Some universities now offer essay contests in the fall that carry prizes from campus bookstore gift certificates to dinner with best-selling authors to a semester of free tuition.
The rite of summer reading, meant to give first-year students something in common and jump-start discussion, is often seen as a chore. Educators say competition and rewards are new ways to give the assignments a higher profile and stress their importance, though contest participation lags.
"It's a way of trying to value, even privilege, the project in the eyes of the students," said Frank Wcislo, the dean who oversees the program at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.
Vanderbilt assigned its first summer reading this year - Greg Mortenson's best-selling "Three Cups of Tea," about an American's efforts to build schools in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Submitting an optional essay, blog entry, video or other form of analysis by Sept. 5 gives students the chance of winning a seat at a campus dinner with Mortenson later this year.
Likewise, insightful essays about "Children of Dust: A Memoir of Pakistan" will earn 10 freshmen at The College of Wooster in Ohio a chance to dine with author Ali Eteraz. The winning students' writings will be bound and presented to Eteraz.
Henry Kreuzman, dean for curriculum and academic engagement, said the optional contest is one element in giving students a richer experience with the text.
"We never really saw it as a reward for reading the book," Kreuzman said. "We saw it as an integrated intellectual exercise."
Kreuzman estimated about 25 percent of his incoming 630 freshmen will write essays by the Sept. 8 deadline. Wcislo (pronounced WISE-loh) said he expects fewer than 100 of Vanderbilt's 1,600 freshmen to submit an entry.
By contrast, all 900 incoming freshmen at La Salle University in Philadelphia are required to write essays about promoting economic justice, a core value of the Catholic school.
Last year, Olivia Armater, 19, of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., won first place - a semester of free tuition - for her essay on philanthropy. Five runners-up got thousands of dollars in aid.
It was the first time La Salle had given summer work to freshmen, and the school didn't tell them their essays would be judged. That took a lot of potential stress off, Armater said.
"Since it was technically my first college assignment I just wanted to make a good impression and write well," she said.
Officials at other schools were shocked at La Salle's generosity. But Marjorie Allen, chairwoman of the integrated studies department, said the money is a way of conveying the importance of the assignment.
"We wanted to reward students in a way that was tied to their academic success," Allen said.
Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa., where incoming freshmen are reading excerpts from books on sustainability, created a fall essay contest last year with $100 bookstore gift certificates as prizes.
The school plans to better publicize this fall's competition because of a dearth of entries last year, said program director Alissa Packer.
Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., offered $400 in prize money each of the past two years for voluntary essays on "The Gift" by Lewis Hyde and "Nudge" by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein.
Dean Jennifer Morrison acknowledged mixed feelings about rewards.
"Most academic work does not have a prize at the end of it," she said. "Shouldn't they want to read it and write about it without the possibility of winning an iPad or a semester of free tuition?"
Morrison said there will be no contest on this year's book, "Persepolis" by Marjane Satrapi, because it's a graphic novel that likely needed no incentives. But she said the essays may return next year "to create something of a buzz" about that summer's assignment.
Kansas State University assigned "The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins for its first summer reading program this year. Prizes will be awarded to winners of a voluntary video contest and a campus game based on the book, said Stephen Kiefer, director of the university honors program.
Traditional small-group discussions of the reading are not enough to get today's students excited, he said.
"Looking at it in different ways is a good exercise in critical thinking," Kiefer said. "They're a video generation."