Elizabeth Burris, a 20-year-old junior at George Mason University, sat cross-legged on the wooden bench in front of her dormitory and patiently polished her nails.

"I lived off campus for awhile but it was too difficult to meet people," Burris said. "But when you're eating and living with them, the difference is like night and day."

Indeed, the differences between the 1,450 students who are housed in the university's on-campus residences and their approximately 16,000 commuter counterparts extend beyond group dining and communal living.

The students who choose to live in the cramped quarters of a dormitory room instead of a spacious off-campus house or even at home tend to be a hard-working, pragmatic bunch who would rather pursue their professional goals than the college social scene.

Gary Stewart, a sophomore from the Virginia Beach, Va., area, came to the university for its proximity to the District's business community. "I want to go into business and D.C. is one of the best areas for that," he said.

Stewart said he and his roommates sometimes spend Friday or Saturday nights food shopping or just walking around the area's shopping malls. He said the selection of night spots in Fairfax City, located to the north of the university, is limited and that dating is difficult without access to a car.

"But living on campus lets you be on your own. You have to know when to work and when to go out," he said. "You know, you can arrange your own life."

Sophomore Amanda Shirley, from Centreville, said she relishes the calm that ordinarily prevails in the dorms and around campus on weekends.

"I'm so busy studying during the week that when weekends come I don't want to do anything," she said.

Donald J. Mash, vice president for administration, said today's students are pouring their energies and time into securing lucrative careers.

"These are good, savvy students. They are fairly pragmatic and goal-oriented," Mash said. "They're interested in a career and things like 'What will I be doing, how much money will I make?' "

Julie Dugas, a sophomore from Newport News, Va., said she is comfortable with the quiet, intellectual environment that the campus life style offers.

"There's not always pressure to be going out," Dugas said. "And besides, we're here to study, not to go to parties."

But even the most serious students take time out to socialize.

Every Thursday night -- Ladies Night -- more than half the resident population gathers in the basement of one of the two student union buildings for a huge party.

Adrian Hodge, president of George Mason's student government, said sometimes nearly 800 people come to hear a rock band and shake off the pressures of exams and research papers.

He said the student government association also sponsors free Friday afternoon concerts or other events in one of the student union buildings.

Hodge said more campus residents are attending the university-sponsored events than ever before.

"The university used to be thought of as just a commuter school with little student involvement in any extracurricular activity," Hodge said. "Now I don't see anything but optimism in the perception of the school as a university. I'm very optimistic about the future of the student life here as well."

Joe Green, a senior from nearby Burke, said campus social life has come a long way since his freshman year.

"About 100 people used to go to Ladies Night . . . now there's "About 100 people used to go to Ladies Night . . . now there's a lot of activity on campus and people are taking more pride in the school." -- senior Joe Green a lot of activity on campus and people are taking more pride in the school," he said.

Green, who is also a resident advisor in the Dominion dormitory, said there are usually weekend parties in the dorms or at a nearby fraternity house.

"We have everything here . . . there's really no reason to look to the bars for a social life ," he said.

Green said he would like to see the university provide students with more on-campus amenities such as a full-service bank, a drug store, a post office or a 24-hour snack shop.

"It would be nice to have a place open all night where you could go out and get a snack," he said. "But Fairfax City doesn't depend on us for anything and every place there shuts down early."

Mash said the university does have plans to open a "mini-mall" in Student Union Building I to "try to develop more of a life on campus." He said the mall will have a book store annex, a bank and a coffee counter, among others.

Beside having the convenience of campus parties and concerts, residents do not have to worry about the commuter headaches of traffic or packed parking lots.

Shirley said the student parking space shortage was all it took to convince her to pack her bags and leave home.

"If you don't get here by 9 a.m. you have to park about two miles away," she said. "You couldn't pay me to try and find a place to park here."

Shirley said most of the commuters have to go the library or the campus pub between classes and do not have the luxury of being able to go back to a dorm room to nap or eat in their spare time.

"We're very laid-back here," she said.