RATING THE QUALITY of colleges and universities is, at best, an imprecise science. But by even the most generous standard the judgments of the "Selective Guide to Colleges," published by The New York Times, will strike many readers here as eccentric.

Cheerfully describing itself as "a buyer's guide to a buyer's market," it is engaged in the honorable and useful enterprise of giving high school seniors some idea of what might come next. Most of its information seems to come from students, and it would be rash to challenge students' views of student life. But the comments on academic standing are another matter--particularly in this city, with the enormous importance that it puts on academic credentials.

The guide's comparison of the academic capacities of the local universities, as they were reprinted in this newspaper a few days ago, contained two obvious injustices. The dormitory food at George Washington University may be no better than the "Selective Guide" suggests--dormitory food is rarely better than anyone suggests. But to say that the quality of teaching is lower than at the city's other universities is absurd. Perhaps GW got the lower rating because its students are more critical and more demanding than those at some of the other places. That's the trouble with basing academic ratings on the judgments of students who, after all, usually know only their own schools.

The very high score given, deservedly, to the University of Virginia is gratifying. But there's not much difference between the academic level there and at the University of Maryland. It's a fair generalization that Virginia is superior in the fields of literature and the humanities. Maryland is much stronger in the sciences and engineering. Perhaps the students who took part in this project were not as well informed on the physics and engineering departments as on English and history.

In its descriptions of campus atmosphere and living arrangements, much in this fat gray book rings quite true. But on the central issue of academic quality, it would be a pity if prospective students were misled by ratings that, in the cases of GW and Maryland, are simply wrong.