Southern sorority recruitment is like the college admissions process, rush coach says

BY Sydney LakeAugust 24, 2021, 2:00 AM
The Pi Beta Phi sorority house in the Greek Village is shown at the University of South Carolina, as seen in September 2020. (Photo by Sean Rayford—Getty Images)

’Bama rush broke hearts—and the Internet—this month: sorority recruitment at the University of Alabama, that is. First-year students and sorority members took over social media app TikTok, posting videos of their “OOTDs,” or outfits of the day, and gifts they received at the end of the process. Some women also posted clips in tears over not being chosen to join their ideal house.

Thousands of young women went through the weeklong process all in the hope of “running home” to their favorite chapter on bid day, the culmination of recruitment. But rush begins long before that week, and even before students make the trek to Tuscaloosa, says Stacia Damron, founder and CEO of Hiking in Heels, a sorority recruitment coaching company.

“Really, a lot of decisions are being made ahead of time based on who you know, the ‘you’ that [sorority members] get to know on paper, and through other supplementary materials,” Damron says.

In a lot of ways, rush mimics the college application process.

For a successful sorority recruitment at a big Southern school like Alabama, potential new members (PNMs) must craft their best pitch to chapters months in advance of rush. A strong portfolio—including a résumé, recommendation letters from alumni, essay responses, and headshot photos—is even more important now to be competitive in rush as Greek life grows in popularity.

Despite the pandemic and recent calls for its abolition due to concerns about its history involving racism, sexism, and hazing, Greek life remains a social mecca for college students and financial boon for universities—and its alumni. Many men and women who are now Fortune 500 executives participated in Greek life during college.

Schools with the most students in a sorority include Alabama, Welch College, the University of the South, Washington and Lee University, and Wake Forest University, according to U.S. News and World Report.

Some schools like Texas A&M University saw double the number of women registering for recruitment this year, according to Damron, who helps PNMs craft their portfolios and prepare for rush.

Preparation realities

Sorority chapters at schools such as Alabama, the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss), Texas A&M, the University of Georgia, and the University of Arkansas expect to know about the PNMs before they even step foot on campus. 

These young women are expected to submit a résumé and letters of recommendation from sorority alumni, much like a college application. Panhellenic councils—the Greek life governance system—are now also asking for responses to essay questions and an introductory video. 

“If everyone doesn’t have the same rule book and access to the same information, of course some people are going to do better,” Damron says.

Since sororities have a limited time to get to know PNMs in person during recruitment week, recommendation letters and other materials are critical to a “wish list,” or a compilation of women sorority leaders would like to see join the chapter. For the fall recruitment process, like at Alabama, Damron suggests getting all materials in before May 1—which is often before rush registration even opens. This also happens to fall on “decision day,” when high school seniors must select which university they’ll attend.

“It’s all about getting on the sorority’s radar,” says Damron, whose company works with women attending more than 70 schools with competitive recruitment processes. “If you’re waiting until rush registration comes out, you’ve already missed the boat.”

Hiking in Heels works with PNMs to put together all of their pre-rush materials, practice for meeting with sorority women during parties, and advise on what to wear, say, and do during rush. The company offers two service packages—a $1,495 premium package and $2,975 elite membership.

“Much like the SAT or ACT, the more one prepares beforehand, the more successful she will likely be” during rush, the Hiking in Heels website reads.

Leslie Cunningham, the owner of Sorority Prep, suggests preparing as you would for an interview. 

“Conversations are a key to sorority recruitment,” she says. “PNMs should prepare for small talk, interview-style questions, and be vulnerable to share information about themselves.”

Some women transfer schools after—or during—rush

Sophia Gallimore spent the summer of 2017 preparing for sorority recruitment at Alabama, the only school to which she had applied. Sorority life is what had driven her to select the school.

“I wanted to be in the sorority more than I wanted to be at Alabama,” she says. “Really the only thing captivating my world was being in a sorority.”

She began researching each chapter, making notes of her favorite ones, made an effort to meet other Alabama sorority women, and spent thousands of dollars on dresses to wear during the parties. She was doing everything she could think of to be sure she could receive a bid, or invitation, to a chapter. 

Gallimore recalls being told by people from her hometown to be ready for recruitment. “Alabama is like no other school,” she remembers them saying. “This is brutal, this is going to be hard.”

Things changed when she and her family made the trip down from Nashville to Tuscaloosa for move-in day. Gallimore started having second thoughts about going through recruitment when she saw how many women were rushing—about 4,000 at the time—but pushed herself to persevere.

On the first day of recruitment, Gallimore woke up at 5 a.m. and had a schedule to attend parties at 10 houses that day. That’s more than half of the 17 sorority houses that Alabama has today. After a long day, Gallimore returned to her dorm room emotionally exhausted and decided not only to leave recruitment but also Alabama altogether. 

She drove through the night back home to Nashville without telling anyone, even her parents. The next morning, she woke up, applied to Belmont University, which is located in her hometown, and was accepted within just a few days. 

“The amount of emotions I had in those two days, I almost call it traumatic because I dealt with stuff after leaving,” she says. She describes her hometown as a place where most people end up attending SEC schools and joining Greek life, so coming home made her a “failure” in some eyes.

While situations such as Gallimore’s are uncommon, there are women who end up transferring to a school with second-semester recruitment. If fall rush doesn’t go as planned, then they would have another chance to go through recruitment again within the same school year.

Some women also choose to stick through recruitment, receive a bid, but then transfer to a school where that chapter is seen as more “desirable.”

“Women do leave the process or drop out of recruitment, but it’s a small percentage compared to how many women start the process,” Cunningham says. “Women who withdraw from sorority recruitment and transfer to another school to try again, simply are not open to the process and were narrow-minded from the start.”

Keeping perspective on the role of Greek life

Although Gallimore didn’t follow through with recruitment at Alabama, she chose to join a sorority after she transferred to Belmont. She graduated in April 2021 and now works for an artist management company in Nashville.

“College is such a small blip in your life, and I didn’t know that four years could happen so fast, but it did,” she says. “I’ve done a lot of growing in my own way.”

Just like you may not get into your top-choice college, there is no guarantee in being chosen to join your favorite sorority. This year, about 2,500 women rushed at the University of Alabama for less than 2,000 spots. Each of the 17 chapters at the school gave out bids to an average of 115 women, Damron says. Even if a PNM seemingly “does everything right” she can still be lucky to get in any house, she adds.

It’s more about what you make of the experience, though.

Like other clubs and cocurricular activities, Greek life offers the chance to have “lifelong friends, study buddies, accountability partners, philanthropic support, and fun,” Cunningham says. 

Plus, not all recruitment processes are like those at Alabama and other large, competitive universities. Gallimore says she had a much different process at Belmont, which is a small liberal arts school. Women can also join through an open, continuous bidding process, which is less formal and happens after recruitment, Cunningham adds.

“PNMs should know that recruitment is tough, no matter where you go to school,” Cunningham says. “It’s an emotional and exhausting process.You have to stick it out because the process works out if you are open to it.”