05/23/2012 06:36 pm ET Updated Jul 23, 2012

What the Guidebooks Won't Tell You About College Life

At a time when students are working harder than ever to gain admission to college -- and paying more than ever to attend -- it's comforting to think of universities as bastions of academic inquiry, where students debate grand ideas and discover how they can best serve society. But the reality is more complicated.

Among incoming freshmen and their parents, misperceptions of college life abound. Despite the most earnest attempts to pore over the guidebooks and glossy brochures, take campus tours, and even hire "expert" help, many families know little about life at the schools they place on a pedestal.

It's easy to see why. For universities and the multibillion-dollar college-prep industry, success rests in promoting the romanticized image of college that families want to believe. If a marketing effort promises anything less, fewer students will apply to that school (thus lowering its ranking), and fewer parents will pony up for that service that promises to boost one's chances of "getting in."

In my new blog for The Huffington Post's College page, I hope to share a fresh, candid perspective of campus life.

Here's some of the advice I wish I had received before enrolling. In future posts, I will address these and similar topics in more detail.

Be ready to hit the ground running.

College is competitive. Yes, it's fun for all those reasons that you look forward to and your parents dread, but it's also stressful. Whether you're gunning for Silicon Valley, Madison Avenue, Capitol Hill, Wall Street, or somewhere in between, there's little time to catch your breath. Your savvier peers will begin grooming their résumés on day one. Just as in high school, you must plan strategically for the "next step," but this time the posturing begins earlier, the stakes are higher, and the competition is stiffer.

It's easy to become overwhelmed, but don't make the mistake of piling on activities that you think will be appealing to a particular employer or graduate program. As long as you are finding ways to take advantage of a campus's opportunities, you won't fall behind. And if you don't limit yourself to one track, you may be surprised by the doors that open.

When comparing colleges, ask about career opportunities.

If you're looking at colleges and already know what you want to study, don't just compare the size of academic departments or the prestige of the faculty. Instead, ask how many employers in that field are recruiting on campus, or how many students are accepted into graduate programs. If you don't know what you want to study, ask for statistics about the paths that graduates pursue. The only thing more important than knowing how students spend their years at a college is knowing how they spend their years after.

Start looking for that summer internship.

Think summer is synonymous with fun and relaxation? Think again. Summer is a three-month-long, résumé-building exercise. An internship (or fellowship, research position, etc.) after freshman year makes it that much easier to get one after sophomore year, and on and on. Unfortunately, most internships pay little or nothing at all, and students whose parents can't provide financial support are at a clear disadvantage.

But don't despair. Talk to your school's Career Center about fellowships and funding opportunities, and find a job during the school year to save up. If an internship doesn't offer a salary, ask if you can work part-time -- this way, you can find a separate, paying job to cover your costs. With resourcefulness and some luck, you can find positions after your first two summers, and by your junior summer you may have enough experience to land a paying gig.

Student debt is real, so do your research.

Most teenagers have never earned more than $8/hour, and are unable to grasp the significance of varying quantities of debt. If you're in high school, ask your parents how much of the tuition bill they will pay, and how much you will pay. And make them explain those numbers in a way you'll understand. No matter what, don't let anyone tell you that a college education is priceless -- college has a very real, and often very high, price tag.