Would You Pay Your Teen to Finish Their College Essay This Summer?

Not much on social media shocks me these days, but I was flummoxed to read a post in my son’s high school parent Facebook group. It was from a parent of a graduating senior and she was dispensing advice about the college admissions process, specifically the college essay. The parent said she paid her kid to finish their college essay the summer before senior year and she encouraged other parents to do the same.

Nope, I thought. I refuse to pay my son to do something he’s supposed to do. I refuse to compensate him to do work that should be a privilege to perform. Too many good students can’t afford college, and I’m supposed to PAY my kid to do the bare minimum to get in? No way. If he doesn’t have the foresight to get this done on his own, I thought, he probably isn’t ready to attend college.

I did not pay my son to do his college essay. (Photo credit: Jen Guzman)

Senior year hit and it was very busy

Then senior year hit and my son had a full plate of AP coursework and extracurriculars and a part-time job to keep him in thrifts and pizza, on top of his college and scholarship applications. And I saw the mother’s wisdom, at least to a point.

I still wouldn’t advise paying cold cash in exchange for a completed essay, but I think it makes a lot of sense to encourage incoming seniors to finish their college essay the summer before their senior year. Common Application essay prompts are typically available in the spring before the next application cycle and there is no reason not to get an early start.

Fall semester senior year may be the most challenging semester of high school

Many consider junior year to be the most challenging year of high school. I would argue the first semester of senior year is the new junior year. Colleges are placing more emphasis on senior year course load, so many students do not ease up on advanced coursework. And according to data from the Common Application, seniors now apply to an average of almost six colleges.

One of my son’s overachieving friends created a spreadsheet that outlined all of his college applications and scholarships, SAT prep, and other senior deadlines. I took a peek at it one day. It would have made a corporate CEO break into a cold sweat.

Crafting a great college essay takes time

Creating a great college essay takes time. And summertime, at least in theory, provides a respite from demanding high school schedules. Summer lends itself to creativity, and allows students time to reflect on their high school years and to dream about their future selves.

I appreciate the introspection required of the essay. I even volunteer with Literary Arts, a non-profit in Portland, Oregon, where I go into area high schools to provide individual coaching on the college essay. Some detractors say the essay is formulaic and performative, but a good college essay is neither.

Colleges look for original, memorable essays when evaluating applicants. (However, I did have to gently persuade one student that writing her essay on how she doesn’t regularly brush her teeth might not be the “original” she was seeking).

A plethora of free resources and great advice on writing a great essay are available online. It takes time to create an essay that is authentic and not cliche, and to construct a compelling narrative. This required time investment reinforces my belief that your kid’s best personal essay will be written in the summertime.

4 tips for motivating your senior to write their college essay during the summer

1. Work at a fun location

My son and I worked at our favorite neighborhood coffee house. He worked on his essay while I tackled some of my own work. We mixed in work with some good conversation. Now that he’s away at college, I look back wistfully to those mornings.

2. Keep it casual 

Spend one session reading through sample essays, and another choosing an essay prompt and brainstorming ideas. A subsequent session would involve tackling a first draft. Any further sessions could be spent editing.

3. Celebrate progress 

Bring home donuts or go to a movie after your incoming senior finishes the essay or even a draft. Gift the small things they love that show them you see their hard work, or just tell them how proud you are of their progress.

4. Be the cheerleader 

Encourage your incoming senior, but don’t write the essay for them. Don’t even edit for them. Your job is to be the cheerleader and the provider of motivating treats. Letting my son write his own college essay kept our good relationship intact and gave him confidence that he had truly earned the college acceptances he received.

Summer progress on the college essay will make senior year less hectic

Full disclosure, my son did not end the summer with a finished essay. Even though the essay wasn’t application-ready by September, he went into his senior year with a solid draft. Those summer coffeehouse dates laid the groundwork for a quality final essay.

He did admit to me later that he wished he had just finished the essay that summer. Often inching towards a goal is better than sitting on the sidelines, even if you don’t quite cross the finish line. Any summer progress on the college essay will make the hectic senior year just a little easier for you and your student.

More Great Reading:

Looking for admissions help for your teen? Learn more about Grown and Flown: College Admissions to find affordable admissions guidance with highly experienced experts.

What Class of ’24 Admissions Essays Says About the Lives of Seniors

About Jen Guzman

Jen Guzman is a part-time elementary school librarian and full-time mom to two young adults. Her eldest, Noe, is on the autism spectrum. She writes extensively about the joys and challenges of raising a son on the autism spectrum and is currently finishing up a middle grade novel based on her family's experiences. She lives with her husband and kids in Portland, Oregon, where she cheers on her hometown Trail Blazers and Thorns.

Read more posts by Jen

Don't miss out!
Want more like this? Get updates about parenting teens and young adults straight to your inbox.