Nikki McGrath says college would be easier if people would stop telling her: "Oh, you're at such a good university. You must be having the time of your life."

Last year, she tried to take her life.

It was the academic competition, the second-year University of Virginia student says, that was consuming her. The more she wanted to do well, the worse she did.

One night, after receiving two Ds, marks that would prevent her from entering the university's prestigious undergraduate business school, she swallowed every pill she could find.

"I knew I was being self-destructive," said the 19-year-old student from the town of Waynesboro in the Shenandoah Valley. "I wanted to punish myself for not doing all the work as well as I should have."

McGrath survived, but last month two of the 600 students in the university's McIntire School of Commerce did not.

In the past six weeks, three undergraduates here -- all from the Washington area -- have committed suicide, and five others have been hospitalized after attempting to kill themselves. In Washington, seven Georgetown University students attempted suicide this fall, according to university and hospital officials.

Other prestigious universities are reporting similar problems on their campuses. "Students all over the country are depressed in greater proportions than I ever remember," said Dr. Randolph Catlin, the director of Harvard University's mental health clinic.

With 16 full-time psychiatrists and psychologists, Harvard runs the largest such clinic for students in the country, and Catlin says he expects more than 2,000 undergraduate students to visit this academic year. "We're booked to full capacity this fall," he said.

Columbia University and many other schools have begun closing off the stairwells leading to dorm roofs, to prevent distraught students from jumping off school buildings. All means of self-destruction cannot be whisked away -- one Columbia student jumped from a dorm window to his death two weeks ago.

Why many of the nation's best and brightest are losing their will to live is a question troubling university health professionals, deans and professors. National figures for the number of college suicides are not available, but officials at a number of top colleges and national mental health officials warn of an increasing number of suicides, suicide attempts and chronically depressed students. These troubles may have been overshadowed by recent national attention focused on the tripling of suicides among teen-agers in the past 25 years, a problem primarily viewed as affecting high school students.

While psychiatrists and counselors are careful to point out that depression and suicide often are the result of a combination of factors, they also agree that academic pressures increasingly are becoming what one doctor here calls the "the pressure that puts students over the top."

Mental health experts point to a tighter job market, increasingly competitive undergraduate schools, the rising cost of education and a shift away from liberal arts and toward a "marketable degree," as sources of student stress. In addition, they say, many students are working under an "explosive" set of expectations -- theirs and their parents'.

"It used to be you went to school to learn and have fun," said Dr. Mary Shemo, a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia. For many, she says, it was the "happiest time of their life." But today, career ladders are not handed out with the diplomas, and landing a first job can be nerve-racking, she says, even for the most well-adjusted student.

The students themselves are troubled. After two memorial services in one week for classmates, a group of students here held a news conference demanding a two-day fall break. "I think everyone feels the most pressure between the beginning of the year and Thanksgiving," said second-year student Angela Cleveland, one of the organizers of the campaign. "The work is just nonstop. We need a day or two off in a span of 11 weeks. Otherwise, who wouldn't freak out?"

Like many other college students, Cleveland puts in 16-hour days six to seven times a week. "Everyone here is involved in an activity," said Cleveland. "Many more work part-time."

The stereotype university student "sipping beer and sitting on the lawn" has been replaced by "tired, worn-out kids that do need a break," said the university's counseling director, Dr. Thomas Gates.

So far, the university administration says, it has not been able to fit the proposed fall break into the current school calendar, but support for the student holiday is building, most recently with the backing of student health officials here.

Shemo says that university life can produce high anxiety levels.

To gain admission to the McIntire business school, a student must apply during his or her second year, knowing that chances of being accepted are only 50-50. Once in McIntire, an intense "weeding out" process begins, according to third-year student Steve Milo of Vienna.

Almost immediately, there is a flurry of resume writing and interviewing with "Big Eight" accounting firms, banks and businesses for summer internships.

"You feel like you're competing against each other because there are only so many jobs," said Milo. "It gets pretty intense." Suggestions that McIntire and other schools within the university lower their demands, however, run into immediate opposition.

"Nobody wants to reduce the standards," said William Shenkir, the McIntire dean. He has met with faculty and students to discuss the recent deaths, but he says he believes the school would be doing a disservice if it sheltered students from the stress of the "real world."

The best solution, he says, lies not in reducing stress but in teaching students to cope with it.

Gates, of the university counseling service, is troubled by the pressure on undergraduates. "If they don't get an A, they feel that they are worthless, that they have disappointed their parents and that they'll never amount to anything," he said.

Among the worst "sins" in education, he says, are the undergraduate professional schools -- Gates calls them "stress factories." They pile graduate-level workloads on 20-year-olds, and many cannot cope with the work, he says.

"At that age, students have a narrow perspective of the world," Gates said. "School is everything. When something goes wrong, it shatters everything they feel they are. They can't eat, or sleep. That's when they act impulsively."

Dr. Richard Carlson, Columbia University's director of Student Health Services, says that in addition to the stiffer competition for fewer jobs, the cost of college is adding "enormous pressure." He said: "Today kids have to do more than just an average job. They feel that they have to get an A to justify the $10,000-a-year investment."

Because so many students have to begin repaying loans nine months after graduation, Dante Germino, a government professor at University of Virginia, says there is far less demand for liberal arts courses, a curriculum that, Germino says, makes for more well-adjusted students.

"There is no more learning for learning's sake," said Germino. "Learning about Plato, Socrates and Goethe doesn't get you a job anymore." Germino says he must constantly defend literature, history and philosophy classes, especially to parents who are eager to prepare their son or daughter for a high-tech world.

What's more, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for today's college graduates to "out-succeed" their parents, no matter how well they do and what course of study they follow, said Shemo. "There are no quick fortunes to be made anymore," she said, adding that it is difficult for parents to realize that their children may not have as comfortable a life style as they have had.

"There is a growing awareness that there is going to be less for our kids," agreed Georgetown's Dean of Student Affairs William Stott. That awareness, he said, seems to be triggering an "exponential increase" in parental pressure.

At one time, all students had a faculty mentor, Shenkir says, someone they could bring their ideas to and get feedback from. At most prestigious universities today, professors are under their own pressure to research and publish if they want to gain tenure.

"We are going to have to make a decision about freeing up faculty members for the students, said Shenkir. "It's the brightest kids that often need the professor the most. They can't find all the answers in the text."

If there is a preventive measure for college suicide, university health director Dr. Richard Keeling says, it rests with the faculty. They are the ones who have access to the kids, he says, and they are the ones who can spot depression, if they are taught the symptoms. He suggests bonuses for those professors who, for example, eat dinner, play racquetball or spend some of their spare time with students.

As he sat before a personal computer, plotting international airline flight routes, fourth-year business student Rick Smith, 21, turned away from a screen filled with numbers. Since the death of two classmates, he said, "I'm trying not to get to caught up in the work.

"It's scary. You thought those two guys had it all together," he said.

Smith said he always understood why there was so much work: "We're the cream of the cream. We're expected to stay on top." Now though, he said, he would not mind a lighter workload. It would be nice, he said, " . . . if someday I could look back and say, 'Yeah, I did have a good time.'