YOU WONDER at first if maybe the students of ''Mr. Jefferson's Academical Village'' aren't overdoing the awe-and-homage bit when they talk about the founder of the University of Virginia. But the student weekly newspaper, The Declaration, advises first-year students (never say ''freshmen'') that the man who also was ''incidentally'' the third president of the United States is ''referred to as if he were in the next room.'' And even if he isn't, the man's influence and his commitment to ''Our University, the last of my mortal cares . . . and the last service I can render my country'' are everywhere.

Start in midwinter with the mellow aroma of woodsmoke from the fireplaces opf the university's best-known student living quarters: the quaint little dormitory rooms, originally designed by Jefferson, that line the two longer sides of The Lawn (never say ''the quad''). These revered residences are occupied by specially selected fourth-year students (no, they don't have ''seniors'' either).

Head for The Rotunda, a half-scale version of the Pantheon and original home of the University library (with its first books selected personally by guess who). This is the focal point of The Grounds (never say ''campus''). From here, seven days a week at 10, 11, 2, 3 and 4 o'clock, there are excellent public tours of the many Jeffersonian buildings, conducted by unusually knowledgeable students.

From the top of The Rotunda there's the not-to-be-missed spectacular overview of Mr. Jefferson's design. (He oversaw construction from Monticello through a telescope.) Complementing the student rooms along The Lawn are the Pavilions for senior faculty and their families and the brick Serpentine Walls enclosing little gardens that lead gracefully out to the rest of the university.

What you see here is what a 1976 vote of the American Institute of Architects enthusiastically proclaimed the outstanding achievement of American architecture. Period.

Today's ''Yooveeay'' student is a far cry from those of the early years, who it was said ''tended to be high-spirited and rowdy.'' One commentator quoted in the Rotunda exhibit noted with ''great pleasure'' then that ''although the vivacity of these blooded colts at the University frequently leads them into all sorts of deviltries and excesses, they have almost invariably the manners of gentlemen.''

They are more than mere gentlemen nowadays, thanks to the incorporation of coeducation throughout the university's disciplines.

Historians credit Colgate W. Darden, the university's third president, with guiding the school from a select ''gentleman's country club of the South'' to a ''better fulfillment of Mr. Jefferson'ty's national reputation, including a recent citation in a New York Times Magazine cover story as one of today's ''hot colleges'' among top high school seniors across the country.

A profile of the latest first-year liberal-arts class shows 2,171 enrolled from 9,733 applicants. Of those in the class, 58 percent ranked in the top 10 percent of their high school classes.

The most celebrated graduate in quite recent memory is listed in the student weekly's glossary as:

''Ralph. n.: Refers to a 7'4'' monument, removed from The Grounds after four years of conspicuousness. Second in sainthood only to Mr. Jefferson.''

The student reverence for basketball star Ralph Sampson goes well beyond his remarkable career on the courts. He is remembered as a total and enthusiastic member of the university, who resisted megabuck pro-ball offers and stayed the full four years to earn his degree.

The most celebrated newcomer to the university hasn't even officially arrived yet. He's Robert M. O'Neil, president of the University of Wisconsin, who has just been named the new president of Virginia. The selection of O'Neil, a Harvard-educated legal scholar who will take office September 1, reflects a shift to someone from outside Virginia -- as a member of the faculty search committee put it, ''a national educational leader who would symbolize what has happened to the university.'' Part of the new president's mandate will be to improve minority participation in the faculty and student body.

Through its 10 schools, the university offers bachelor's degrees in 52 fields and programs, the master's in 93, the educational specialist in six, the first professional degree in two and the doctorate in 53. More than 40 Rhodes Scholars have graduated from the university.

For up-to-the-minute listings of the wide variety of cultural and athletic activities open to visitors, check the two student-run newspapers, the Cavalier Daily or the thrice-weekly University Journal (Virginia is one of few universities with two competing student newspapers published more than weekly).

In addition to these activities, the faculty members find more than a little something to do ''on Grounds.'' Their wide-ranging research efforts include subjects such as studying the effects of acid rain; developing new treatments for severe burns; recommending new ways for banks and savings and loans to respond to rapdily changing regulations and consumer demands; exploring what motivates coal miners; and improving the durability of metals. Perhaps in some small corner there is someone researching the definitive roots of the term ''Wahoo'' as it is liberally applied to any moving thing -- from athlete to car bumper -- affliated with the university.

What they all do learn, as does the visitor, is that Mr. Jefferson is very much alive, thank you, still setting the atmosphere ''to develop the reasoning faculties of our youth, enlarge their minds, cultivate their morals and instill into them the precepts of virtue and order . . .''