Officials at Florida State University here are perturbed, and no one can really blame them. After stocking their faculty with Nobel Prize winners and their dorms with National Merit Scholars, after leading the nation in football and doubling the honors program, there's still one thing everyone seems to remember:

This is the nation's No. 1 party school.

That, at least, is what it says in the Princeton Review, published by a New York firm, not affiliated with Princeton University, that produces college guides and test-help books. Each year in August, the review releases its admittedly unscientific rankings of U.S. colleges and campus life, just in time for the new fall term and a wash of publicity as students return. Since FSU was similarly dishonored in 1996, this time, school officials were ready.

"We're going on the offensive this year with our 1999 Golden Gargoyle Award for the most manipulative, bogus research," said FSU President Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte at a light-hearted news conference last week, displaying a gold frog-like figure as the trophy.

But in this era of substance-abuse awareness, when riotous living is no longer quite so admired, being labeled a party school is no picnic. To what extent it is accurate is practically impossible to say--some students say the tag is exaggerated, others say it's a perfect fit--but the image certainly sticks.

"When I told my father FSU was the school I wanted to go to, one of his friends said, 'Oh geez, I sent my son down there, and haven't heard from him since,' " said Jim Lafferty, a sophomore film-production major who works at Sloppy Joe's, one of the favored student hangouts.

He, for one, feels the ranking is richly deserved. "You betcha. On Friday night, it's insanely busy. My friends say, 'How can you work here?' You can hardly walk, there are so many people. The servers stay till 4 o'clock in the morning cleaning up. It's a madhouse."

Others do not see what all the fuss is about. "I don't think it's that big a party town, where loads of people are running around," said Betty Rose, a junior accounting major. "Not any more than any other college."

FSU, which has 30,000 students, is a compact, pretty campus with trees draped in Spanish moss, within walking distance of the state capitol and a host of student-friendly bars. Its alumni include actor Burt Reynolds, who may have seen his share of parties, and the staid governor of Maryland, Parris N. Glendening, who probably has not.

As classes began yesterday, students were looking forward to another exciting football season (FSU maintained its No. 1 ranking after beating Louisiana Tech Saturday), and Sgt. David Hendry of the Tallahassee police department is cranking up his special overtime team of six to 10 officers who, since 1995, have responded to citizen complaints about raucous off-campus parties. It is called "the party patrol."

"A group of neighborhood organizations was telling us, 'We're tired of waking up to parties,' " said Hendry, about the operation that lasts 14 weekends during the fall. "It was a clash of lifestyles, young kids partying til 3 or 4 in the morning. We're not here to close the parties down, we just want them to be responsible parties."

How FSU got this designation is a matter of some controversy to college officials, who wonder how a firm that admits to last visiting the school three years ago could arrive at such an absolute. Evan Schnittman, vice president and publisher of the Princeton Review, says the school was singled out through student surveys that ask, among other things, about alcohol and drug use, the dominance of fraternities and sororities and the amount of time spent studying.

He admits that a great deal of the information used to rank the 331 schools surveyed--and fill the 750-page guide--is anecdotal. The results are certainly debatable, highlighting, among other categories, the schools with the best campus food (College of the Atlantic, Bar Harbor, Maine); worst campus food (Oglethorpe University in Atlanta); dorms like dungeons (State University of New York at Stony Brook); and most politically right-wing atmosphere (Grove City College, Grove City, Pa.)

If FSU leapt to the top of the party-school list (closely followed by its arch rival, the University of Florida), then it was no surprise who represented the opposing philosophy, the "stone-cold sober" schools: the Mormon-led Brigham Young University in Utah.

Schnittman said he sees no reason for FSU officials to be in a snit. "I say to them they should revel in the pride in being such a great institution at the same time they are such fun to go to," he said. "It's one of the best colleges in the country, it has an unbelievable faculty, a beautiful setting. And it's warm all year long."

But school officials say it is not so easy to ignore the label, especially after they have worked so hard to address the problems of excessive drinking. The FSU Interfraternity Council, for example, in 1997 approved an alcohol ban at all open-house parties, and nine fraternities have pledged to be alcohol-free by next year. And, they ask, if FSU students are so busy chasing the next party, then how can it be that the school has the highest graduation rate of the 10 state universities in Florida?

"We like for our students to have fun--we don't want to be in the prohibition business," D'Alemberte said in an interview last week. "But it is sort of a dart board survey. In some respects, it's a consumer guide, but it's done in such a shoddy way, it misleads people."

Incoming freshman J.P. Hunter, an aspiring accountant, said he knew full well the school's reputation when he decided to come here. He doubts, however, that he will be tempted to stray.

"My parents have a lot of faith in me, and I've got to work. Besides," he said, "I'm not much of a partyer anyway."

Campus Life

A Princeton Review student survey ranked these colleges as the top "party" or "stone-cold sober" schools, based on questions about alcohol and drug use, hours of study each day and popularity of the Greek system.

Party schools

1. Florida State University

2. University of Florida

3. Michigan State University

4. Seton Hall University

5. University of Mississippi

6. University of Montana

7. University of Alabama-Tuscaloosa

8. Sonoma State University

9. Washington State University

10. University of Georgia

Sober schools

1. Brigham Young University

2. Wheaton College (Ill.)

3. California Institute of Technology

4. U.S. Coast Guard Academy

5. U.S. Naval Academy

6. Bryn Mawr College

7. Wellesley College

8. Mount Holyoke College

9. Calvin College

10. College of the Ozarks