Parents who spend a bundle of money to send a son or daughter to college are finding, to their sorrow, that simply applying to college can be extremely expensive, too.

The admissions process has become so competitive that families sometimes spend thousands of dollars just to make sure young Joe attends the "right" school in the first place.To be sure, high school seniors of-ten apply to only one or two colleges, usually close to home, and thereby spare themselves the hassle of submitting multiple applications.

But the trend is in the other direction.

The game now is to apply to as many elite schools as possible on the theory that the best college you can get into is the one where you should enroll. It's as though your future will evaporate unless you're accepted by Stanford or Yale.

The tendency is to equate cost with credentials. If it's expensive, and selective, it must be good.

This approach costs money - hundreds of dollars in application fees, hundreds in coaching fees for the dreaded Scholastic Aptitude Test, hundreds for a private admissions consultant, thousands to visit six or eight college campuses in far-flung corners of the nation.

"Students are convinced that the only colleges worth applying to are those that are most likely to reject them," says Eric Schurenberg, who investigated the admissions race for Money magazine.

The magazine found one young woman in California who spent $4,675 just to prep for the SAT, hire a consultant, apply to colleges and look at colleges. That's before spending a dime on tuition, books, room and board.

So hectic has this process become that Collegiate Research Services, an Arlington, Va., firm, is surveying high school students to create a national database of potential applicants to be made available to colleges and technical schools for a fee.

The idea is to match the talents and aspirations of students with the appropriate institution of higher education - something that doesn't always happen today.

The reason for all this maneuvering is that attracting students has become a major industry, not just an armchair operation run by a tweedy fellow who knows the new students by their first names.

Admissions offices are spending tens of thousands of dollars on mass mailings, multicolor brochures and video sales pitches. Some schools are spending millions on elegant fitness centers. Who would go to a college with a musty old gym?

These expenses are bound to show up somewhere, and the most logical "somewhere" is the rising cost of a college education.

The unpardonable sin, in a competitive market, is to stand still and pinch pennies while your sister schools are upscaling themselves.

That may help explain why college tuition has been increasing at twice the inflation rate during the 1980s.

"We are a dynamic place, where exciting things are happening," said the president of Middlebury College in announcing in March that Middle-bury would cost $19,000 next year.

The excitement at Middlebury - which receives 4,000 applications for 500 openings - will cost 11.7 percent more than it cost in 1988-89.

Rather than apply to eight "dynamic" places, high school students might be smarter to apply to three or four, and make sure two of them are colleges where they have a reasonable chance of getting in.