BY A BIZARRE MISCHANCE, a schoolmate of mine was once briefly held in a Mexican prison for political offenders. When he got out, he said, "Prison is just like college. You hate your roommates, the food is lousy, and you just want to get out."

In retrospect, my undergraduate years do seem a bit like a stretch in the pen. True, we had freedom to experiment with drugs, sex, politics, and staying up late. What made it seem like jail was a sense of not knowing exactly what we had done to get there or what would happen to us after we left.

That misery, I suspect, does not change much over the years, from the class that matriculated with Bonzo the Chimp to the beer-and-toga generation of today,. From the outside, college seems like a romp - a season to think, to inquire, to play and to grow . But from the inside, it is frequently a time of confusion, lethargy and barely suppressed panic.

These two books for the aspiring freshman answer every question about college but the ones that count. College Knowledge, a sprawling catalogue-cum-monologue by Michael Edelhart, (Northwestern '73), gives detailed instructions on, among other things, how to sign a lease, get a student loan, make yogurt, convert a parking meter into a bike rack and brown-nose faculty members for references:

"Get to know several of your favorite professors or top-level administrators well. Have coffee with them, visit them in their offices. Invite them over for dinner. First-rate, references can make the difference between two almost equal job candidates."

He also explains how to choose a class for "maximum grade effect":

"You need to take a course on Shakespeare.... Which one should you take? At the bookstore you find that Professor Brown wants you to buy five paperback Shakespeare plays. Professor Green requires a $20 hardcover Complete Shakespeare and a critical study of Shakespeare's work. Green's class appears more serious, possibly harder, too.... People who look at your transcript years from now won't see the books you read, all they'll see is the grade "

Maybe you thought college was a time for learning some of what is in those expensive, serious books? Nothing could be further from the truth! College is for grades and jobs; listen to Irv Brechner, author of The College Survival Kit:

"After college graduation, the cream of the crop have a better chance of obtaining quality employment or getting into graduate schools. Those who didn't place enough emphasis on academics in college usually don't obtain the positions they desire.... Once this concept is embedded in your mind, the successive steps of "more work and less play" will be easier for you to accept."

Not that today's hard-working, resume-conscious student lacks a fun-loving, artistic side - far from it. College Knowledge includes recipes for spaghetti and ratatouille, pen-and-pencil games for those infrequent study breaks, and this intriguing guide to low-cost interior decorating:

"Make photocopies of yourself. Press your face, hand, whatever, onto the glass plate of a photocopier.You'll get a weird, distorted view of yourself...distinctive, personal art for ten cents or less a shot."

Maybe it's too much to expect that nay book will address the questions that are really on college students' minds. Certainly College Knowledge for all its bulk, and The College Survival Kit despite its authoritative tone, do not even try. "Your sex life," Edelhart notes primly, "is your business." And neigher author makes a serious try at telling an 18-year-old why he or she should go in for a four-year sentence, except to warn of the bleak job market for those who don't choose easy classes and toady to their superiors.

Strange to say, I don't recall that, as a sophomore, I thought about the job market all that much. Instead, I wasted countless hours thinking in circles about questions like these: Why am I here? What are ideas and why should I care about them? Am I allowed to read a book for nothing but pleasure? And what is pleasure anyway? Is it true that other prople are pretty much like me? Is it true that everything will probably be all right?

No, say the stern taskmasters of the class of 1983. Keep your eyes on the books or you will end up with a mediocre job, no stock options and a bad pension plan.

Forget Bonzo. Forget beer, Forget Botticelli and Bacon and the Venerable Bede. They don't show on the transcript. And if life gets a little boring - if you get weary, after a cozy dinner with your accounting prof and the assistant dean of parking, just look up from your books for a minute and rest your eyes on all those photocopies of your own face, staring mournfully down from the walls of your cell. CAPTION: Illustrations 1 through 3, no caption, FROM "COLLEGE KNOWLEDGE"