Glynn Key's cramped room at the University of Virginia barely accommodates a bed and desk. A small fireplace helps heat the room and Key must walk along an exposed walkway to reach a bathroom.

Yet here at "Mr. Jefferson's university," the 22-year-old Chattanooga, Tenn., native's living quarters -- one of 55 rooms along "the lawn" Thomas Jefferson designed -- are the envy of most of the school's 16,800 students.

A lawn room represents a student's arrival as one of Virginia's aristocracy and, as Key puts it: "The university thrives on elitism."

Virginia, a state-supported university that some describe as a "public ivy," suddenly has become one of the most coveted colleges in the country. Any room here, be it on the lawn or in the distant graduate student housing behind the basketball stadium, has become as sought after as building sites on the Capital Beltway.

U-Vee-A, as the students call it, received a record number of undergraduate applications this year: 16,200 for 4,200 places in the freshman class, up 50 percent over five years ago. It is so popular that Fairfax County school officials are complaining that some of Northern Virginia's best students no longer can get in.

University officials deny any bias against the Washington suburbs, but they don't dispute that the school is delighted with its new-found popularity. U-Va. has held onto its party-going traditions and made academic gains as the number of potential college students shrinks nationally.

One reason: The university offers prestige for a fraction of the price of Harvard, Yale or Princeton. Out-of-state students here pay about $8,050 a year for their education including room and board, versus $15,100 at Harvard. In-state students pay approximately $4,800.

Students credit Virginia's appeal to its mix of academics, traditions and legendary social life.

"It's a fun school, yet it's a strong academic school," Key said.

It is a university whose success comes even as it bucks some trends. The liberal arts, fading elsewhere among practical-minded undergraduates, are flourishing here.

Although some worry as the school's sports teams improve, the university has resisted most of the temptations of big-time athletics, except in basketball.

And, in a world where bigger is better, it deliberately has chosen to curb its growth in an attempt to maintain a sense of community.

"It's a small enough university to have a personality," said Robert M. O'Neil, who left the University of Wisconsin last September to become the first outsider inaugurated as U-Va.'s president in more than 80 years.

But if achieving is important here, it also is important not to appear to try too hard, especially academically. A strong legacy of the university's southern origins is its relaxed atmosphere, old-fashioned courtesy and love of tradition.

"Nobody gets too riled up about anything around here," said Marie Joyce, a junior. Except, perhaps, where tradition is concerned.

Portraits of Jefferson, the university's founder, hang in nearly every building and he is quoted as often as the Bible at a religious convention. Undergraduates tend to be more conservative -- and from wealthier families -- than their counterparts nationwide.

"It is a national institution with a southern soul," said Staige D. Blackford Jr., a 1952 graduate and Rhodes scholar who edits the university's literary journal, the Virginia Quarterly Review. Virginia students account for 62 percent of undergraduates, but Jefferson insisted that his school be a national institution. The state with the second highest representation here is New York.

Virginia's reality sometimes lags behind its image. Some departments are stellar, but others hold indifferent national rankings. The school's responsibility to educate Virginians means that some students who come to Charlottesville are less well-prepared than their out-of-state counterparts, some professors say.

Minority enrollment has dropped, despite an aggressive recruiting campaign. The well-roundedness that the university seeks in its students can make everyone seem alike. And the hard drinking on fraternity row prompts women students to warn a visiting woman not to walk alone there on a Friday night.

Glynn Key, who graduates Saturday and will head for law school, has seen the number of her fellow black undergraduates drop by nearly 200 students since her sophomore year. Despite a state edict for increased minority enrollment, blacks make up only 8 percent of undergraduates, less than half their representation among Virginia high school graduates. Overall minority enrollment is 6.6 percent.

Black faculty are even scarcer, making up only 42 of 1,708 full-time professors. Only 331 are female. "One just has to keep trying," said O'Neil.

Some blacks say that the university enthusiastically recruits blacks, many of whom have lower grades and test scores than their white fellow students, and then does not help them academically. Shedrick Barber, a senior from Petersburg and the former head of the Black Student Alliance, said that 95 percent of the university's athletes graduate in four years, but that only 60 percent of black students do so.

At the same time, athletes are given so much help that coaches even peer into classrooms to make sure they are attending, Barber said.

"That kind of attention, blacks in trouble should have," he said.

Fraternity life is virtually segregated. To a university self-study committee that recently completed a massive report on virtually every aspect of life at Virginia, that separation is "of great and urgent concern." But some fraternity members reject blame.

"It's not the fraternity system, it's the university -- and I think it's getting a lot better," said Hamilton Gayden, 20, a Nashville sophomore who belongs to Kappa Sigma.

Students generally relish the university's reputation as a party school. A popular bumper sticker here shows a martini glass alongside the school's name.

"It's cool to come to class Tuesday morning with a hangover because you partied Monday night," Key said.

The fraternity mansions along tree-shaded Rugby Road are a center of social life for many, partly because of a shortage of dormitories. But the Greek system does not dominate the school as it once did, and the administration has curbed the most riotous parties.

Now, one in four students is a fraternity brother or sorority sister, and many others attend the packed, open parties at the houses. "I went to one toga party and I would have sworn it was 'Animal House,' " said Joyce, who is editor of The Cavalier Daily, a campus newspaper.

Sitting on a sunny balcony outside Kappa Sigma, overlooking a lawn littered with broken beer bottles and discarded plastic cups, several members said they had joined for the benefits of friendship.

"I decided you could be in a fraternity and still be an individual," explained Kevin Meek, 21, a senior from Arlington who said he had not intended to join.

The students who prosper and win the rooms on the lawn are not necessarily the most brilliant, although some are. The competition is intense, with 150 students applying for two dozen openings as campus guides, a job that often rates sneers at other schools.

"The emphasis is much more on activities than grades," said John Utton, a third-year student who is president of the student government and will live "on the lawn" next year.

Some question the university's penchant for the student with well-honed social skills as well as intellectual talents.

"You don't find a lot of exceptional people," Joyce said. "There tends to be a golden mean."

Key said the system produces people who sometimes seem alike.

"It's easy to stereotype the U-Va. student," Key said. And the university's self-study committee recommended that the school search for some students who possess one or two outstanding talents, but may not be "all-rounders."

The school that strives to be "all-American" also clings to its peculiarities, partly to promote the sense of belonging to an elite community. There is the language: Freshmen are "first-year students," the campus is "the grounds," and professors are not called "Doctor" but "Mister," or, less frequently, the female equivalent, in keeping with Jefferson's plain style.

Secret societies paint their names on campus walkways, and stage such stunts as charging down an auditorium aisle wearing purple robes to leave a laudatory letter for a legendary professor teaching his last class before retirement.

Thievery may have increased, but students regularly reject attempts to make major changes in the honor code, under which a student committee can expel violators. Carolyn King, 18, of Atlanta, a first-year student, had her wallet stolen from her room. But it did not shake her faith. She still kept her door unlocked when she was not there.

Academically, even though some departments lag, many of the good ones have become even better as the university's reputation has spread.

Yale-trained Edward Ayers, 33, who specializes in southern history and who is one of the university's rising stars, said that Virginia's commitment to having even its "big shots" teach undergraduates makes its education better than the Ivy League's.

"Our faculty are turning down offers from Harvard, Yale, Stanford, you name it," said English Professor Robert Kellogg. "It's a very nice place to be."