What is life?

High school students have been pondering that question for centuries, but yesterday it was multiple choice. "Life," according to the biology segment of a Northern Virginia academic competition held at the Arlington Career Center on Walter Reed Drive, "may be described as a system which uses energy to maintain: a. Order. b. Protein configuration. c. A high ADP concentration. d. A random distribution equal to the external environment. e. None of the above."

Life (the answer is a.--order) is a lot tricker for teen-agers today. The 90 students, representing nine high schools from Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun counties, matched wits in chemistry, physics, math, engineering graphics, engineering calculations, English and biology. Next year, reflecting the nationwide boom in computer literacy courses, a test in basic programming probably will be added. Each school competes in English, math, chemistry and three electives; each student may compete in two fields.

Yesterday's competition was the last of three regional Virginia meets sponsored by the nonprofit Junior Engineering Technical Society (JETS), which recognizes outstanding individual and team scores across the country.

"This is the only well-rounded academic competition," said JETS state coordinator Pamela Kurstedt, director of enrichment programs for Virginia Tech's College of Engineering. "You have science fairs, and composition contests . . . but the school that wins this has to be good in everything."

Three high schools in the state will be recognized, and individuals in each category. National winners will be honored at a banquet in Dallas in May.

Although Kurstedt described the Northern Virginia students as "much more aggressive" than Tidewater kids, she called them "incredibly laid-back" about the tests, especially compared to their coaches.

Karen Visscher, a big-boned, Christie Brinkley-type who is a senior at George Mason High in Falls Church, said she relied on "educated guesses" in the chemistry test. "I'm not into pressure. You know, there were kids cramming and all, but I just do the best that I can."

Mark Silberman of Loudoun County described the tests as good practice. Silberman will take another physics exam Monday night in hopes of getting a summer job with E-Systems, an electronics and defense contractor.

The tests also pinpointed weak spots. "There was a lot of stuff about electricity we haven't gotten into," said Langley High senior Barnaby Nygren, who looks like the Harvard freshman he will be--tall and thin, with thick curly hair, glasses and one earring.

"I had a little trouble with the English test," said Becky Architzel, a Loudoun County High School junior whose short, un-Southern vowels reflect nine years spent in England. "They didn't teach much grammar over there."

Kurstedt said that the contest provides another benefit besides the challenge to students. "If we do this every year, like Illinois and Texas do, we might be able to provide schools with information showing some strengths and weaknesses," she said.

At the end of the afternoon, it was South Lakes High of Reston "by a huge margin," according to Kurstedt. Douglas Davidson of Langley "blew away" the individual competition, placing first in both English (scoring 98.5 out of a possible 100) and math (24.5 of 26).