For years, the College of William and Mary relied on a loosely crafted rating system to help wade through the annual flood of 8,000 or so freshman applications. A valedictorian with a glowing record of community service might have earned a "1," while a less stellar student with strong SATs drew a "3." At the bottom of the pile were the hapless "9s."

The numbers were never used to determine who got into the competitive state school in Williamsburg, officials say, but were simply a helpful framework for discussing the multitude of worthy students.

Yet by the late 1990s, William and Mary quietly stopped rating its applicants. New battles over affirmative action were brewing across the country, and the targets were public colleges whose formula-based approach to admissions gave a demonstrable edge to minority applicants. It didn't matter that William and Mary's system never used a student's race or ethnicity to calculate a score. No one wanted to risk becoming the next target.

As the Supreme Court prepares to hear a challenge to race-conscious admissions at the University of Michigan, the internal maneuverings at William and Mary point to a gap between the words and actions of many elite colleges. Even as they assert their right to continue considering the ethnicity of applicants in the pursuit of diversity, several schools have subtly changed the way they make those decisions in an effort to stay beneath the radar of affirmative-action foes.

The University of Virginia dropped a rating system with vague echoes of the controversial Michigan program. Georgetown University eliminated a committee that gave a second reading to applications from minority candidates. Other colleges are careful not to even highlight a student's race when summarizing an application.

"It wasn't a matter of worrying we were doing something wrong," said Karen Cottrell, William and Mary's associate provost for enrollment, noting that the school still considers ethnicity in a larger "holistic evaluation" of an applicant. "We didn't want to create an impression we knew wasn't true."

But even the most cautiously crafted programs could be thrown into upheaval if the Supreme Court rules against Michigan, educators say. Although it is possible that a ruling could be narrowly aimed at Michigan's race-factoring point system, many observers believe it is more likely that the court would address the larger issue of whether race can be a factor in admissions at all. If the decision was no, it could force many institutions, public and private, to overhaul their programs and abandon long-running efforts to bring a more diverse mix to campus.

"It would hurt," said Barbara Gill, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Maryland. "It would challenge us to do a bunch of things differently."

For the most part, college officials across the country say they have not developed contingency plans. One area school, though, appears to have taken what could be a preemptive step: The governing board of Virginia Tech on Monday approved a resolution stating that the university can neither "grant preferences in favor of" nor "weigh or consider" an applicant's race in admissions decisions.

It was unclear yesterday what impact the resolution would have on Virginia Tech's admissions program.

"I'm not sure how it differs from current practices," spokesman Larry Hincker said, noting that the school has never used a formula-based admissions system. "The administration will be reviewing to see if we're in compliance."

The Supreme Court is to hear arguments April 1 on the lawsuits filed by three students who were rejected from Michigan's undergraduate and law schools with grades and test scores they maintain would have been considered adequate for minority students.

Colleges have long asserted that the Supreme Court's divided and ambiguous 1978 University of California v. Bakke ruling granted them the right to use race as one of many factors in deciding which students to admit. They defend the practice as a matter of academic freedom, arguing that diverse campuses enhance the educational experience for all students. Critics, though, argue that such programs violate the constitutional ban on racial discrimination by the states.

The debate often is cast as one with wide-ranging implications for higher education. But many believe the most immediate effect of a ruling against Michigan would be limited to the relatively small number of highly competitive U.S. colleges -- as few as 10 percent of all four-year institutions -- that turn away more students than they accept.

The elite schools receive more applications from students with stratospheric grades and test scores than they have room for. Since black and Latino students apply to college in smaller numbers than Asians and non-Hispanic whites, and on average score lower on tests such as the SAT, these colleges in some cases end up granting entry to minority applicants with lower scores than the white students they may turn away.

The schools experienced their first jolt in 1996, a year before the landmark suit against Michigan, when federal courts declared that the University of Texas law school could not use diversity to justify considering race.

Texas and Michigan used highly mechanical systems to process their huge number of applications -- Michigan granted "underrepresented minorities" a 20-point bonus on a 150-point scale of grades and achievements; Texas assessed white and minority candidates on separate tracks, with a lower cutoff for minority test scores -- that made it evident to outside observers exactly how much advantage was granted to minorities.

Other colleges across the country quickly moved to review their admissions policies for similar "smoking guns," as one admissions dean put it, that might pose a tantalizing target for the next big lawsuit.

Many elite schools believed they were mostly safe since their admissions programs were never as blunt as Michigan's. Although officials at William and Mary had long considered an applicant's race, Cottrell said they never reduced it to numbers. Admissions staff would simply take mental note of ethnic background during a "full-file" reading of a student's application, along with factors such as personal initiative and unusual talents, she said.

"It's all wrapped up for us in the personal side of the application process," Cottrell said. "We read each application twice or three times. Our goal for including personal qualities is to enrich each member of the class's experience by bringing together as disparate a group as we can."

Still, even schools that consider the full file were startled into making some changes -- especially Washington area colleges, whose leaders feared their proximity to national policy circles could bring them undue scrutiny. Georgetown closed down the special committee that gave an additional read to minority applications and would occasionally boost some back up to the top of the main admissions committee's pile.

In 1999, the University of Virginia dropped a numerical sorting system that granted applicants an extra point if they were nonwhite, foreign citizens or the first in their family to attend college. The system was never used to make final decisions, said admissions dean John A. Blackburn. Still, the university is careful not to codify those factors now, looking at race more informally along with additional criteria such as academic industry and personal improvement. Although the percentage of black students at U-Va. has slipped slightly in the past decade, Blackburn said the cause seems to be the increasing level of competition for getting into the school rather than any modification in the admissions system.

Only since the mid-1990s has the University of Maryland attracted enough high-caliber students that it could afford to "pick and choose" among the best, Gill said. Yet despite the school's size, it never turned to a formulaic system like Michigan's, in part because it had been warned early: In 1994, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit dismantled a blacks-only scholarship program the university had established to make up for past discrimination.

When the scholarships were reopened to students of all races, some U-Md. officials suggested using a rudimentary point system to aid faculty in reviewing applicants, Gill said. The university's lawyers said no.

"We used what we learned there to develop our full-file system," Gill said. "Race is considered a factor. It's never considered a factor by itself."

The U.S. Naval Academy, one of the most selective institutions in the country, has continued to use a formulaic "whole person multiple" -- comprising SATs, class rank, teacher recommendations and extracurricular activities, though not race -- to help officers decide which students to admit. Johns Hopkins University did a major review of its admissions system after the Texas ruling and decided its informal rating system -- in which applicants' scores for academic ability, extracurricular activities and personal attributes are plotted on a grid -- could stand up to scrutiny.

"None of it ends up in a spreadsheet, but it's not because we're afraid" of lawsuits, said William T. Conley, dean of enrollment and academic services at Johns Hopkins. "It's because they are intuitive decisions."

At the College of William and Mary, admissions official Henry Broaddus reads a file. At right is admissions counselor Paul Clay-Rooks.Associate provost Karen Cottrell counts votes on a student being considered for a program at the College of William and Mary. From left are officials Kimberly Baker, Henry Broaddus, Paul Clay-Rooks and Saskia Campbell.