An inside look at the secrets of sorority recruitment
These are the words of mothers who are still in the recovery phase of their daughters going through fall sorority rush.
When the first women’s Greek-letter fraternity was founded in 1870 in Indiana, I doubt the ladies laden with bustles, ruffles and cinched-in corsets could ever have imagined a world where becoming a member of a sorority would be fraught with peril, hysterical weeping and behind-the-scenes mama machinations.
Cynthia Nack, who runs a sorority consulting business called Rush-Help.com, a business that guides women through the recruitment process, says getting into a sorority is very “doable” but adds it can be a challenge, “especially if a girl goes in wanting the same two or three same sororities that everybody else does.”
Couple that with an increased volume of young women going through rush, and it can seem like the level of difficulty of getting into a sorority has never been higher. That’s because getting a bid card to pledge a sorority has and always will be a numbers game. It’s simple math. The more women going through rush, the harder it is to get into a sorority.
In the past decade, the number of coeds signing up for sorority recruitment has increased exponentially. The National Panhellenic Conference reports that in 2005 less than a quarter of a million women were in a Greek sorority. In 2015 it was closing in on 400,000.
To accommodate the growing number of young women seeking a sorority experience, many colleges have increased their cap on the number of pledges they’ll take to almost triple digits.
There are universities like Kansas State University, where the number is lower. Kathleen MacLeay, assistant director for Fraternity and Sorority Life, says the fall 2016 pledge classes hovered at 50 with the average chapter size at 180 members. The University of Missouri and the University of Kansas both report their quota (the number of woman left on the last day divided by number of houses) was in the 70s. At Baylor University, some pledge classes exceeded 100 last year.
At many universities, Greek life has never been more popular. The NPC reports that since 2013 more than 200 campuses have looked at adding more sororities. Dani Weatherford, executive director of the National Panhellenic Conference, says there’s a reason for that which supersedes the social aspect.
“Many campuses are also recognizing the role sororities can play in student life and as a player in an evolving higher-education landscape,” Weatherford says. “When we talk to our partners on campuses, our conversations are about issues like graduation rates, retention and financial aid. There’s a recognition that sororities can be important drivers for each area.”
As work is being done to allow more coeds to enjoy sorority membership, some recent rushees and their mothers wonder why it’s so hard to get what you want or even close to what you want.
One of the culprits in changing the entire rush process is social media. A decade ago, 18-year-olds didn’t have an online footprint that chronicled every moment of their teen years. Back in the day, a rushee could manage her image with quality reference letters from alumnae, a shout-out from someone in the chapter and looking sort of cute at the parties. (I wore navy blue wool knee socks — yes, knee socks — to a series of rush parties, and I still got a bid.)
Now, thanks to social media, sororities have hard data on just what a PNM (which stands for potential new member and is the updated terminology for a rushee) has been doing since elementary school (up to and including all those 8-and-under soccer pictures). All this can greatly affect the “pre-rush score” of each PNM, which is the ranking some chapters use before recruitment starts.
For example, one sorority at the University of Texas during “work week” was culling through the Instagram accounts of PNMs and eliminating any girl who had pictures of herself making a duck face. Another sorority at Texas Christian University downgraded any PNM who posted photos where she looked “visibly not sober.”
Nack advises her clients to either vigorously edit their social media accounts or scrub them entirely. “I tell girls that sororities spend the entire summer looking through social media, and if yours doesn’t reflect the best version of you, get rid of it.”
One mother, whose three daughters have gone through rush, takes social media warnings a step further. “Not only did sororities go through my daughters’ social media accounts, but they also looked at my Facebook page, which I mistakenly had not set to private.”
Active members in a sorority aren’t the only ones using social media to judge PNMs. Alumnae are too. Many women shared that before they write a ref or rec (reference or recommendation letter) for a rushee, they check her out on social media just to make sure they’re not going to be embarrassed for endorsing the young woman.
Mission Hills sorority alumna Margaret, who prefers I don’t use her last name, says she’s probably written 50 or more recs in the past decade, and it’s something she takes very seriously.
“Many times, you’re writing a reference letter for someone’s child you don’t really know that well or for the child of a college friend or your husband’s business associate, and you want to make sure there’s nothing out there that’s going to come back and bite you. I don’t want my credibility to ever come into question by recommending a girl who was not what she seemed.”
Social media is a double-edged sword. Girls who are still in high school check out the Instagram pages of sororities and follow the lives of friends who have gone off to college and pledged. This can lead to pre-selecting which sororities they like.
Websites like greekrank.com judge sororities at each school on everything from classiness and popularity to looks and sisterhood. Currently coming in at No. 1 on Greek Rank at KU is Kappa Delta; Chi Omega leads the list at Mizzou, and Sigma Kappa is first at Kansas State.
Joanna Glaze, a Kansas City sorority alumna, whose friends refer to her as the “Queen of Rush” due to her kindness in helping girls understand the process, says a lot of this early information doesn’t do a rushee any good.
“One of the major mistakes I see girls make is being overconfident and not being open to the whole rush experience,” Glaze says. “You can’t have it in your head that you only want one certain sorority. If you go into rush with that mindset, more often than not you’ll be very disappointed.”
Rachel Lewis is president of Sorority Corner, author of Sorority Recruitment 101: An Insider’s Guide to Sorority Recruitment and the former president of the Alpha Chi Omega chapter at KU in 2010. Besides the social media juggernaut that has affected the sorority landscape, Lewis says another huge issue is that most freshmen look equal on paper.
“Due to the college application process, everyone is much savvier now,” Lewis says. “It used to be that not every girl would have community service or a high GPA, but now most candidates for a sorority have the same qualifications, and that makes it that much harder to stand out and shine. It can all boil down to who was having the better day.”
To make sure you’re having the better day takes a lot of work. Weeks, and in some cases, years go into getting ready for rush. Everything from the number of recommendation letters to the dress requirements is predicated on the college campus, which is one of the many reasons rush can be such a nightmare for daughters and their mothers.
There is no universal rush template. Every chapter at every university has its own protocol, and in many cases figuring it all out is like a Rubik’s Cube. Lewis says all the southern and Texas schools are much more “high-maintenance” in regards to recruitment.
A Houston mother proudly agrees with that statement and says a sorority at a Texas school is going to be vastly different from any sorority on the East Coast, where she says they’re “not really even sororities.”
“They may have Greek letters, but that’s about where the similarities end,” she says.
You only have to take a look at the alumnae recommendation letter requirements to get a sense of the bewilderment. Nack says some schools like the University of Iowa don’t require recs. The University of Texas Panhellenic Council’s website states “letters of recommendation are optional.”
Anyone who has gone through rush at UT will tell you that without a rec you’ve substantially increased the degree of difficulty of getting into a sorority. One burnt orange mother puts it this way: “I’m sure it happens, but why would you put your daughter at such an awful disadvantage?”
Or as Lewis says, “If a sorority is deciding between two girls and one has a rec and one doesn’t, they’re going to take the girl with the rec.”
Then there’s the drama about how you go about procuring recommendation letters. A recent trend has been high school seniors going on Facebook and posting in their newsfeed that they are going through rush at a certain university and are seeking recommendation letters. This is apparently a huge no-no. It was described to me as an “an etiquette gaffe like no other.”
Glaze says she prefers girls and their mothers request a rec either in person, via a phone call or in writing. Nack takes it one step further and says a social-media-rec roundup is a horrible idea. “Reaching out to social media either screams ‘my daughter is a problem’ or ‘she can't keep friends.’ It may sound old-school, but being asked to be a member of a sorority is a privilege.”
Even Lewis, who is millennial, is not a fan of the digital call for rec letters. “Girls have to remember that if your Facebook isn’t private, sororities can look and see how you had to ask for your rec letters.”
All of this is why there are businesses dedicated to reference-letter attainment and even stationery stores that sell $400 recruitment recommendations kits featuring “monogrammed and coordinated folders in the school colors of your choice for résumés and photos.”
Your monogram may not matter because sometimes alumnae admit that they lie about writing recs. “It’s just easier to tell someone that you’re going to write one,” Margaret says. “Seriously, if some mother asked me to write her daughter a rec, I can’t imagine I ever would say no to her face. I might not do it, but I’m not telling a mother that.”
Dallas mom Betsy laughed and said no one she knows would even wait until the summer before rush to ask for recommendation letters. “I already had worked out who would be writing my daughter’s rec letters before she entered preschool, and with any new friends I would make, I would keep a tally of who was an alumnae of what sorority.”
Once you’ve conquered the rec letters, deciphering the nomenclature of Greek life on campus becomes the next challenge. For instance, at the University of Mississippi, mothers will tell you that your daughter better have at least three recs for each sorority, and out of those three, one should be from an Ole Miss alumnae. And please and thank you for the three photos (one featuring a full body shot) from a professional photographer included with each rec. Plus, you can never have enough Lilly (as in Lilly Pulitzer) for your rush wardrobe.
If you’re going through rush in Texas, chances are you’ve been groomed for it since early childhood when you were sent off to Camp Longhorn, Mystic or Waldemar in an effort to expand your friend base so 12 years later a Chi O at Southern Methodist University can say, “I loooove her. We went to Mystic together.”
Parents have been known to select high schools for their daughters that offer the best path to a certain sorority. You want to up your chances that your daughter pledges Pi Beta Phi at the University of Texas? Then make sure she graduates from the Episcopal School of Dallas. It’s considered a feeder school for UT Pi Phis.
Feeder schools and what is called high school stacking has in recent years become another rush hurdle. This is when a sorority gets top-heavy with members that all hail from one particular high school, thus making it harder for a PNM from the same city but a different high school to get a bid.
A KU sorority active from Overland Park says, “It’s kind of a known fact that if you’re from Shawnee Mission East or any of the Catholic girls’ schools, chances are you’re pledging Kappa at KU. It’s like high school 2.0.”
Once rush begins, it can be brutal. Think of going on a multi-day job interview with thousands of other applicants all vying for the same position. Lewis says PNMs need to be prepared for an “overwhelming roller coaster of emotions.”
Rush usually lasts from three to five days with the final event being bid day. Each day requires a different outfit, and as you progress in the process, your outfits get dressier. At some schools, the first day of recruitment is defined as “super casual.”
At UT this past summer, the PNMs wore khaki shorts, a recruitment T-shirt and tennis shoes. And while on the surface this sounds easy-peasy, one active calls it a test. “You can judge a girl by the length of her shorts and her brand of tennis shoes. Plus, it’s hard to disguise cellulite in shorts.”
Due to the shorts requirement, one gym in Dallas offered a leg workout class geared toward UT PNMs called “Crush Rush 2016.”
After the initial open-house round of parties, rushees and the sororities each begin narrowing down their list of whom they like. Every day, rush parties have a new theme, and in an effort to make the process “more meaningful,” many chapters have replaced “skit day” with “philanthropy day.” Some Panhellenics have voted to institute what is called a “no-frills rush, like at KU. Glaze says it’s an attempt to level the playing field and that some sororities fought it for years.
“It’s a way for everything to be equal and for one house not to out-wow another by spending a lot of money on their rush parties,” Glaze says.
A KU senior sorority member calls the no-frills rush “lame.”
“Everyone knows what the top three sororities are on campus, and you can’t hide that no matter what you do.”
As the potential new members trudge through campus, usually in the blistering August heat, attending parties, you can find some of their mothers nearby at hotels ready to lend a hand. At the University of Texas, it’s common practice for mothers to take a block of rooms at the Four Seasons Hotel Austin, some with hair and makeup artists in tow. At the University of Arkansas, moms move into The Chancellor Hotel; at MU, The Tiger Hotel and the Hampton Inn Columbia have been ground zero for rush moms.
A Leawood mother who tagged along with her daughter to rush defends her decision to stay close by as a way to “be right there if she needs me.”
A UT mom takes it a step further: “I’m not afraid to make a phone call or call in some favors. It’s boots on the ground, plain and simple.”
Lewis says she’s not a huge fan of the trend, and Nack says it causes a lot of problems.
“I’ve told girls to not listen to their mothers. They should be focused on finding a sorority that they like, not what their mothers think is a good choice,” Nack says. “I had a girl tell me she even lied to her mother about what sororities she cut because she thought her mom would be angry.”
Even with your mother down the street, nothing is a slam-dunk when it comes to sorority rush. Not even being a legacy (a PNM who is the sister, daughter or granddaughter of an alumnae sorority member) isn’t sacred anymore. Nack says the problem is that there are just too many of them.
“Basically all that being a legacy is going to do is get you invited to maybe the second round of parties. After that, all bets are off.”
In fact, some sorority members refer to legacies as “cram-downs,” as in “the alums are cramming this legacy down our throats.”
Even in-house sister legacies getting cut, which used to be scandalous, is not unheard of. This from an Arkansas sorority member: “We cut an in-house sister legacy because the sister who was a member just got wasted all the time, and the sister who was going through rush acted like she was already in. We decided we didn’t need double that attitude. We cut the sister with no regrets.”
If a rushee makes it as far as bid day, the final day of recruitment where potential new members receive bids to a sorority, there are two emotions: A young woman is either thrilled she got into the sorority she wanted or grieving over the bid she got but didn’t want. This can lead to the increasing numbers and acceptance practice of de-pledging.
Both Glaze and Nack are old-school about pledging a sorority and feel like a bid card should be treated as binding. Lewis, who is less than a decade out of college, thinks differently. “My advice is if you get a bid on bid day and it’s not the chapter you were hoping for, accept the bid and give it a couple of weeks. If the people you’re meeting in your pledge class aren’t friend material, then before you initiate you should de-pledge.”
Most sorority alumnae will say you have to trust the process and you usually end up where you’ll be the happiest.
There is no shame in going through rush twice, although it is harder to get in as a sophomore because most sororities take fewer older members. What does help is if you have a stellar GPA.
For one Kansas City mother, her daughter de-pledging and giving rush another chance worked out well. “I think of it as my daughter did it until she got it right,” she says. “She’s happy now. So, I’m happy. Although, I can honestly say it was a harrowing experience both times.”
Or as my Texas mama described the rush process oh so many years ago, “It makes putting socks on a rooster while blindfolded seem easy.”