If the students had been wearing three-piece suits instead of jeans and Van Halen T-shirts, the scene at the University of Maryland armory yesterday might have been mistaken for a panic at the New York Stock Exchange.

The armory resonated with sustained Niagara-like roaring. The floor was ankle-deep with ripped-up drop-add forms and course schedules. Lines that rivaled queues outside moviehouses showing E.T. snaked back from signposts bearing such cryptic messages as "BCHM 601-899; All RTUF courses except RTUF 22 require proof of prerequisites."

Waiting in the physics line, junior Bruce Beeler recalled, "You always see fights, crying girls, and vultures going around looking for people to drop their courses."

Another peaceful semester of academic life, far from the hubbub of the workaday world, has begun.

Any notion that a college campus is a quiet idyll of scholarship and contemplation are quickly dispelled at the College Park campus where over the past two days a good part of an expected 37,000 students have been scrambling, wheedling and weeping their way through an annual autumn ordeal known as Registration.

Registration at the University of Maryland is enough to make you quit school.

As Pancho Hobbes puts it, this purgatorial ritual of lines and forms and frustration "teaches you to cheat, steal, lie and butt in line -- qualities that will serve you well off campus."

As a recent university graduate and an employe of the registrar's office, Hobbes knows whereof he speaks. Posted at the rear exit of the armory, he has for the past two days heard all sorts of students explaining why they should be admitted through the back door rather than wait their turn and enter through the front, including a woman who argued that her grandmother had just died.

Maryland students sometimes feel driven to desperate lengths to get inside Reckord Armory during registration because their success inside affects their happiness for the rest of the semester. The preferred courses, preferred teachers and schedules, disappear first.

Even getting inside is only half the battle. Students can wait as much as two hours just to be told a course they wanted is already booked solid. So registration itself is part of a college education, as much of a hurdle as getting into a fraternity or passing final exams.

"Registration calls on different abilities than final exams," said John Beeler, a tow-headed sophomore with paint-spattered glasses who was waiting in a line hoping to get into Physics 263 A. "It calls on patience and ingenuity. There are guys who have a whole system figured out."

When patience and ingenuity fail, there is the recourse of Earl Warrington who had stepped out of the armory briefly but was still trying to help his brother John, who was "stuck in the longest line I've ever seen. Well," Earl quipped, "it's back to the armory to kill someone."

University officials concede registration is not a student's most pleasant experience, but they say that lean budgets have prevented them from getting the computers that might expedite the process.

From 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., bullhorns summoned students according to an alphabetized schedule.

Inside, the impression is of having stumbled into a giant board game full of gates, checkpoints and admonitions such as "Students who are to receive financial aid must first stop at financial aid before going to Station 2. All others go directly to station 2." Students sit in the litter of torn-up forms, scribbling out course numbers. Some, it is said, have offered bribes to registrars in the course of the day.

Even the ubiquitous lines have their own character, depending on the subject. The physics line was full of logical-looking faces; the faces in the English line looked earnest; many of those waiting for theatre courses had some fey aspect; and most freshman, no matter where they stood, looked piteous.

One who did not was Britt Angle. "I had three older brothers and a sister who went to Maryland, so I was prepared," she said. "My sister cried her first year. She was a mess. She didn't get any of her courses. She called up my mother."

Pancho Hobbes, likening himself to Janus the gatekeeper, waxed reflective and found some virtue in a generally loathed system: "This is such a large, diverse, schizmatic campus," he said. "There are only 8,000 students who live on campus. Most people commute. This is the one experience all Terrapins have in common, two days of tribulation and headache. It brings everyone together."

Then the discouraged face of Clyde Straughn appeared. "It's no use back there," he whimpered. "All the courses I want are totally closed; can I get out through this door?"

Hobbes shook his head yes and Straughn gratefully exited. "I can tell an honest face," he said.