Tom, a high school senior from a western state, had taken tough college prep courses and his grades ranked him in the top 3 percent of his class.

He was class president, president of his church youth group, a debater with a slew of trophies, a varsity football player and, according to his guidance counselor, a pianist who had composed a concerto.

"Did he win the Walk on Water Award too?" joked one committee member as Georgetown University's associate admissions director David Cuttino read off Tom's accomplishments.

Yet Tom, whose file the six-member admissions committee was reading as they sat around a long table in late March, was not a shoo-in to joint Georgetown's freshman class next fall. His College Board scores were just a shade under 600 -- high for students around the country but below-average for Georgetown -- and Tom hadn't studied a foreign language.

The story of how Tom was granted the privilege of attending the school is the tale of one of higher education's most crucial -- but least known -- operations: the admissions committee.

Of the 7,843 high school seniors who applied to Georgetown this spring, Tom was among 2,000 marginal cases -- those not readily accepted or rejected -- to be decided by admissions committees from Georgetown's five separate schools.

To win attention from those committees, a few of Georgetown's applicants have tried the unusual. Music students send tapes of their performances; poets offer poems, and artists forward paintings and sculpture with their applications.

Last year one woman mailed a cake. Georgetown officials say she was admitted, but the cake, which was excellet, wasn't the reason.

For Tom, however, the key to getting inside the university's prestigious Foreign Service School this year was a point system that is based half on academic records and half on nonacademic qualities, with a dose of intuition and some politics, in the sense of a political leader trying to balance a slate.

Members of the foreign service admissions committee seemed most impressed by Tom's nonacademic side, giving him a bonus point for coming from a distant state and others for enterprise -- raising 33 tons of cherries on a rented farm. "He's going to sell the School of Foreign Service if we let that fellow in here," one committee member complained. "He should go straight into business school and become a millionarie."

But another committee member rejoined:

"Everything he's really turned his hand to, he's done well. My feeling is that he's worth the risk."

The committee, two of whose members are Georgetown students, agreed, voting one-by-one and giving Tom more than the needed points for admission.

"I wonder if we'll get him," someone at the table remarked before they moved on to the next case -- a girl from a private school in Atlanta with high grades and test scores by an essay that committee members thought was hackneyed and a low rating from an alumni interviewer.

The committee gave her a relatively low score -- too low, she learned this week, to be admitted. The cutoff is about 40 points.

Unlike most of America's 3,100 institutions of higher education, which are not highly selective, the competition at Georgetown is severe. The number of applicants has risen by almost 80 percent in the past decade, while the chances of being accepted there have declined -- from 57 percent in 1971 to 30 percent this spring.

This is the week of reckoning. Only about 2,350 students will get good news, receiving thick letters that ask them to reply by May 1. The university expects about 1,220 (about 52 percent) to say "yes" to Georgetown.

During the past three weeks, Georgetown admissions officers allowed a reporter to watch the process unfold -- to listen to meetings and look at files. They imposed the condition that the names of applicants could not be used and that certain details must be omitted, although cases could contain important elements on which decisions were based.

"It's quite a subjective process," said English professor John Yoklavich, who served on an admissions committee this year. "I think we are kidding ourselves if we say we are exercising scientific judgment. But we try to be reasonable. We want students who are intelligent. But that's not all. We want interesting people . . .

"We're looking for a little color, a little promise, a little orginality," he added. "We don't want them all to be the same."

Three-fourths of Georgetown's applicants never make it to the admission committees. They are either turned down or accepted outright based on a mathematical index, calculated from class rank, admissions test scores, and the competitive standings of different high schools.

Even in the groups of "likely accepts" and "likely rejects," however, every application is read by two admissions officers. They pick out several hundred low-scores for a second chance before the committees.

They also "pull down" a considerable number of high scorers who seem to have a flaw -- usually easy high school courses, unimpressive interviews with alumni or admissions officials, or poor recommendations from teachers. These also go before the admissions committees, and often don't pass muster.

"It's a very time-consuming business," Admission Director Charles Deacon said. "Most of the people in the 'likely reject' group really would be able to succeed here, and we want to take some of them. We don't just accept from the top of the list automatically."

"How can we turn down valedictorians?" Deacon asked. "Obviously, there are personal characteristics we don't like, but we don't like to talk to people about that. It hurts them [the candidates.]"

What Georgetown is more eager to talk about are its overall admission goals. The school has a goal "which we've never reached" of getting blacks as 10 percent of its incoming class, Deacon said. Last year's black enrollment was about 7 percent, he said.

The university also tries for a 50-50 balance of men and women, Deacon said, even though slightly more males apply. Sex isn't considered, he said, until just before the end of the admissions process, when some males are added to a few programs and some females to others.

Although Georgetown is a Jesuit university, Deacon said no perference is given to Catholics. They now make up about 61 percent of the freshman class -- down from about 70 percent a decade ago.

The only group for which special places are set aside to athletes, Deacon said. This year there are 20 slots for athletic scholarships -- 10 for males and the same number for females in deference to federal regulations requiring equal treatment for both sexes.

The athletes are recruited by coaches, Deacon, said, and then an admissions committee must decide if they can succeed academically. If the committee approves, each of the 20 athletic scholarship holders is awarded a grant of about $7,500 a year.

After the committees rank all their candidates, they draw a line, based on the number of spaces available, as to who can get in.

Then Deacon said, the lists are rechecked to see if there are any particular candidates that someone -- including the alumni office -- feels strongly about, but who didn't make it. Alumni relatives get some preference in admissions, Deacon said. This year about half were accepted.

The committees hold a final round of meetings to decide on these special requests and to bump other applicants to make room for them.

This year the special requests who made it included a blind boy whose father is a sanitation worker, a Thai orphan, and a girl who had lived in a succession of foster homes, Deacon said. One who didn't, he said, was a boy whose father had been active in alumni groups but who had very low grades. The committee turned him down, but recommended that the boy take another year of high school work, and apply again next winter.

Almost all black applicants -- except those from strong middle-class backgrounds -- are marked on a computer print-out of candidates with a special "flag," the number 7.

Deacon said about 60 percent of Georgetown's black applicants are admitted even though their average college board scores are about 125 points below the average for the whole freshman class. "We think it's important to have them to add to the diversity of the college," Deacon said, "and you know, they do pretty well."

One student who was admitted had college board scores below 400 and ranked in the bottom half of his class at a boarding school. But the student, who is black, was president of his class, had 10 varsity letters, and received a glowing recommendation from the headmaster who was a Georgetown alumnus.

"He certainly didn't perfrom too well in class," Deacon remarked. "But he's an articulate, gregarious fellow. He'll make his way through here all right."