Thirty-two Walt Whitman High School students have qualified as semifinalists in the 1977 National Merit Scholarship competition. The Bethesda school had nearly triple the number of semifinalists of any other high school in the Washington metropolitan area.

Whitman had the third highest number of semifinalists of any school in the nation. It finished behind Stuyvesant High School in New York City, which had 51 semifinalists and Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, which had 49. Last year Whitman was sixth in the nation with 29 semifinalists.

Whitman's 32 semifinalists are among 15,000 nationwide who represent the top 1 per cent of the United State's most academically talented young people," according to the National Merit Scholarship Corporation of Evanston, Ill.

The students are selected on the basis of a 100-minute multiple-choice test in English and mathematics given to 1 million high school juniors in the fall of 1976.

The National Merit Scholarship Corporation in the preamble to last Wednesday's announcement of the semifinalists, strongly urged parents and educators not to draw conclusions about the quality of their school from the number of semifinalists that attend the school.

"Comparisons based on such data are unsound and may lead to erroneous conclusions harmful to schools and students alike," the announcement of the semifinalists warned. " . . . It is the individual who is recognized for outstanding performance."

The announcement added that several sociological factors - for example the "level of the community's support for its schools." - influence the number of semifinalists at any one school. But the tests do identify exceptional students and show where they go to school.

Besides Whitman, five other public schools in the metropolitan area had 10 or more Merit scholarship semifinalists.

They are Langley in McLean (13); Yorktown in Arlington (10); Annandale, in Fairfax (10); Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Montgomery County (12) and Winston Churchill High School, in Potomac (11).

T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax and McLean High School, had nine semifinalists each.

Sidwell Friends, a private Quaker school in the District led both public and private schools in the city with 12 semifinalists.

Wodrow Wilson High School, which has produced all but one of the District's public schools merit semifinalists since 1970 had five semifinalists.

The city public schools had only one other semifinalist, a student from the School Without Walls.

The city's private schools produced 47 semifinalists with St. Albans (7) and Georgetown Day School (6) following behind Sidwell Friends. Private schools in the District produced nearly 8 times as many semifinalists as the city's public schools although four times as many students attend city public schools.

If the semifinalists in the Merit Scholarship program advance to the finalist competition, as 90 per cent are expected to, they will be eligible for three types of college scholarships that could give them $1,500 or more during their four years of college.

To become a finalist the semifinalists must meet further requirements, such as getting recommendations from their high school principals and equalling the high scores they achieved on their first merit scholarship test in a second examination.

In the Maryland suburbs, Montgomery Conty, with areawide leader Whitman High School, dominated the merit competition. Only seven schools from Prince Georges County had finalists with High Point High School topping the list with six semifinalists. Seneca Valley High School had five.

Private schools in the Maryland suburbs were in close competition for the highest number of semifinalists. Stone Ridge C.D.S. - Sacred Heart had six; London School for Boys had five as did Holton-Arms School.

In the Virginia suburbs, Fairfax County led the competition for merit semifinalists. All three of the schools in the Virginia suburbs with more than 10 semifinalists were in Fairfax.

The number of semifinalists chosen in any one area of the country is proportionate to the size of the area's senior class. All 50 states and the District of Columbia have different quotas and although the same test is taken by students in every school district in the country the minimum qualifying scores differ from area to area.

This year the District, with a minimum qualifying score of 200 led the nation in having the highest minimum qualifying score, along with several other states. The lowest qualifying score in Maryland was 198 and in Virginia it was 196.

A spokesman for the National Merit Scholarship Corporation would not disclose the names of the schools with the top number of semifinalists but a review of the list of schools with semifinalists showed that Stuyvesant High School in New York City had 57 semifinalists.

A list of area semifinalists will appear in next week's Weekly section of The Washington Post.