IT'S THAT time of summer when the proud parents of the new college graduate begin to get a little anxious. After four years of hard work, "a young man should have a chance to relax and enjoy himself," they may say, as did the father in "The Graduate" watching Dustin Hoffman float aimlessly in the back yard pool. "But after a few weeks I believe that person would want to take stock . . . and start to think about getting off his ass."

Many of these parents took out second mortgages, held down second jobs and raided savings in the belief that a college education would automatically confer upward mobility on their offspring.

But a look at some recent college graduates reveals more paralysis than mobility.

Some are so paralyzed that they can't even get off the campus. They hang around working "green-bean" jobs in the college bookstore or admissions office or tending bar in nearby restaurants. (Some of Washington's finest bartenders owe their requisite conversational skills to the liberal arts training they received at Georgetown University.) Others are pouring into cities close to their campuses -- University of Virginia graduates into Washington, Smith graduates into Boston, Carleton graduates into Minneapolis -- crowding into group apartments and working at temp agencies for subsistence wages. ("Companies prefer having college grads do their menial work," says Tim Aycock, who just graduated from the University of Virginia. "It's nice having an educated person around the office to talk to.")

And, of course, there are the "boomerang kids" -- the graduates who end up moving back in with their parents with no idea of what to do next. Maybe in a year or so, they'll join the ranks of the "school junkies," going back on the parental dole to finance still more years of aimless education. ("By the time many kids graduate from school," says Laura Bergheim, a Sarah Lawrence graduate, "they are more confused and frightened than when they entered. They use grad school and law school as a cave to hide from the real world.")

Let me say that I am not the one to question the difficulties these young people are having. At their age I was cloistered away in a Jesuit seminary along with scores of other guys from the Catholic ghettos of New York and New Jersey. We were lucky in that we thought that we had it all figured out. We believed we had a calling from God -- a vocation, as the nuns used to say.

But like many of today's young people, few of us realized what we were in for. Today's graduates complain of boredom in high-paying jobs. For us, the early warning signs were in Latin, appearing suddenly on the seminary bulletin board. Signs such as "Flagellatio! Hoc Nocte" {The whip! Tonight}. You were supposed to beat yourself with a small whip that the master of novices generously provided. One night, the sounds of heavy lashes and screams came from the room of a guy from Brooklyn. But his reputation as our greatest ascetic was short-lived; it was soon discovered that he was beating his rug and screaming to shake up the people on his hall. He was one of the first to leave the seminary. Eventually I and most of my friends followed him. Though the priests said we lost our vocations, we thought we had seen the light.

Not too many of the kids I've been teaching at T.C. Williams High School are going to be opting for cloistered celibacy. Yet young people today seem to be having a more difficult time than any previous generation in finding the answer to the timeless question: "What do I want to be when I grow up?"

College is supposed to help answer that question. And indeed, those going on to college eventually have a much easier time finding satisfying work than those who do not. Still, even the best college credentials are no guarantee of a smooth passage.

"Nothing about college prepared me for the work world; graduating was like being thrown off a huge cliff," says Molly White, who graduated from Harvard five years ago. "College prepared me for high thought, but in a commercial society, high thought is reserved for the CEOs. It was a real blow at first," says White, who found herself doing a lot of typing, folding, bundling and stamp-licking on her first job.

One problem is that our sex-and-drug savvy kids are actually quite innocent about the ways of the marketplace. "In previous generations kids could observe the work adults did. They had an intuitive grasp of what it meant to be a shopkeeper, a farmer," says Sue Berryman, director of the Institute on Education and the Economy at Columbia University. "Today communities are spread out; kids in school are sealed off from their parents in office buildings. The old link between the child and the working adult is broken. Many companies are experiencing big turnovers because people they hire become disillusioned once they get into the actual work."

Working while in college can help steer kids toward satisfying careers -- though not always the ones you might expect.

"In high school, I could never have seen myself ending up as I have," says Mark Anderson. When he was in my English class at T.C. Williams in 1980, I had Anderson pegged for a career in academia or law. But when he graduated with a degree in physics from Haverford College, Anderson surprised a lot of people by taking an entry level job with a local construction company.

"I don't think my parents were too happy, especially after four years of heavy tuition, to see their cello-playing son going off to work every day in bluejeans and boots," says Anderson. "During the summers, I had worked as a union laborer on downtown construction sites; I became fascinated with the business and wanted to give it a try." Last year, Anderson opened his own construction company and did more than $10 million worth of business.

When Baltimore Orioles public relations director Rick Vaughan (T.C. '74) went to George Mason University, he thought he wanted to be a high school teacher and coach. To help cover tuition, he worked in the university's sports information department and did freelance sports reporting for a local paper -- jobs that helped him discover he loved writing and public relations. "I feel fortunate to be doing what I love," says Vaughn, "I know so many people who don't like their jobs."

It takes a certain amount of luck to land the dream jobs, but some of those who do have avoided the fast-track career courses in college. Mark Lange (T.C. '80) specialized in Renaissance poetry at Dartmouth. He is now a White House speech writer. Willa Mulhollan (T.C. '86) was surprised to find that her University of Virginia degree in comparative religion was just the thing to land her a job as a researcher and production assistant for a new Norman Lear sitcom whose characters frequently clash over their differing religious beliefs.

Sometimes a successful career requires ignoring other people's expectations. "I think a lot of college kids become victims of some image that they -- or their parents -- have created," says Damien McCabe, a graduate of Georgetown's School of Foreign Service. "I used to have trouble telling friends that I was a travel agent. I took the job because I was tired of school and wanted travel benefits. But soon I began to love the work." McCabe now runs her own K Street travel agency.

Instead of trying to fit students into their own molds of success, "parents and educators should be helping kids find what they like and do well," says Yale's Robert Sternberg, a leading theorist on human intelligence. "The most successful individuals are usually not ones who are stellar at everything they try; rather they make the most of their strengths and find ways around their weaknesses. But even at a place like Yale, the majority of kids pick their majors based not on their own interests but on what their parents want them to be."

But, says John Corrigan, undergraduate director of religious studies at Virginia, although "the majority of parents want their kids on the fast track advancing straight into the professions, many of them come around by graduation. They see the degree as a partial victory." And well they should. At Virginia about three out of four students graduate within four years of entry. But at the highly ranked University of Colorado at Boulder, only one in four do. Nationwide only 41 percent of college entrants graduate within six years.

"Not too many college students are in a rush to get into the working world," admits Brown junior Jennifer Seltz. "College is this cushy life where you go to class a few hours a day and spend the rest of the time hanging out with your friends. All you have to worry about is your next paper or your next activist stance. If you put all the class and study time together, you'd barely come up with a 40-hour week -- except for those in engineering or science."

"College is so sheltering," says Tracy Collick, who graduated from Virginia last year. "Everything in Charlottesville revolves around the school. You're under the impression that if you do everything you are supposed to do, you'll come out and get a great job and life will be easy. People think that if they are officers in a fraternity, they are going to walk into a $50,000-a-year job."

This pampered atmosphere makes it hard for graduates to come to grips with the inevitable drudgery of first jobs. University of Pennsylvania senior Jim Dawes reports that his Wharton Business School friends were "very smug when they got their Wall Street jobs. But when they came back for homecoming this year they were complaining: 'Working is horrible. All we do is crunch numbers for 80 hours a week.' "

Recent chemical engineering graduate Henry Via took a job with a relatively small chemical firm, thinking it would offer a chance for creativity, but now he complains that "it's like sensory deprivation. They can't pay me enough to be bored. I'm 23 and having a mid-life crisis and am not alone."

Tales like these filtering back into colleges may help explain why enthusiasm for the fast-track jobs of the '80s is apparently waning. Virginia's Corrigan says the "hysteria over preparing for business and law degrees is subsiding. Over the past five years the number of religious studies majors has tripled at Virginia and 3,500 students take religion courses. Ethics has the largest enrollment; kids want to think through the issues of right and wrong in our society. When kids graduate they often take a year off to digest their education. I see that as a positive sign. A college education should raise questions and unsettle."

But you can argue the taking-time-to-find-yourself thesis both ways. Some educators -- and parents -- think the problem is that kids face too little pressure to accept the demands of the world. "Let's face it. Affluent kids are not called upon to do much," says Walt Whitman guidance director John Keating. "They have trouble taking the consequences of their actions seriously."

"Kids have to feel that they can give something back to their families, that they can make a contribution," says Bethesda psychiatrist Robert Meeks. "If a child is only the beneficiary of the family's bounty, the kid can get to feel like a mascot," says Meeks, who grew up helping his family work an Arkansas farm.

Cathy Grimes (T.C. '81) had one advantage many of her talented classmates didn't have -- poverty. Now a federal government lawyer, Grimes grew up near what is now Alexandria's worst drug market. She attended University of Virginia undergraduate and law school with the help of various scholarships. In her senior year she was named All-American in basketball and both ACC and NCAA scholar-athlete of the year.

"Coming up, I didn't have the things my friends had. Sometimes I couldn't get new basketball shoes when I needed them. My driving goal was to be financially independent and to be able to take care of my mother for all she did for me and my brothers and sisters. When I graduated from law school I immediately got my own apartment; many friends went home to live with their families for a while till they got settled, but my mom didn't have room."

While many kids from affluent families flounder, Grimes seems very fulfilled. "I wasn't sure that I wanted to practice law when I went to law school. But once I got into it, I loved it -- the thinking and analyzing involved, the writing and the dealing with people."

But Grimes is no self-centered yuppie. She speaks to youth groups and does volunteer work all over Northern Virgina. "I've been where those kids are, and I want to show them they can overcome the temptations and make it out of poverty." But most fulfilling to Grimes is the fact that she's been able to offer her mother enough financial security so that she can now retire from her job of 35 years.

Necessity can force you to "find yourself" quickly. But necessity is something that Washington's affluent parents find hard to invent.

Patrick Welsh teaches English at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria.