How Fraternities Work

By: Katie Lambert  | 
The Sigma Pi and Phi Kappa Sigma fraternities have a water fight on the UCLA (University of California at Los Angeles) campus, Los Angeles, California, April 3, 1957. See more pictures of college life.
Gene Lester/Getty Images

"Toga, toga, toga!" Does this familiar chant from "Animal House" bring fraternities to mind? While National Lampoon may have set the standard for the public's idea of fraternity life, these societies vary widely by campus, organization and location.

Why would anyone want to join a fraternity? On the one hand, there's the promise of parties, living college life to the fullest, meeting pretty sorority girls and indulging in wild, alcohol-soaked adventures. On the other hand, there's the chance to become a leader and embody the values and ideals of a fraternity.


In this article, we'll talk about what fraternities are, how they recruit members, and what the pledge period is like. We'll also discuss the dangers of hazing and explore fraternity life.

Fraternities have their roots in the early college curriculum, when most colleges and universities taught the classics instead of the liberal arts. Phi Beta Kappa was the first Greek-letter society, founded in 1776 at the College of William and Mary. Phi Beta Kappa was (and still is) a literary society, a place for intellectual debate. The secrecy and rituals of modern social fraternities began with Phi Beta Kappa [source: Encarta].

Social fraternities overtook literary ones as more colleges incorporated a liberal arts education. [source: Encarta]. Kappa Alpha became the first social fraternity in 1825. The first black fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, was founded in 1906 as a support group for minority students at Cornell University. Today, the North-American Interfraternity Conference (NIC) represents the interests of 69 fraternities. The National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC) oversees traditionally black sororities and fraternities.

Some social fraternities are further differentiated -- there are Jewish fraternities, Christian fraternities, and even some gay fraternities.

In addition to social fraternities, there are also professional, academic and service fraternities. These fraternities are coed. Depending on the type, they might be restricted by major or grade point average.

In the next section, we'll take a look at the recruitment process.


Fraternity Recruitment

Fraternity recruitment differs by campus. Typically, recruitment takes place at the beginning of the fall semester. But some colleges require that the process begin at the middle or the end of the summer so students have time to settle in and get their classes in order. Many fraternities also rush in the spring, especially if they didn't meet the quota for their fall pledge class.

Rushing a fraternity is generally much more informal than rushing a sorority. Fraternities often have a formal rush like sororities, but during rush, they also have informal events. During formal rush events, a potential new member would meet with all the fraternities, and depending on the university's guidelines, visit their houses as well. Informal rush events are usually parties.


If someone's father, grandfather or other male relative was part of a certain fraternity, he may also want to join that fraternity and will be given special consideration during rush.

What are fraternities looking for? It depends on the fraternity. Recruitment is a time for a potential new member to get to know the brothers and see if the organization is something he might like to join. In turn, it's a time for the brothers to get to know the rushees and see if they'd fit in.

If the brothers decide a potential new member is fraternity material, they'll extend a formal bid. Once the new member accepts the bid, he becomes a pledge.


Pledging a Fraternity

In some fraternities, pledging is a process with multiple stages that can take up to a year and a half. In other fraternities, pledging takes place over a matter of weeks.

A big part of pledging is becoming familiar with the fraternity: learning about every single member, bonding with pledges, and learning about the founding members, the history of the fraternity and the Greek system as a whole.


The other big part of pledging is proving oneself worthy of being made a brother. Will the pledge uphold the ideals of the fraternity? Will he be someone they're proud to call a brother?

Pledges in black fraternities and some other fraternities spend much of their pledge period learning how to step. Stepping is a highly choreographed dance that involves stomping, clapping and chanting. The tradition rose out of the white fraternities' history of singing in glee club-style competitions. Each fraternity has a unique way of stepping, and many sororities now step as well. An initiated member's first step show is called a probate show.

Fraternity brothers often involve pledges in exercises of loyalty and trust. Pledges and brothers may also have a pledge project they work on together (building something for the house, for example) and be in charge of tasks like cleaning up after house parties. Pledges may do things for brothers, like serve as a designated driver on weekends.

If the brothers feel a pledge has completed his pledge education to their satisfaction, he can be initiated into the brotherhood. The actual initiation ceremony is shrouded in mystery. It may take several hours and involve chanting, robes, blindfolds and candlelight. The pledge will be initiated into the secrets of the fraternity, from secret mottoes and grips (handshakes) to passwords and the meanings behind rituals. He will be sworn to secrecy.

In the next section, we'll look at the dark side of fraternities -- hazing.


The Dangers and Consequences of Hazing

Many hazing incidents involve alcohol.
© Photographer: Jay Crihfield | Agency:

Unfortunately, sometimes the pledge process can get out of control and turn into something else entirely: hazing. divides hazing into three different categories: subtle, harassing and violent.

Subtle hazing leaves pledges feeling ridiculed, embarrassed and humiliated. Some examples include social isolation and drills on nonsense information. Harassment hazing causes "emotional anguish or physical discomfort." Not letting pledges take showers, depriving pledges of sleep, and forcing pledges to perform sexually degrading skits would all be examples of harassment hazing. Violent hazing is the kind you usually hear about in the media -- forced binge drinking, abductions, beatings and brandings, for example. [source:]


Every national fraternity and every university with a Greek system prohibits hazing. The stated purpose of a fraternity is to make a pledge into a better man. Kappa Alpha, the oldest social fraternity, even calls hazing "the fratricide of brotherhood" on its Web site [source: Kappa Alpha]. But in many fraternities, hazing still happens. The rationale is that a pledge should prove he's loyal and worthy to be a brother. But the process is dangerous and sometimes fatal.

A Seattle Times reporter investigated the suicide of a young man pledging Delta Kappa Epsilon (known as the "Dekes") at the University of Washington after Hell Week, the week before initiation when fraternities that haze subject their pledges to torment. After a week of forced exercise with little water and food, sleep deprivation, beatings, and various humiliations -- from bobbing for apples in a toilet to simulating sex acts -- a new brother hanged himself. The Dekes aren't some fringe organization -- they have a long and illustrious history that claims both George Bushes as members. [source: The Seattle Times]. Unfortunately, this is just one example -- there are many others like it.

Are all fraternities like this? Absolutely not. But they can be, and there are enough fatalities to prove it, often from forced binge drinking or accidents related to alcohol.

In the next section, we'll look at life inside and outside of the frat house.


Fraternity Life

The stereotypical idea of a frat boy is a shaggy-haired drunken buffoon in a pink Polo shirt. To be sure, there are plenty of fraternity men who embody this stereotype. But the ideal fraternity man, according to most fraternities' stated goals, is a gentleman -- a leader in the community who excels in his academic studies and earns the respect of his brothers. Fraternity members are often campus leaders, involved in student government, honor societies and other organizations.

Some fraternities have houses and some do not. A fraternity house can either be a filthy party den or a place that someone actually might want to live in.


More and more fraternities are declaring themselves dry houses, which means that no alcohol can be served or consumed in the house -- not even for  parties. Some fraternities have chosen to do so because of insurance liability, while others do so in order to avoid raucous behavior that might result in property damage. Sororities are usually dry houses.

Social networking is an important part of fraternity life. Fraternities often have themed socials with sororities, as well as semi-formal and formal dances. They throw parties and other events where fraternity men can meet women. Philanthropy events tend to be social as well.

Most fraternities also hold brotherhood events throughout the year -- times when all the brothers have a retreat and bond with each another. They may take a camping trip or go rafting, for example.

Another perk of being a fraternity member is the chance to network. Fraternity connections can be very beneficial in the business world. Forbes magazine even put out a list of the best fraternities for future CEOs.

Many alumni stay active and involved with their fraternity chapters, returning for football games, initiation and rush events. Some continue to donate money for house repairs and other fraternity needs.

For more information on fraternities and related topics, check out the links on the next page.


Fraternity FAQ

What is a fraternity?
A fraternity is a social organization formed at an academic institution where like-minded men gather for socialization, friendship, learning and sharing common goals, values and interests. These people make a commitment to each other for life.
What is the purpose of a fraternity?
The purpose of a fraternity is to organize a group of people for a common cause. Members hone their leadership skills, grow their social circles and strive for academic excellence.
What are the types of fraternity?
There are four major types: social, academic, service and professional. Social fraternities emphasize connecting students with other social frats. Academic fraternity groups help students achieve academic success. Service frats come together for a cause or to bring about change in their community and the greater world. Professional fraternity members work on leadership skills and pursue opportunities for career development.
What are the pros and cons of joining a fraternity?
Joining a frat can help you grow, develop your personality, learn from others’, develop your leadership skills, and achieve your goals. On the downside, joining a fraternity can be costly and time-consuming as you have to meet everyday commitments.
What is a female fraternity?
Just like a group of like-minded men in college or university is called a fraternity, the female version is known as a sorority. Both fraternities and sororities are Greek-letter organizations.

Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • Buncombe, Andrew. "Geronimo's family call on Bush to help return his skeleton." The Independent. June 1, 2006.
  • Kelleher, Susan. "Hell Week: Inside the Secret World of Fraternity Initiation Rites." The Seattle Times. July 16, 2000.
  • Kiebala, Andrew. "Pi Pi Pi: How to Start Your Own Fraternity or Sorority." Generation.
  • Parker, Lonnae O'Neal. "Brand Identities." May 11, 1998.
  • "Fraternities and Sororities." Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2007. © 1997-2007
  • Alpha Phi Alpha Web site.
  • Center for the Study of the College Fraternity.
  • FIPG Web site.
  • Forbes magazine.
  • Kappa Alpha Order.
  • North-American Interfraternity Conference.