34-year-old Cleveland Park real estate broker who is sending her 5-year-old son Alex to Beauvoir next year. Alex had been attending a Montessori school and doing well, but his mother, calling it her "concession to the system," thinks Beauvoir is better.

"If you don't get your kid into kindergarten, your chances are very slight of getting him in later on," Coonrod says. "I did it grudgingly. He was doing so well at the Montessori. It was a big conflict."

The $4,000 tuition for kindergarten at Beauvoir, say many parents, is more than they paid for college.

"I think it's horrible that I'm spending $4,000 to send my kid to kindergarten," says Coonrod. "It's embarrassing. It's the worst kind of conspicuous consumption. But what's your alternative? You want your kids to be brought up with their peers."

Beauvoir stops at the third grade. It is known as a "feeder" school--it feeds its graduating students into the prestigious St. Albans School for Boys and National Cathedral School for Girls. Sidwell Friends goes to the 12th grade. So does Georgetown Day and the Maret School. Some parents prefer those schools, avoiding the ordeal of having to reapply later on. Their children are known as "lifers."

"Somebody who gets their kid into Sidwell Friends at age 5 doesn't have to think about it again until Harvard," says Coonrod. "That's a luxury." Take My Child--Please ----

They talk about it at dinner parties. They say it becomes an obsession. You see them hovering over the prosciutto and melon--senators and congressmen, diplomats and journalists, lawyers and lobbyists, anxious parents all. They're not talking about the budget deficit. They're talking about their child's chances for Sidwell.

Although it might work at other schools, getting a VIP to write a letter of recommendation for your child is a definite turnoff at Sidwell Friends. "It simply isn't Quakerly," sniffs admissions director Georgia Irvin.

But there are other ways of getting your tot's $30 leather Nike in the door. Converting to the Quaker religion, as one Washington woman recently did, worked. (Sidwell, according to Irvin, does give preference to Quakers.) Also, like many private schools, it gives special attention to siblings, children of alumni and legacies (money left by a relative or friend for the child's education).

Applications must be in by fall for the following school year. Most parents say they apply to at least three, if not four or five, private kindergartens. Like college, the notices are sent out in March.

Anyone applying late, or having the misfortune to arrive with an incoming administration in January, are often given the cold shoulder.

"I don't know whether you've ever seen a middle-aged woman break down and sob, but that's what I did," says Carolyn Deaver, wife of presidential assistant Michael Deaver. The couple's two children were turned down by several private schools. They finally got daughter Amanda into Holton-Arms, and found a place for their son at Horace Mann public school. "We didn't use any pressure," she says. "I was advised that that kind of pressure doesn't work."

What does work, based on interviews with parents and teachers, is the following:

1. A bright child.

2. Active--but not pushy--parents.

3. A letter from a member of the board.

"If you're wavering," says Alex Clain-Stefanelli, assistant headmaster at the Maret School, "it the letter helps in that you'll look at the applicant more seriously."

"What works," says Claudia Coonrod, "is if you have a child in the medium-to-bright range who doesn't have any problems and comes from a family either well-known or well-recommended."

"If you're known," says Gladys Stern of Georgetown Day, "it's probably better than not being known. I don't think it ever hurts to know the right buttons to push."

Knowing who to ask to write the letters of recommendation is an acquired art. For example, a letter from Ronald Reagan would have less weight than a letter from, say, Walter Mondale, whose children have gone through Washington's private school system, according to one nursery school administrator. Most school officials say a letter from a parent who knows the child is preferred. Still, how well can you know a 4-year-old? Some schools ask for mini-essays, others want brief descriptions of the child's play habits, coordination and intelligence. On one application, a family friend was asked to describe a child in one word. The only word that came to mind was "short."

"I think it's ridiculous," says Kathy McDaniels, whose two children are enrolled at Sidwell Friends. "More and more people are asking me to write letters." McDaniels says she only writes for the children she actually knows, and then, "I say nice things about all of them."

Another mother of two children, who asked to remain anonymous, applied to Beauvoir nursery school one year and was rejected. The next year, she says, "I played the game. I called up somebody on the board I hardly knew and asked them to write a letter."

It must have worked, she says, because her child was accepted.

An overzealous letter-writing campaign, however, can do more harm than good. As one school official puts it, "The thicker the file, the thicker the child."

Still, most parents, are determined to give their offspring an edge. Says Irvin, "Parents will do anything to maximize the child's opportunity."

School officials tell of flowers, plants, long-distance phone calls, letters of recommendation from VIPs. Many parents play the donation game. "That's been done in subtle ways," says Ruth Gottesman of the Sheridan School. "People have said they'd support the school in any way possible. The inferences are obvious."

"The sad thing is that people think it makes a difference," says Jean Crawford, Beauvoir's director of admissions. "It doesn't."

What can make a difference is being in the "Green Book," Washington's social register.

Indeed, one woman says the only reason she continues to be listed in the register is for the sake of her son. "I wanted to be in it while my child was going through the private school process," she says, begging for anonymity. "It's not a detriment, let's put it that way."

Finding out what doesn't work is easier than discovering what does work. One mother, anxious to get her child into the Maret School, donated an expensive European trip as an item for the school's auction. Nevertheless, the child was rejected.

"We've never had anything so blatant," says Eleanor Clain-Stefanelli, Maret's director of admissions.

Another set of parents, hoping to enroll their child at Sidwell Friends, showed up at the annual school auction and bid $6,000 on a painting, the highest item of the evening.

Their child also was rejected.

"Maybe you need a school to educate parents on how to apply to private schools," says Clain-Stefanelli.

Ruth Gottesman of the Sheridan School says the pressure parents put on school officials can border on harassment.

"A well-to-do family came to Washington from California for Reagan's administration," she says. "These people would simply not be put off. They went on and on and on, pressuring one of the trustees to call the headmaster. They let us know they were flashy people with money. There was nothing very sophisticated about their approach and certainly not subtle."

The child was rejected for lack of space. "I think they thought they had a lot of clout," Gottesman says. "The father was given an impressive title in the administration. It was a little bit undignified. Even if we did have a place open up, we would have thought differently whether we wanted those kinds of people in the school."

Oftentimes, she says, "The children are acceptable. The parents are not."