It just infuriates me when people call Holton Arms a finishing school. We are a begining school . . . .

"There's a whole new world out there for women, and that's what we're preparing our students for."

-- Mary Jane Puckett, Assistant Head, Holton Arms School.

One morning early last winter, Robert Tupper told his history students at Holton Arms School in Bethesda to think for a moment about the world out there awaiting them. Imagine, he said, that you have had a fight with your parents and you don't plan to return home for at least two years. You have the clothes on your back, nothing more. Draw up a monthly budget, Tupper directed, that will allow you to survive.

After about half an hour of scratching and erasing, the students at the all-girls school handed Tupper their papers.

One student estimated she needed $3,000 a month. Among her needs was an apartment in the Watergate with a view of the Potomac, steak several nights a week, cars and clothes.

That was the highest budget for the class. The lowest monthly budget ran $125 a month. The student would share a one-room apartment with about 13 people during the winter and sleep in a tent the rest of the year.

The average monthly budget, Tupper said, was a lofty $800, which provided for car payments, buying furniture and clothes, and renting an apartment in a well-established neighborhood.

"Most of the students here can't begin to understand what it means to be poor. How can they?" Tupper asked. "The fact that they're here is a sign that they're already on the success track. . . . If a student from Holton Arms fails, there would have had to have been a pretty positive effort made to derail themselves."

The success track runs over every manicured slope and through every corner of this wandering red brick building off River Road where 605 students are enrolled in grades 3 through 12 this year at a cost of $4,150. These are the daughters of lawyers and doctors, of developers and corporate executives. They are the daughters of ambassadors and senators, of presidential advisors and even a king -- Princess Muna Al Hussein, daughter of the king of Jordan, comes here each day with her three bodyguards.

These girls have not come to the halls of Holton Arms to be "finished" -- the polish is already there. They're not looking for the American Dream -- they were born with it. The Holton Arms student is looking for something different -- the gilding of a birthright.

"It's all laid out for them," said admissions director Noel Vitt. "Their parents have reached a certain level of success, now it's their turn to take it one step farther."

Founded in 1901 by Jessie Holton and Carolyn Arms and moved from its original Northwest Washington location on S Street, the school sits proudly on 80 acres hidden from busy River Road. Neither a fence nor a guard bars admittance. Only a small gray and white sign on the lawn tells visitors they have arrived at the institution that at one time educated Jackie Onassis and Susan Ford and now is instructing Theresa Hatfield and D.D. and Jody Danforth, daughters of Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.) and Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.).

By any measure this secluded institution, flanked by weeping cherry and dogwood trees, has been a tremendous success.

* While neighboring public schools are consolidating and closing because of enrollment declines, Holton Arms cannot keep up with its needs for expansion. Already, more than $2.5 million of a $5 million building fund drive has been raised. School authorities plan to hold the enrollment at near its present level but want to expand facilities to include an indoor Olympic pool and a performing arts center. An airy new library is scheduled to open next week.

* Four times more students apply for admission than can be accepted. Many, according to admissions director Vitt, apply almost two years before admission. Students, she adds, must score a couple of grade levels above their national grade average on tests.

* National test scores rank Holton Arms among the top 5 percent of all private schools in the nation. Eight seniors have been named National Merit semi-finalists and 11 have been awarded National Merit Letters of Commendation out of a class of 62 seniors. More than 100 juniors and seniors are taking advanced placement courses, making them eligible for college credits and the average IQ of this year's senior class is 126, compared with an average of 100 for the general population. Ninety-three percent of seniors and juniors are taking math and science courses.

At Walt Whitman High School, ranked among the top 12 public high schools in the nation by Money Magazine in September, there are 32 National Merit semi-finalists and 68 Letters of Commendation out of a 565-member senior class.

* One hundred percent of the senior class goes on to four-year colleges and universities. And according to school officials, during the last six years only two girls went to junior college; all of the rest enrolled in four year colleges.

"I would never like to say anything that might be taken as denigrating public schools . . . but it's very clear that there are many things that private schools can do better," said headmaster James Lewis last week in his office. "There is a sense of accountability. Few headmasters are more than a couple of feet away from the door and most administrators teach classes. We can be selective. Our classes are smaller."

Indeed, class size and academic rigor are probably the two most often quoted reasons students give when asked why they go to Holton Arms. The average class size in Montgomery County public schools at the senior high level is 24 students. At Holton Arms the average number of students in a class is 14, and the largest has 19 students.

Course requirements, the students add, also seem tougher. The sophomore European history course begins with a reading of Machiavelli's "The Prince." Last year, a Montgomery County public high school teacher was suspended for using the text in the same grade level. The text, the school board ruled, was too difficult.

"When I came to Holton I could barely write, but I was still getting straight A's at my junior high school," said Jennifer Levine, a senior who entered Holton Arms in her sophomore year and immediately began receiving B minuses. Levine had attended Tilden Junior High School in Rockville. "I felt so behind. I was so worried about catching up.

"My major concern now? Going to college."

The student had been a good student, but not a great one. Her college admissions scores were only average. But there was a problem in addition to her scores.

Her mother had married into a prominent Washington family and her stepfather had gone to Harvard. Her stepbrothers had gone to Harvard. Her stepgrandmother had gone to Harvard.

Her mother wanted her to go to Harvard.

"The student was definitely not Harvard-bound," said college counselor Marjorie Loennig. "But she was worried that she would disappoint her mother. She'd come in here and say 'I don't want to hurt Mom.'

"I worked with that mother for more than a year. We talked on the phone all the time. I needed to give her the strength so that by April 15 when the acceptances at about five or six different colleges, but not Harvard, started arriving, she would be proud of her daughter.

"She called me the other day to say how happy she and her daughter were."

The daughter went to a well-established college in Ohio.

College is the thing here. People talk about it, read about it and write about it. Seniors have a seminar twice a month preparing them for college essays, exams and interviews. During a recent week, at least one college representative a day visited the Bethesda campus. And it doesn't begin there. Students are expected in their sophomore year to prepare a list of about 40 colleges they would like to attend and begin practicing for college admission exams. During their junior year, Loennig says, they pare that list down to about 15 institutions and begin visiting them.

Loennig also spends a lot of time with parents. Her counseling of the Harvard-bound mother, she said, was nothing unusual. She holds two seminars for parents during the students' junior year and meets with every parent before final applications are made.

"There is a parental paranoia sweeping this country," Loennig said. "Parents feel that if their child isn't successful that somehow they'll be left behind, that they won't get into a good college, that they won't lead a good life.

"The pressures on these students are tremendous."

"You've got to keep on top here. Because if you don't and you start falling, you're going to go all the way down. And, I'll tell you, that here there is no bottom," said senior Carolyn Cocke one afternoon in the senior lounge, formally known as the Father's Club Lounge because it once served as the Dad's meeting room. It's the senior hangout, a place where they can sit back on white couches, kick up their feet and talk.

Cocke is Vogue beautiful; straight honey blond hair, tan olive skin, cheekbones that reach to the clouds, beryl blue eyes, a body as sleek as a well-toned Siamese. She has been at Holton since the eighth grade. Her two sisters preceded her. One attended Wellesley College and Yale Graduate School, the other is a senior at Duke University. Her father has been the youngest national commander of the American Legion, chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., a U.S. delegate to the United Nations and alternate U.S. executive director of the World Bank.

"When I came here I wanted to live up to everyone's expectations. I wanted to go to a good college and get a good job. I worked hard.

"But then in about 10th grade I realized I wasn't going to go to a good college. I got an ulcer. I had headaches. Every time I took a test, it kept running through my head that I've got to go to a good college and then I couldn't think. I kept flunking things.

"Then I realized that it didn't matter whether I worked hard or not. So, I thought if I couldn't be good at being good, I'd be good at being bad," Cocke said, tears brimming her eyes. Cocke is applying to drama school at Emerson College in Massachusetts. "I've disappointed everyone."

Unlike Cocke, most students at Holton Arms say they love the school, but like Cocke they say they feel an enormous burden to excel. Grades are compared and test scores asked.

"Some days I feel like a fuse and I'm going to blow up," senior Amanda Heuer said. Heuer's father was an assistant secretary of state under former president Gerald Ford. "You feel like you're holding on to this silver platter and that you've really got to concentrate on keeping it up and not letting it fall."

Not everyone at Holton Arms was born with a silver platter or a silver spoon. Five percent of the students are on scholarship, said admissions director Vitt, and most of the students come from two-income families.

"My parents make a good salary, but we have wiped out almost all our savings," said senior Laura Farkling. Her father builds satellites at NASA and her mother recently began working as a lawyer after returning to school. "My father had to take out a loan, even, to put me and my brothers through school and college."

Vitt said Farkling's story is not unusual.

"Sure, there are a lot of wealthy families here, but wealth is by no means the criteria for admissions," she said, adding that $70,000 is given out in scholarships each year. The money, however, doesn't make the adjustment any smoother for some students.

"A lot of people have no idea what we go through," said sophomore Karen Branson, a lightly freckled black student on scholarship who transferred this year from a Catholic girls school in the District. Branson, 14, lives in Prince George's County with her father, a technical information specialist with the federal government. She rises at 5:45 a.m. to catch the bus to school and wants to be a doctor.

"I have to work hard for what I want. A lot of these girls have maids and butlers at their homes. When I go home if something has to be done, I do it."

Branson socializes with only a small group of friends at Holton, most of them black. She plays sports at the school, but said that otherwise, most of her free time is spent with her home-town friends. "There are prejudices here. They may not jump out at you. But you see them. Sometimes I feel like I'm a nobody."

Not all black students are unhappy at Holton or feel alienated by a color barrier. Karol Smith, a senior, came to Holton three years ago after trying public school in Columbia. She had attended private school in the District when she and her mother lived there.

"I love Holton. I hated public school," Smith said one morning in the school's stately reception room. Large, vibrant Persian rugs covered the parquet floor, and tapestries and a gilded mirror, a gift from the White House, hung on one side of the room. Smith, her hair tied back with a navy blue ribbon and wearing a Lacoste alligator T-shirt, was sitting under a vast Renaissance oil, across from a grand piano. She looked like an ad for Ralph Lauren.

"The first time I ever felt different about being black was when I went to public school. People asked 'What's it like being black?' " said Smith, who added that she was the only black student at Holton who did not join the Minority Awareness Club.

"I didn't want to join because it would set me apart, people already do that. But I don't see myself as different.

"I don't want my friends to do that. I had a discussion once with one of my friends here who said she would never date a black man. When I asked her what she meant, she said 'You're black, but you're not really black, Karol.'

"Maybe if I was darker I would feel differently.

"Most of my black friends ask what I'm doing at a private school. They don't understand. But my family's values are a lot different from most black families." Smith, like the overwhelming majority of the students, said she supports Ronald Reagan.

"It's kind of hard not to support Reagan here," she said.

Last fall during the presidential election, some of the biggest social events of the season were the pro-Reagan parades. Students, donning hats and signs, would sweep across some of the busier streets in the District, shouting "The time for Reagan is now." Teen-Age Republicans was formed and in a mock election, no one was surprised when Reagan won more than 90 percent of the vote.

There is no Young Democrats Club. During the mock election, Anderson got most of the votes Reagan didn't.

"There is no question about it. The party preference here is Republican. Conservative Republican," said history teacher Tupper. "Their parents are Republicans, so they are, too."

Amanda Deaver, daughter of presidential chief of staff Michael Deaver, goes to school here.

Many of the students also said they agree with Reagan's stance on the Equal Rights Amendment. They're for the "E" and the "R" but not the "A."

"If we are capable women, we will be treated equally. We don't need ERA. We can take care of ourselves," said Lora Keshishian, the former president of the school's Republican club who led many of the placard parades for Reagan. "What is ERA anyway? Just a lot of women holding signs."

History teacher Tupper attributed much of the ambivalence toward the amendment to comfort, and therefore, to the type of student Holton attracts.

"There are not a lot of Phyllis Schlafly's here, but Schlafly has made headway," he said.

"You're looking at girls who have pretty comfortable positions in life. Most of them probably don't want it, but if they want to live a traditional role and sit home and watch a $250,000 mansion, then that's fine. They don't want that option taken away.

"They have to know that that, at least, is still there."