The parents of one 3-year-old boy, applying to a private nursery school recently, were asked to bring the child in for an interview. The boy was asked to sit with other children in a room. A few feet away was a rabbit in a cage. The children were told not to pay any attention to the furry creature. The curious 3-year-old toddled over to the cage, eventually stood on top of it and set the rabbit free.

Several months later, a rejection letter was in the mail.

"I think the anxiety of parents is ridiculous," the father of the boy says now, laughing over the incident. The child is now enrolled in public school. "These people are convinced that unless their kid gets into the very best kindergarten, the child will be handicapped for life."

Most schools use the McCarthy Scales for Children to test the 4- and 5-year-old applicants. The McCarthy test, a sort of SAT for tots, gauges a child's perception, coordination and general skills. The problems range from the alphabet, counting and playing with blocks to throwing a bean bag through a clown's nose.

The schools say they share the test results with each other.

How well a child does on the McCarthy is important, school officials say, although it is not the only criterion for admittance to kindergarten.

"We look at the whole person, not just intelligence," says Gottesman. However, she says, "We want the best."

Nancy Muller, a 33-year-old apprentice furniture restorer from Takoma Park, is sending her son Tony to the Sheridan School next year.

"I think the procedure you have to go through--including Sheridan--is a little bit nutty. It's like sending your transcript around!"

She sent in applications, along with a nonrefundable $30 fee, to four private kindergartens. The McCarthy test is an additional $35. She got friends to write letters of recommendation. She and Tony liked Sheridan the best. After the initial interviews, Tony went back to Sheridan for 45 minutes of psychological testing. "I think they wanted to know how physically coordinated he was, his intelligence level. He stood on one foot with his eyes closed, played catch, talked about his family and his home life."

In February, he went back to participate in the kindergarten class. In March, he was accepted.

Muller sent in the required $200 registration fee by April 7.

"It's insane," she says. "I'm not convinced spending $3,000 on a 4-year-old is the right ticket. But I guess it's all part of being a parent."

Muller feels lucky her son was accepted at her school of choice. "I can't say I'd feel good if Tony had been rejected. I'd have felt lousy."

Most parents use the collective "we" when referring to rejection. "We were rejected at Beauvoir," they say. "We were rejected at Sidwell."

A child is usually rejected or put on the "waiting list" because there is no room, or because the school believes the child is not ready for its particular program.

One angry mother says the schools want perfection. "They don't want anything different. They don't want a child with the slightest problem."

Her child was rejected from a private kindergarten last year.

"I found it worse than my own rejection from college," she says. "This is the child you have molded. You call up and say, 'Why?' They say, 'You have a wonderful child, but on the testing scale, she was just not up to par.' Or, 'Your child is a girl, we're looking for boys.' That's what they tell you."

Parents vent their anger in different ways. One frustrated parent phoned Maret--anonymously, of course--asking the admissions director why the school had admitted a certain child. Why, the caller asked, didn't school officials know how awful the child's parents were?

"They're upset," says Maret official Alex Clain-Stefanelli. "They want to strike out."

One father, a lawyer with a prestigious Washington firm, did. When his daughter was rejected from Beauvoir last year, he filed a formal complaint with the D.C. Human Rights Commission claiming his white, Catholic, American-born offspring was discriminated against.

"Actually," the child's father says now, "we were just trying to find out why she was rejected. We never had it explained to us."

The parents learned that their little girl had scored in the 99th percentile on the McCarthy test. But the school said it had no space. "It was a matter of numbers," was Beauvoir's reply, according to documents filed with the Human Rights Commission. The complaint was investigated and later dismissed.

"Choosing among equals is their problem," says the father, whose daughter is currently enrolled in another private school. "I know everybody does it, but we did not play the game. I did not go to senator so-and-so, who's a friend, or secretary so-and-so, who's a friend, and ask them to write letters for my 5-year-old child. It's demeaning. And it strikes me as fundamentally a strange procedure for a 5-year-old to be going through."

When he tells friends from out-of-town of the private school scramble, he says, "They think it's nuts. They shake their heads and say, 'That's one more reason not to live in Washington.' "

But would he consider sending his daughter to public school?

"Of course not," he says.