Art Mullaney, riding shotgun in a beige Plymouth van heading north from Boston, turns to the seven silent recruits seated as neat as churchgoers on the three car seats behind him.
''Would you marry someone that someone else told you about? Even if the person sounded wonderful?'' The question elicits no audible response, but finally one boy shakes his head.
''No, you wouldn't,'' continues the veteran high school counselor, a grin rising to his basset-hound eyes. ''But college is like a four-year marriage. And many people make a decision about what college to attend without knowing the place. It's not always a mistake, but it might be. That's what we hope to help you avoid.''
Art Mullaney is taking the seven high school students on a one-week tour of 10 New England colleges. During the week the four boys and three girls will meet the admissions officers, eat in the dining halls, sleep in the dorms and swim in the pools of such big name schools as Dartmouth and Bowdoin, and such lesser-known institutions as St. Michael's College. They'll participate in discussions about various aspects of college admissions, receive individual criticism on rough drafts of the personal essay many colleges require, and sort out impressions of the different campuses they visit.
''That's how the name was chosen,'' says Mullaney, referring to College Impressions, the title he picked for his enterprise. ''The idea is not so much that they choose one of these schools, but that they get a clearer idea of the kind of school they're interested in, what it will take to get in, and what each one (of the students) has to offer.''
Mr. Mullaney has spent more than 30 years in high school guidance counseling, the last 16 of them at Randolph High School south of Boston. For the past five summers Mullaney has been renting vans and piling in high school seniors for his college safari.
He charges $500 per student, which covers the cost of everything except the occasional candy bar or school tee shirt. He laments a price that seems expensive; but when stacked up against the $50,000-plus price tag of many four-year, private-college educations, it sounds more like a good investment.
Of the seven students on this trip, most got word of the program through mailings. But two of the girls are making the trip on the recommendation of older brothers who've made the tour. Says Ann O'Driscoll of Abington, Mass., ''It got my brother organized and gave him a lot of confidence. I feel that's one thing I could use.''
The next day Ann speaks timidly at the outset of her first one-on-one interview at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. But by the interview's close she is demonstrating the confidence she thought she lacked. By the end of the trip, all the students are requesting individual interviews because, as one says, ''they're really a lot of fun.''
Information is plentiful during the four-state trip. Each student starts out with a canvas bag filled with publications on getting into competitive colleges, how to take the Scholastic Aptitute Test, and being prepared for the college interview. There is also an information sheet on each of the colleges to be visited.
''Don't arrive at your interview unprepared,'' says Richard Jeffers, a guidance counselor and hockey coach at Lawrence Academy. A college buddy of Mullaney's, he is one of three counselors who help with the summer trips. Jeffers adds, ''Walk around the campus, read the school newspaper, and question people you meet, especially students. Then when you go in, you'll have some intelligent questions to ask.''
These comments are made at the first of nightly sessions where the counselors probe the students' thinking on what they've seen and prepare them for what's coming up.
During subsequent sessions, Mullaney and Jeffers stress a number of points:
* ''Market your skills,'' says Mullaney. ''Remember that just about everyone applying to these schools is smart, so you have to sell them on your other talents. If you sing, send them a tape.''
* If you like a school during a summer visit, consider visiting again when the students are there.
* Unless you're absolutely sure you can gain admittance to the school you like best, apply to a variety of schools - including one or two you'd really like to attend. You might have just what that school is looking for.
* ''Be honest - in your essay and in your interview,'' notes Jeffers. ''Don't play the game of telling them what you think they want to hear. The most eloquent statement is your truthful one about yourself.''
How do college officials view an activity like College Impressions? From Colby College in Maine to Middlebury College in Vermont, admissions officers respond thumbs up.
Thomas Deveaux, associate director of admissions at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, says he's always pleased to greet the ''Mullaney group'' because the students are generally well prepared. ''It's not like some other tours that are run by parents and not professionals - that can be a problem.''
There is general agreement that high school counseling offices are not performing their jobs as well as they used to - but disagreement over why.
According to William Hiss, dean of admissions and financial aid at Bates, ''College counseling in the typical high school is endangered.'' He says counseling offices were among the first school services to be trimmed as a result of tax-cutting measures. At the same time, he says, ''The guidance counselors are being asked to fill advising roles they've never been expected to fill.''
Mr. Deveaux, at Bowdoin, notes that each year the percentage of his school's entering freshman who attended public high school is falling; it's now below 45 percent. He attributes this in part to reduced programs, such as guidance counseling, in public schools.
But according to Herbert F. Dalton, associate director of admissions at Middlebury, a study he and other admissions officers have conducted shows there have been few cutbacks in high school counseling staffs. ''We found the level of resources was the same as five years ago,'' Mr. Dalton says. ''It's more a problem of an information overload.''
He says the declining high school population is leading more colleges to send out much more information in an effort to keep up enrollments. College marketing is becoming so sophisticated, he notes, that the day is not far off when the typical application packet will include a video presentation of the school.
Mullaney says that as a high school counselor he is keenly aware of a rising tide of information from colleges eager to attract students. But he is equally sure, after helping thousands of students wade through the waters, that finding the college that best suits one's needs is well worth the effort.