How Sororities Work

By: Katie Lambert  | 

A sorority can help create a smaller community within a large university. See more pictures of college life.
Photographer: Franz Pfluegl | Agency:

When you hear the word "sorority," what comes to mind? Pillow fights? Big white mansions? Pearls and sweater sets? While that's what Hollywood would have you imagine, in reality, it's not exactly like that. For many, a sorority can be a great way to make lasting friendships, build a smaller community within a university setting, and find opportunities for leadership and service. But people also associate sororities with elitism, racism, alcohol abuse, eating disorders and promiscuity. So, what is life in a sorority really like? Read on to find out. But first, let's take a look at how these organizations of sisterhood came into being.

When you think of a sorority, you're probably thinking of a national sorority. A national sorority has chapters all over the country that answer to a governing body. A local sorority, on the other hand, has no ties to a national affiliate organization. It is associated with a specific college, does not participate in formal recruitment or formal Greek events, and therefore has lower fees.


When sororities were founded, college campuses were dominated by men. Many female students felt isolated, not just because the male students outnumbered them, but because this was a time when women were largely considered unsuited to higher education. Sororities began as a way for women to find intellectual and social companionship with one another.

Macon, Ga., saw the first secret society for women in 1851: the Adelphean Society (now called Alpha Delta Pi). The women prayed, sang and wrote and recited poetry at their meetings [Source: ADPi]. Pi Beta Phi was the first national fraternity for college women, and Kappa Alpha Theta was the first Greek letter society for women.

The word "sorority" did not come into being until 1882 with the founding of Gamma Phi Beta, whose adviser suggested the word might be more appropriate than "fraternity" to describe the bond of sisterhood [Source: ADPi]. Sororities like these now fall under the umbrella of the National Panhellenic Conference, a congress of 26 national and international sororities.

The first Greek organization for African-American women did not come about until much later; Alpha Kappa Alpha was founded at Howard University in 1908. The National Pan-Hellenic Council oversees traditionally black sororities and fraternities.

Today, cultural-interest sororities are starting to crop up on a growing number of college campuses. These sororities cater to a specific cultural interest -- a sorority for Asian-American women or Latina women, for example.

A multicultural sorority encourages not a particular cultural interest, but actively recruits multiple cultures. Theta Nu Xi is one example. Melissa Jo Murchison-Blake, founder of the sorority at UNC Chapel Hill in 1996, wanted to form a sisterhood that respected her biracial background -- she didn't want to have to choose between the NPC and NPHC organizations [Source: Theta Nu Xi].

In this article, we'll discuss the sorority recruitment process, what pledging is like and what to expect from life as a member of a sorority.


Sorority Recruitment

Sorority recruitment can be hectic.
Sorority recruitment can be hectic.
AP Photo/Steve Rouse

Potential new members -- commonly known as rushees -- must go through a recruitment process, traditionally known as rush. Recruitment differs depending on the college campus. At a large university with a large Greek population, like in the South at a state school, sorority recruitment may be a highly structured and dressy event, with girls teetering around in the heat wearing high heels and their mother's pearls. At a smaller university or a college with less Greek interest, sorority recruitment events are usually much less formal gatherings.

Rush usually consists of a few rounds. During these rounds, sisters meet potential new members. The women talk, perform skits, sing songs and share personal stories about what the sisterhood means to them. As rush progresses, potential new members and sororities list their choices in order of preference. Desirable rushees will receive invitations to the next round.


Ideally, rush is a time for potential new members and sisters to meet one another and see if they would be a good fit. But, the larger the Greek population and university, the more difficult that goal is. If more than one thousand girls go through rush, realistically most of the sorority members will not meet each girl. This is one instance where people get the idea that sororities can be superficial -- snap judgments may be made based purely on looks.

At some schools, a rushee has to rush all sororities -- meaning she must meet with each group at least once and attend each rush event. At other schools, a girl may choose to rush just the sororities she might like to join, based on reputation. At these schools, attending a rush party can be seen as an indication of your interest in joining that sorority.


Rush Basics

Bid day at the University of Southern
Bid day at the University of Southern
AP Photo/Steve Rouse

If you're considering going through rush, there are some sorority recruitment terms you might want to know:

  • Dirty rushing is forbidden at schools with a formal rush. Sorority members may not contact potential new members before or during rush before a bid is extended. Examples of dirty rushing include telling a girl during rush that she has a guaranteed bid to a certain sorority or buying a potential new member dinner.
  • Legacies are girls whose immediate family were members of the sorority. In most sororities, if someone's grandmother, mother or sister was a member of the sorority, she is called a legacy. Some sororities only consider a rushee a legacy if her mother was a member (and remains active as an alumna). Legacies are generally given preference during rush, but are not automatically guaranteed a bid.
  • Recommendations can also help a potential new member during rush. A current member or alumna of the sorority can write a recommendation with a picture and any personal information she feels might be helpful. Most university Greek life recruitment guides and FAQs say that recommendations aren't necessary, but they may give the rushee an edge.
  • Deferred rush is a formal recruitment process that occurs after classes have started; at many schools, formal recruitment commences before classes start, which some people think may distract students from their academics.
  • Continuous Open Bidding (COB) is an informal process for sororities to accept new members. COB usually occurs after a formal recruitment. Sororities that did not hit their quota might participate in COB. COB can also useful for a girl who did not want to participate in formal recruitment or who did not receive the bid she wanted.
  • The line is a name for the new member class of an NPHC sorority.

Each sorority has a different private way of voting for new members. It may be an open discussion between members of the sorority or a more confidential, written process. At the end of rush, when finalizing a list of desirable potential new members, voting members will likely discuss each rushee, pointing out why she would or would not match the sorority's values and desired attributes. With a large recruitment group, sometimes a computer algorithm can help by matching sororities and their favorite rushees with rushees and their preferred houses. For a smaller group of rushees, sorority members could simply discuss the merits of the potential new members among themselves and then hold a vote on each potential new member.


At many colleges, the sororities give out formal bids on one special day, which is called bid day. At some schools, potential new members dress in a particular way (white dresses, bright T-shirts) and go to the sorority house to spend time with their new sisters-to-be.


Pledging a Sorority

Photographer: Noriko Cooper

If a potential new member accepts a sorority bid, she becomes a new member, more commonly known as a pledge. Because of negative associations with words like "pledge," many sororities have chosen to adopt new language. At present, NPC-affiliated sororities usually refer to the pledging process as new member education.

During the new member education process, pledges learn more about the organization. For example, a new member might learn the history of the sorority and its values. She'll meet the other new members and spend time bonding with current members. There might be mandated study times, weekly meetings and optional social events. New members must also spend some additional study time getting ready for a sort of entrance exam, which each pledge must pass in order to join the sorority. The test might have information about the organization's history, symbols or founding members as well as general information about the Greek system -- pretty much whatever a pledge has learned during the pledging process is fair game. Rushees should understand that pledging involves a hefty time commitment.


The pledging process is somewhat different for traditionally black sororities. Along with the incredible time investment dedicated to studying, meetings and social events and learning the sorority's history and ideals, many pledges must also learn how to step. The pledge class practices together to perform a stepping routine during a campus step show. Stepping is a dance that involves using the body as percussive instruments -- steppers stomp, clap their hands together and against their bodies to make a rhythm for sorority chants and songs. Routines are highly choreographed and often rely on a call-and-response technique. [Source: California Academy of Sciences]. Stepping began with black fraternities in much the same way the white fraternities' tradition of glee club-style singing sprang to life. Black sororities took up the tradition some time later. Some Latina sororities step as well. The first step show of an initiated member is called a probate show.

Hazing and Initiation

To be initiated as a sister, new members must study for the pledge test.
To be initiated as a sister, new members must study for the pledge test.
Photographer: Noriko Cooper | Agency:

When you think of pledging, it's likely hazing is the next thing that pops into your mind. Most universities and colleges define hazing in a similar way; Dartmouth describes it like this:

Any action taken or situation created as part of initiation to or continued membership in a student organization, which produces or could be expected to produce mental or physical discomfort, harm, or stress, embarrassment, harassment, or ridicule...Hazing consists of a broad range of behaviors that may place another person in danger of physical or psychological harm or activities that demonstrate disregard for another person's dignity or well-being. Even when demeaning or embarrassing behaviors do not appear overtly harmful in themselves, as where the participants appear to engage in them willingly, they may constitute hazing if they are part of an organization's initiation or membership activities and if they might cause humiliation. [Source: Dartmouth]

Hazing can happen in any organized group including sports teams and military groups. On college campuses, it tends to be a bigger problem in fraternities, but it certainly also happens in sororities. Most universities have specific rules forbidding hazing, and every sorority's national organization forbids hazing as well. Despite these restrictions, hazing is still happening on campuses throughout the United States.


Hazing in a sorority might include forcing pledges to go without sleep, forcing them to binge drink, scaring them or forcing them to do degrading tasks. Stories circulate about girls being told to bring markers with them to meetings. Sisters use the markers to circle areas of the pledge's body to indicate where they think the pledge needs to lose weight. Universities and national umbrella organizations take hazing very seriously -- and for good reason as hazing has resulted in injury and even death. Because it is such a serious concern, each school has a system to handle hazing complaints.

If a potential new member meets all of her pledgeship requirements, she may be eligible for initiation, a secret ritual event during which she will become a full member of the sorority.

During initiation, she will learn the sorority's secrets, from the secret meaning behind the Greek letters to secret passwords and secret handshakes. Yes, lots and lots of secrets. Marking the transition with a special ceremony, which has been upheld for decades or even a century, is meant to have a powerful effect on the initiate, tying her to a tradition, the ideals of the founders and an idea of sisterhood. These rituals often have ties to Greek secret society rituals and involve symbols, and perhaps even costumes. Sisters are forbidden to reveal the sorority ritual or its secrets.


Sorority Life

Sorority sisters spend time together at a sorority luncheon.
Sorority sisters spend time together at a sorority luncheon.
AP Photo/Douglas C. Pizak

So you've made it through pledging, you've been initiated and you're finally a sorority woman. Now what?

Many sororities have a mentoring program that pairs older sisters with new members, often called a "Big Sis/Little Sis Program." Within a sorority, there may be different "family trees." For example, the big sis of your big sis would be your grand big sis. Sorority families may have their own special traditions -- like wearing a particular design of necklace with Greek letters.


Sometimes the Big Sis/Little Sis process is something like rush -- a new sister is paired with a few older sisters, and they are all matched up by preference.

Costs of being a sorority member differ depending on the campus. If the sorority has a sorority house, it may be cheaper to live in the house than in a dorm with a meal plan. A new member's dues will cost more than an older sister's out-of-house dues. It is common for large sororities at campuses with a large Greek population to cost a few thousand dollars a year. Some will cost much less. A new member may be required to buy a sorority badge and pay extra administrative costs. Optional costs include buying sorority T-shirts, sorority jewelry, pictures and paying for activities like date nights.

Wearing a sorority's letters is considered an honor. Some sororities have rules about what a sister can and cannot do while wearing her letters. For example, she might not be allowed to drink alcohol while sporting her sorority necklace. If a sorority member would like to engage in behavior not becoming of the sorority, she cannot wear her letters.

Not every sorority has a classic mansion, despite what you might see in the movies. Some sororities actually don't have houses and meet instead somewhere on campus or another facility. Sororities with houses usually have a house mom, who coordinates the day-to-day affairs of the sorority from meals to maintenance and enforces house rules, like no alcohol.

Social life is a big part of being in a sorority. Sororities often have themed socials with fraternities where sorority members get to meet and mingle with fraternity members while dressed up in costume. Sororities also organize date nights and semi-formal and formal dances (think prom for college).


More on Sorority Life

Many sororities have mandated GPAs for their sisters.
Many sororities have mandated GPAs for their sisters.
Photographer: Ximagination | Agency:

The idea that sorority life is just about being social frustrates many sorority members, whose national chapters and mission statements stress the importance of scholarship and service. Every national sorority and most local sororities are involved with philanthropy work. Some sororities earmark specific charities and causes for which they work to raise money. Sororities will often hold fundraisers like basketball games and fishing tournaments. Many sorority members participate in campus philanthropy organizations as well. While every sorority sister may not adhere to the ideals of her organization, there is ample opportunity to be involved in charitable work.

Most sororities have a mandated grade point average (GPA) that sorority members must meet in order to retain all the privileges of membership. A sister who falls below the established GPA might be required to attend study sessions or even have social privileges revoked. Perhaps as a measure to maintain the house average, some sororities have been known (and criticized) for having a sort of cheater's cache -- file drawers full of tests and class papers.


Criticism and rumors regarding cheating and hazing aside, for many women, being in a sorority can have a positive impact on their college career. But for others, it can be the very opposite. Much like deciding which college to attend, deciding whether to rush is a personal decision. What may be right for one woman may not be right for another -- even if you are a legacy with your mother and grandmother in good alumna standing with a certain sorority.

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


Originally Published: Aug 6, 2007

Sorority FAQ

What does it mean to be in a sorority?
A sorority is a group or a society for girls studying at an higher educational institute. Being a part of a sorority means being part of a community or “sisterhood.”
Why shouldn't you join a sorority?
Joining a sorority requires full commitment, with a ton of meetings, parties, fundraisers and events that you have to be a part of on top of your regular studies. Many sororities also require you pay dues and other fees, which can get steep - especially if you’re already a poor student. While colleges are cracking down on hazing, it also still happens, which is never a good experience and is quite problematic.
What is a boy sorority called?
In the same way females can rush a sorority, guys can join a fraternity.
What is the most elite sorority?
Some of the most elite sororities that contribute to their respective colleges and universities are Kappa Kappa Gamma, Delta Delta Delta, Zeta Tau Alpha, Delta Zeta and Alpha Phi. These sororities are well-known around the world.
Which sorority is the hardest to get into?
Alpha Phi is one of the most elite sororities and is considered to be the hardest to get into. You will have to go through a number of recruitment processes to land yourself a coveted spot.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • ADPi Web site.
  • Alpha Kappa Alpha Web site
  • Greek Terms. Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life. Duke University.
  • Marklein, Mary Beth. "Kicked off Ind. campus, sorority suing for reinstatement." USA Today. March 29, 2007.
  • National Panhellenic Conference Web site
  • National Pan-Hellenic Council Web site
  • Roche, Timothy. "Blacks Need Not Apply." TIME. November 2, 2000.,8599,59389,00.html
  • Theta Nu Xi Web site.
  • Traditional Arts Program: Program Notes. California Academy of Sciences.
  • Zagier, Alan Scher. "Mothers get chance to be sisters." The Columbia Tribune. February 28, 2007.
  • Zengerle, Jason. "Alabama's New Schoolhouse Door." The New Republic. January 24, 2002.