It is misleading to suggest, as William Raspberry did in his Aug. 30 op-ed column, that affirmative action as practiced in the American university admissions process is "a subtle thumb on the scale to help those whose circumstances have given them few advantages."

In fact, as the excellent Washington Post series on the University of California at Berkeley at the time of the debate on Proposition 209 illustrated, the preferences typically accorded to affirmative action beneficiaries in university admissions at elite schools are often large -- 100 points or more in SAT scores and half a point in grade average. This is hardly a "subtle thumb"; a "heavy hand" would be a more accurate description.

Moreover, the preferences are typically given even to applicants from designated racial or ethnic groups who have had every social and economic advantage, not just to those "whose circumstances have given them few advantages."

Mr. Raspberry would have his readers believe that he does not support affirmative action as a matter of group advantage but as a matter of principle. But until Mr. Raspberry advocates a system that does not give preferences to students from designated minority groups who are by any objective measure privileged and that does give preferences to members of any ethnic or racial group if their individual circumstances warrant it, one can only be skeptical.

CHARLES ZUCKERMAN

Arlington