The anguish over transcripts. The tell-us-about-yourself essays. The SAT cram courses. Applying to college can be a painful process.

Thousands of Fairfax County high school students had a chance Sunday evening to allay some of those fears and ask questions at Northern Virginia's largest college fair.

Nancy Medis, coordinator of guidance services for Fairfax County Schools, estimated that 9,000 students and parents crowded into the Tysons Corner Center for the 12th annual event, which was sponsored by the Fairfax County Public Schools.

More than 300 colleges, many drawn by the students' reputation for high Scholastic Aptitude Test scores, were represented at long tables that stretched down the shopping mall's hallways, past bright-green potted plants, past Hecht's and The Limited.

"It's a good way for them to get information on a lot of schools, large and small," said Chip Lamade, an assistant admissions director at Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pa.

"I just hope I have enough pamphlets," said Ron Greene, chairman of Harvard University's Northern Virginia Schools and Scholarships Committee.

"Am I expecting a crowd?" repeated Tim Rice, an associate admissions director at Limestone College in Gaffney, S.C. "Yeah: mobs. I did this program last year, and it was just wall-to-wall people."

Michelle Naylon, a 16-year-old senior from Herndon High, came to scout colleges offering courses in business or political science.

"I'm taking a SAT class every Sunday now, from 1 to 5:30 p.m.," she said. "It's for 10 weeks. It's a drag."

Naylon looked anxiously around the mall, at the groups of students in jeans and sweaters.

"You see them all here and you say, 'God, what if they're applying where I'm applying.' "

Stephanie Monroe, 15, is only a sophomore at Lake Braddock High School, but came to get an early start on the application process.

"It's more like we're feeling them out," said her mother, Darlene. "We don't want to have any last-minute decision-making."

Amber Ahmed, a 20-year-old sophomore at Longwood College in Farmville, Va., was looking for a school to which she might transfer.

Her parents are moving to North Carolina, Ahmed said, and if she can find a college there she won't have to pay out-of-state tuition.

Elva and Gerald Weigle came to college-shop for their 17-year-old son, Kurt, who they explained was ill at home.

The display for Hollins College in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley attracted them, with its pictures of dark mountains and white verandahs.

Weigle reached for a brochure.

"You don't want that," said Josh Wheeler, the college's assistant director of admissions.

Weigle looked at him.

"You really don't want it," Wheeler said. "It's a girls' school."

"Uh-oh," said Weigle. "No wonder I never heard of it."