THE ART of office politics is not offered in campus lecture series. Nor are there Cliff Notes synopses on Metro commuting. And American colleges do little to prepare youth for neckties.

While they may know their Plato and calculus integrals, an annual invasion of about 17,000 interns descends on this land of memos and Xerox machines, to fill the cracks in their education with a dose of 9-to-5, Monday through Friday reality.ity.

Each summer the deal is struck. Students converge on Washington agencies and offices to do the dog work -- the mail, the background research, the endless projects. They work for free, or on the cheap, while full-timers vacation or tend more complex matters.

In return, those who can afford the luxury of a high-cost, low-pay Washington summer reap solid work experience, another line on their resumes contacts in the Washington old-boy network.

"This whole town is internsville," says Reed Kroloff a curly-haired,d, 19-year-old summer refugee from Yale working as a researcher at the Democrati Democratic National Committee.

Last summer Kroloff made several thousand dollars teaching kids to swim in the backyard of his Corpus Christi, Tex., home. His mission this summer is to compile -- gratis -- the "Democratic Fact Book" a directory published by the DNC which is an almanac of the party's doings, from finances to local campaigns, in 1980.

"I only have two more issues to go," he reported with relief in mid-summer. "But they're big ones -- health and defense." Between issues,s, he answers miscellaneous information requests, such as who gave the 1924 Democratic convention keynote speech.

In Sen. Howard Baker's office, Terri Welch spends about three hours a day insertng envelopes in a silver, breadbox - sized machine that slices off the bottoms of them in one quick chop. Welch pulls out the letters, puts them in another machine that stamps the date and time, and flings them in a box until "somebody who knows what to do with them" takes them away. "Some 519 pieces of mail yesterday," she said while seated in a tiny office alcove just a few steps away from the letter opener.

Meanwhile, Melvin Roberts, a Howard University engineering student, is trying to figure out how C&P Telephone misplaces thousands of feet of valuable cable each year. Berkeley law student Martha Cunningham is researching questions for attorneys at prestigous Covington and Burling and Wharton business student Devon MacEachron is working in the White House's managements systems operation.

Seated on the couch in her boss' spacious office MacEachron, dressed in a business suit with her hair rolled on top of her head, says she cannot discuss the details of her project, acknowledging only that it involves computers and "making the White House run more efficiently."

As their work is varied, so too are the interns' frustrations, mistakes, rewards and triumphs.

According to George Douth, director of Guidance to Resources for Interns and Pages (GRIP), "On the Hill it's wall-to-wall internships. Many of them just sit at a card table and they're not supervised properly. It's more of a merry-go round up there." But he said managementnt interns in federal agencies, many of whom serve for a year, are given high-level, challenging assignments.s.

"It all depends on the supervisor and the intern's own movtivation," says Douth. "They can just sit there or they can keep asking if there is anything they can do."

Boredom, is indeed the intern's greatest fear, and complaint.

"I can't stand being bored," says Kroloff. "When I'm bored I start to eat or bit my fingernails.

"For three days I literally had to cut up little pieces of paper and put them in piles," says Kroloff of his most horrifying intern experience. "They all had a name on them, thousands of names. I was so good at cutting them up I got promoted to being a 'coder' which meant I had to say if this person was an individual or with a firm. And then they went in little piles, pile A, pile B, pile C. It was absolutesly mindless. But everybody had to do it.

"I think I would make more of a contribution if I had something that required a little more brainpower. Let's face it, I'm in a top school. They don't need me to run Xerox machines. And I don't need to come up here to run Xerox machines for free," says Kroloff. "But that's just the nature of the (DNC research) department, it doesn't demand the most intellectual effort. It's nobody's fault."

But along with boredom, there have been moments of glory.

For the diminutive Welch who speaks with a thick Tennessee accent, it was the two weeks she worked in Baker's Minority Leader's office in the Capitol. "It was so exciting. The top-ranking 16 Republicans would comee in for meetings and we got to sit on the couch and watch them come in. I got to go into the meeting three times to take messages."

Cunningham, unlike most summer associates, was assigned directly to an actual trial which the firm won. Roberts finished his 31-page report foror C&P three weeks early.

For MacEachron, triumph came after two weeks at work when she finally hurtled past the stage of floundering about a new job.

"I was sitting up on the fourth floor which is kind of isolated," she says. "Then a secretary on the first floor, where a lot of the action is, was out for a week and I was asked to take over part of her job. Well, I did a good job and since then I've been more than kept busy. I just realized that I had to take on some responsibility myself, and I got my foot in the door."

Despite youthful inexperience, they are as a whole an articulate, savvy self-confident group.p.

When asked about on-the-job errors MacEachron immediately responded.ded, "None." Cunningham reached across her wooden desk and rapped it with her fist declaring, "Not that I know of." But Welch confessed to disconnecting phone calls: "I always seem to lose those people."

Kroloff admitted to only one blunder: "I managed to foul up a report by mispelling a word throughout the whole thing. It had to be retyped which made the report late. So this guy was off on an airplane with no report, and I'm sitting at my desk shaking my head saying 'Amendment has a single "m." I'm at Yale and I don't know how to spell amendment?'"

The relative ease with which they have adjusted to their jobs stems in part from the fact that most are veterans of the summer intern circuit. Roberts, a 22-year-old from Philadelphia has spent summers with General Motors ins in Warren, O., and with Kodak in Rochester, N.Y. Twenty-four-year-old old Cunningham, a native of Los Angeles, worked for a law firm in Center City, Calif., last summer. MacEachron, at 25, has held down jobs at the State Department, the United Nations, a law firm and a Manhattan bank. And Kroloff boasts Washington experience as a 1975 Senate page: "Ever since then I've been dying, scrambling, trying to get back to Washington."

"They're the cream of the crop," says Goerge Douth of those who bypass local intern programs for national ones. And at many schools, a summer in Washington is almost an expected ritual for rising stars to put the fine-tune on office mannerisms, not unlike a finishing school or the Grand Tour of Europe in the past.

Competition for the jobs is often fierce, MacEachron was selected from a field of 150 highly-qualified, Wharton applicants. And Kroloff, whose tie seems almost to pull his neck forward, says he remembers "pounding the pavement" here during Christmas vacation, winning offers from only the DNC and his congressman.

Welch, however, simply called the senator's office. She said her father, who happened to have been finance chairman for Baker's presidential campaign, told her who to call and "they knew I was interested and would work hard."

Among their GS supergrade colleagues, interns are often viewed as a frustrated lot. They are selected because they are bright and ambitious, but those same qualities can lead to office fireworks when an intern expects to burst into Washington making brilliant policy decisions and winds up doing the mail.

Charles Monfort, Rep. Morris Udall's (D-Ariz.) legislative aide, says that in past years interns registered "a lot of complaints about pushing paper. tBut we've taken pains to make sure they know what they're going to do."

According to Gordon Kerr, administrative assistant to Rep. Johnathan Bingham, interns in his office are told they will spend about one third of their time on "the donkey work" and the rest on legislative projects.

"There's no doubt they're doing scut work," said Kerr, "but it's easy to d find college students who are willing to do it just for a chance to be up here."fihere."

And the interns, too, say they are willing to wade patiently through their chores.

"I didn't come here with grandiose expectations, tempered in part because I had been a page," says Kroloff. "I knew I was low man on the totem pole."

During meetings to plan the law firm's approach to the trial, Cunningham says she did not speak up often. "When you're working with the caliber of people I am, I couldn't really tell them anything they didn't know in terms of trial strategy."

The interns are, for now, content to watch from the sidelines. And, by some mystical osmosis draw, on the experience of the pros sitting at surrounding desks.

Politely, they ask questions and say they are willing to wait for well-cultivated success.

"This generation, I think, is more realistic," says Welch. "We're not rebelling, we're accepting. I think it's good. I think we're not going to waste time. We'll be more constructive if we accept things and work from there."

"We're not easily fooled," says Roberts. "Realism brings about pessimism.

We see things might end at any minute. They might drop a big one on us. And with Three Mile Island pumping out all this garbage . . . People my age are very cynical. It's more important to say 'How can I get my own little thing together?'"

Ultimately, Roberts' dream is to return to Philadelphia and start his own business installing turbo chargers in cars. Turbo chargers, he says, "are going to be very big. I've read all there is about turbo chargers."

Welch, a Vanderbilt University business student hopes for a retail career "someplace like New York." McEachron wants to enter management counsulting. Cunningham recently accepted a two-year clerkship with U.S. Distric Court Judge Aubrey E. Robinson Jr. beginning in September 1981. And although undecided about a future career, Kroloff leans toward "being an entrepreneur."

While there is not a deep, longtime commitment to their summer jobs, the interns say that what they have learned here will help in achieving their diverse goals.

Kroloff, who supported Republican George Bush's presidential bid, says he had no moral conflict in accepting the job with the Democratic National Committee.

"I don't look at it as a political cause. I don't look at it like a job either," he says."It's for the learning. It's a chance to see what goes on behind the glossy, newspaper image of politics."

"I've learned the importance of office politics," says MacEachron with a sneer. "When to go to the supervisor, when not to. How to work with secretaries, how to work with the administrative assistant. It takes a while. sSometimes it's good to keep sort of a low profile."

She recalls the time she thought she was confronted with an insubordinate secretary. In her previous job, office secretaries always typed corrections in what MacEachron had them type. But when she asked a White House secretary to retype some corrections in an internal memo, the secretary refused.

"I didn't blow off steam," says MacEachron. "I said 'Well, maybe there's something about this office I don't know." Indeed, she discovered that the secretaries are so busy that internal memos like MacEachron's are not retyped.

MacEachron also said that she has made contacts that eventually will be useful to her as a management consultant.

Roberts says he learned office politics during previous interships. "This time it was the importance of being friendly and listening," he says. "I used to let my shyness overrun things. I wouldn't converse as easily."

He now makes a point of chatting away with the men who occupy cubicles near his in the sprawling, soundproof C&P offices in Bethesda. "I've learned stuff like how to buy a new car and a used car," says Roberts. "Once my car wasn't running and I missed three days of work. A man in the office hooked me up with a nice mechanic who fixed my car for free. There's a lot of wisdom that comes with experience, and I've learned to respect that."

And the employers, too, are getting something out of the deal. Not so much in terms of actual labor, but in developing potential employes. Roberts was hired as part of a minority hiring plan to introduce students to C&P, and he says he has received strong indications that the company would welcome him back after graduation.

At her desk in the bare office she shares with another summer associate and a dried-out fern, Cummingham recalled "Interview Day" at the Boalt Hall law school at Berkley when 500 firms jammed students into small conference rooms for a mass presentation of resums, grade points and personalities. Covington & Burling also flew her to Washington where she was "winced and dined" and given a "feel of the place."

"I'd love to come back someday, maybe," said Cunningham.

As Washington closes down for August, many of the interns are running their last errands, packing their leters of recommendation, and heading home for brief vacations before school reopens.

Without them, the offices will get by. As Kroloff says: "I'm not going to leave a concrete building block behind with my little Democratic fact book. tIt'll be obsolete in six months. But it's a hell of a lot more of the real world than the ivory tower of Yale University.

"I have no regrets, I've had a wonderful time," he says. "For the most part, I'm working with good people who know what they're doing. In retrospect I'm so glad I came, I'd do it again next summer. In fact, I will do it again next summer."