Goodbye college. Hello life.

When Kristen Gustafson got her first job out of college at a small publishing company in Virginia, she was so excited to be making a salary – one that seemed huge compared to the $60 she earned in a good week of work-study at school– that she rushed to the mall. "I managed to spend my entire first paycheck in an afternoon," she says with a laugh.

Shortly afterward, on her first night at her new apartment, her car was towedbecause she unwittingly parked in someone else's assigned spot. It was a stressful, expensive evening, Ms. Gustafson remembers: She initially thought her car had been stolen, her phone wasn't hooked up yet, and she realized how far away from home she was when she finally reached the police, spelled out her Massachusetts license plate, and the officer began repeating it to her: "Y as in Yankee?"

She can laugh now – four years later – but that night Gustafson discovered that life after college doesn't always have the rosy hue painted by commencement speeches. Dr. Seuss's "Oh, the Places You'll Go" may be a popular graduationgift – but who knew those places might include parents' base- ments, a job with unfathomable office politics, or a new city where they get lost trying to find the grocery store.

Suddenly, Mom and Dad are no longer picking up the bills, and half a dozen dormmates can no longer be counted on for a midnight pizza run. The realization hits: "I have to pay my own bills and fix my own food!"

An anthropology major who just defended an honors thesis on decoding cultural speech signifiers may discover that he or she knows little about deciphering workplace culture, navigating a new city, or understanding the nuances of HMOs, 401(k)s, and W-4s.

The lack of guidance for new graduates, along with her own experiences, prompted Gustafson, a 1998 graduate of Stonehill College in Easton, Mass., to write "Graduate!" (Capital Books, $14.95), a guide to the ins and outs of the post-college years. The book's topics range from paying taxes and buying a car to advice on meeting new people, what to ask a prospective roommate or landlord, and how to stock a kitchen.

To research the book, Gustafson sent out e-mail queries to all the recent graduates she knew, and was stunned by the response. "Everybody had a story," she says, "everybody had advice. The same issues kept popping up: housing issues, money issues. 'Do I go to grad school?' 'I moved back in with my parents and it's awful....' "

One of the biggest issues wasn't one Gustafson had anticipated: how tired people were. In college "you get all these breaks in the day, vacations, long weekends," she says. "Suddenly you're in the working world, and you don't have the luxury of taking a nap after lunch."

Gareth Jones, who graduated from Dartmouth College in 1999, can attest to that. He remembers his first day of work at a consulting firm in San Francisco. It was a gorgeous fall day, not a cloud in the sky – the kind of afternoon he might have skipped class to enjoy back in college. "It was 2, and I was like, 'I'm exhausted. I got here at 8. How much longer do I have to stay?' " The frustration helped Mr. Jones learn more about time management than he ever did in college – and he now goes to bed early on Friday night so he can rise with the sun on Saturday and enjoy precious time outdoors.

When Amy Merritt graduated from Princeton last May with a major in architecture and urban planning and a minor in finance, she thought she had it all figured out: the right degrees, the right job, the right city, the right roommate, the right apartment.

Unfortunately, things weren't so simple. "Not one thing has worked out like I planned it," Ms. Merritt says ruefully.

She'd signed on for an investment banking position in midtown Manhattan, but was placed in a different department, which had no other young workers. Then, the new job's downtown location made her carefully selected apartment less practical.

Sept. 11 was Merritt's second day on the job – a traumatic beginning for anyone, and one that sent her (and other new hires) home for a month as her company regrouped. When Merritt returned to the city, she discovered that her roommate's boyfriend had moved in, and she didn't have enough money to cover her rent.

"When they told me my salary, it sounded like a big number," she says with a laugh. But it didn't go as far as she had expected. Unlike many new graduates, Merritt knew she needed a budget. But "when I [tried to figure] out what I could afford for rent, I didn't take out taxes, I budgeted about $100 a month for food – I grossly underbudgeted pretty much everything."

Now, she boasts a 12-page spreadsheet recording every expense, from subway rides to dinners out. Two weeks ago she moved into another apartment, with a different roommate and lower rent.

"I would say I've learned more about myself in the last nine months than through most of college," she says. Her advice to new graduates: Scrap any hard-and-fast expectations. If she had been too fixated on any of the things that didn't turn out as planned, she says, she might have packed up and left.

Indeed, the uncertainty of the post-college years – which terrifies many graduates initially – can actually be something to take advantage of and enjoy. Recent grads emphasize that it's a time with relatively few responsibilities and high flexibility, and say that if they could talk to today's graduates, they'd tell them to take a year off, try a job that's less traditional, or move to a new city.

Ashley Conrad-Saydah thought she might work for a New York start-up company when she graduated from Princeton in 1999 – until a summer fellowship in England convinced her she liked teaching and scientific fieldwork. So she accepted a job running outdoor workshops for school groups at the Adirondack Center, near Johnstown, N.Y. It was a lonely year – the center was on a dirt road, miles from the nearest town, and she was the only young person there – but she never regretted the decision.

She learned to snowshoe and cross-country ski, developed marketing and business-management skills, and found she could get by on a small salary. "It was a difficult experience," she says, "but for me it was the right difficult experience."

Elizabeth Train, who graduated from Colby College in 1997, also wishes colleges encouraged more students to experiment, citing many friends who took jobs they weren't happy with because they thought they had to have everything figured out by the time they had graduated.

Since she left school, Ms. Train has twice decided to move across the country while still unsure what her job would be. And she has worked as a communications specialist, a middle school English teacher, a Banana Republic saleswoman, and, currently, as an assistant editor at a Denver publishing company.

She began post-college life, however, as many graduates do: by moving back in with her family. It's not something she recommends. "I think living at home after college is one of the biggest mistakes in the world," says Train. "You have different expectations for yourself and your lifestyle, and your parents don't. Also, it's really easy to fall back into old habits."

Housing can be a particularly tough issue for recent grads. In some cities, they find that locating an affordable – and at least somewhat livable – apartment is tougher than the knottiest engineering problem they encountered as students, and may require just as creative a solution.

When Mark Ledbetter moved to New York to try life as an actor, he knew that finding an affordable apartment was going to be difficult. But he put his ingenuity to work. First, he discovered someone who needed a housesitter. Later, he tracked down a family that rented out bedrooms. It wasn't until last month, two years after graduation, that he finally got his own apartment, but his flexibility enabled him to pursue his dream.

Similarly, when Train moved to Los Angeles for a teaching job, it took her four months to find an affordable place with good roommates. In the meantime, she lived in UCLA housing, slept on a floor in North Hollywood, and shared a temporary place with co-workers in Calabasas, Calif. "But I don't regret that at all," she says. "Because L.A. is so big, it was good for me to have [an understanding of the city's] geography. Now I can navigate that area much better."

Navigating the details of insurance, retirement plans, and office culture can be as daunting as Los Angeles's fabled freeways, but the best solutions may also be the most obvious, say recent grads: Ask questions and observe.

When Ms. Conrad-Saydah finally got a job with benefits, at a San Francisco science museum, she says she showered her "corporate friends" with questions, and they proved an invaluable resource.

"One of the best things you can do is learn when to shut your mouth and listen," advises Mr. Ledbetter, who often observes experienced actors in auditions and rehearsals.

Ultimately, those with a few years' experience under their belts encourage new graduates to relax and roll with the punches.

"For all people say about college being the best four years of your life, I have loved the years after college," says Train. "It's your life, and you get to totally plan what you do."

And if that means a few bounced checks, lots of Ramen noodles, or months sleeping on a friend's couch, at least it will make for good stories a few years down the road.

Oh Rats, I wish I'd known that

No one gets an 800 on the "RAT," but Homer Moyer, the author of the test, hopes that simply taking it will teach people something useful. Its purpose, after all, is to measure real-life, rather than academic, knowledge.

Other than the name and system of scoring, the "Real-world Aptitude Test" bears little in common with its more familiar counterpart, the SAT. How many tests ask how best to de-wrinkle a shirt if you're traveling (or don't own an iron), or require you todemonstrate ballroom dancing positions, how to separate a raw egg, and how to change a flat tire?

Mr. Moyer began writing "The RAT," published by Capital Books ($19.95) last year, when his oldest daughter was about to leave home for college. But he sees its audience not only as the graduates it targets, but also the adults who buy the book for them.

"There's no single piece of information in here without which you'll be crippled," he acknowledges, "but the more you know about each of these [areas], the more you'll be equipped to deal with the real world and enjoy it."

The basics are there – cooking, money management, first aid, employment – butso are sections on music, automobiles, etiquette, geography, and the Bible.

How ready are you for real life? Here are a few sample questions:

1. Describe how to cope with a skunk-spray odor.

2. What is the correct way to dry a wool sweater you have just washed?

3. As a general rule, you get the highest value for your money if you:

a. buy a car new.

b. lease a new car.

c. buy a late-model used car

d. buy a car that needs repairs.

4. A nail has greater holding power than a similar-sized screw. True or false?

5. Identify a method of shining shoes or a leather handbag without shoe polish.

6. If it's 20 degrees Celsius outside, what is the temperature in degrees Fahrenheit?

7. For combustion to occur in an internal combustion engine, three elements must be present. They are ______, _______, and _______.

Answers: (1) Lots of tomato juice; (2) Lay it flat on a towel while it is still damp; (3) c; (4) False; (5) Use the inside of a fresh banana peel (other answers exist); (6) 68 degrees; (7) Fuel, air, and a spark..

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