Maryland's top officials of higher education are oozing with new-found optimism, having hitched their hopes of improving the University of Maryland's image onto tough new admissions standards for 1983.

By tailoring the admissions policy to the academic elite among state high school graduates, the university hopes to bring about a statistical chain reaction they say will energize some dull spots in the three-year-old higher-education master plan. That plan calls for more minority students, fewer freshmen and retention of more students who are admitted to the main campus at College Park.

They say making the university more selective will reduce the current exodus of top scholars from the state and will channel less able students to other state schools and community colleges, thus helping to overcome the university's diploma-mill reputation.

The new standards for the College Park, Baltimore County and Eastern Shore campuses -- expected to gain the approval of the university's Board of Regents later this month-- would guarantee admission only to those high school graduates who have both high grades and high scores on Scholastic Aptitude Tests. The regents' academic policy committee already has approved the proposals.

University President John S. Toll said the new admissions standards would favor those with superior high school grade averages which, according to surveys he cited, are better indicators of a student's potential success than standardized test results.

"If you are a good student, you stand a good chance to be admitted. Almost all the A-average high school students will be admitted," he said.

Under the proposed admissions criteria, students with average high school grades would have to come up with astronomically high SAT scores to assure them a place in the university's "preferred" group -- the only applicants who are guaranteed admission. A C-level high school graduate, for example, would need a combined SAT score of 1,490 out of a possible 1,600 to be guaranteed admission.

Just to win a place on the university's no-promises waiting list, a C-average high school student would need an SAT score of 1,030.

Under current policy, virtually all C-average students who score above 985 on their SATs are assured a place at one of the university's three undergraduate campuses.

The new policy would squeeze out hundreds of applicants who would have been accepted under the current standard, Toll said.

"There's no birth right to the university without solid academic credentials," said Jon E. Boone, College Park admissions director. "No one's getting into the University of Maryland by tracing Bambi."

"We feel there is an obligation to provide every student in the state with an opportunity to pursue a higher education," said Toll, "but that doesn't mean they have to start as freshmen at the University of Maryland."

Students who were turned away after the university limited admissions last year "showed up in large measure at other Maryland schools, particularly community colleges," said Sheldon Knorr, state higher education commissioner.

Knorr said there is "no question" that the tougher standards would help screen out those students most likely to contribute to College Park's high freshman drop-out rate, currently 23 percent.

And merit scholars, who leave for out-of-state colleges at an 80 percent rate, would be tempted to stay, according to Knorr, if the university became more competitive.

Knorr acknowledged, however, that the success of nearly all these aims will depend on the university's success in attracting first-rate scholars. By making admissions more exclusive, officials hope to add a kind of snob appeal that will improve the university's image.

"There are those who say, 'I didn't get accepted at Harvard or Yale so I went to Maryland,' " Knorr said. "That's not what we want.

"We want the perception that getting into the University of Maryland is difficult and it's an accomplishment just to be accepted there."

Once at the university, officials say, these top-caliber students will exert a demand-pull on the faculty to perform and on the administration to develop higher-quality programs.

Toll said the policy for accepting transfer students would remain "much more permissive" because such students' previous college records will have demonstrated their abilities.

Although the state's desegregation plan originally called for 13 to 16 percent minority enrollment at College Park, the state board accepted a 10 percent goal last month, in what Knorr called a "reality adjustment."

The current "individualized admissions" program, which can account for as much as 15 percent of a freshman class, would be retained as part of what Toll called a "commitment to affirmative action." Under that program, students whose academic records do not meet regular admissions standards are considered individually after interviews with admissions counselors