Most people have ideas about Greek life that are based on pop culture stereotypes of fraternities and sororities. However, Greek life isn’t supposed to be about wild parties, “bro culture,” and superficial judgments (although those things can come into play). Fraternities and sororities are often great communities where you’ll make lifelong friends. In this article, I’ll give you an overview of what Greek life is, its pluses and minuses, and whether you should go to a school with fraternities and sororities.
What Is Greek Life? A Brief History
Greek life got its name because fraternities and sororities are named with Greek letters. This tradition began with the formation of the first Greek-letter student society, Phi Beta Kappa Society, at the College of William and Mary in 1776. The society was more of an academic group that fostered literary debates than anything else, but it was an early model for later organizations.
The first fraternity in the modern sense, Kappa Alpha Society at Union College, was founded in 1825. Kappa Alpha tried to emulate Phi Beta Kappa while also focusing on the development of friendships among its members. After this time, more fraternities began to emerge on various college campuses. Some would become national organizations with chapters at different colleges.
Sororities started up in the 1850s as more and more women began to attend college and challenge the male-dominated academic and social scene. To date, there are 123 fraternities and sororities in the US and Canada with 750,000 undergraduate members in 12,000 chapters on over 800 college campuses.
Some campuses have a marginal Greek scene, with students involved in these organizations being in the extreme minority, while others have a very dominant Greek population. This leads to varying levels of Greek influence on campus culture as a whole. At Washington and Lee University, about 80 percent of undergraduates are involved in Greek life. Since Washington and Lee only has around 2,300 students total, this makes for an extremely strong impact on the social scene. At the University of Georgia, about 23 percent of students are involved in Greek life within a population of over 27,000 undergraduates. Especially at such a large school, the Greek minority may hold less sway over the dynamics of campus culture.
Washington and Lee University: It's almost all Greek to me
Why Is Greek Life Popular? What’s It All About?
The missions of fraternities and sororities vary from chapter to chapter, but some characteristics are relatively consistent. Fraternities and sororities look to develop strong bonds between their members and encourage personal growth and development. These organizations often have special traditions that bring members together and promote loyalty, friendship, community service, intellectual achievements, and leadership. Traditions usually include weekly meetings, retreats, and participation in service-related events.
Many fraternities and sororities have specific organizations or causes that they partner with for community service initiatives. My sorority at Dartmouth had a partnership with an organization called WISE, which works in the local area to help victims of domestic abuse. Most Greek organizations are serious about academics as well. GPA requirements for membership are common, and many sororities and fraternities take great pride in the academic accomplishments of their members.
To join a fraternity or sorority, you will most likely have to go through the “rush” process, which is a recruitment period where you get to know the members and mutually decide whether your personality is a good match for the character of the group. Usually, fraternities and sororities have their own houses where they host meetings and parties, and many members live in the houses.
Your membership in a Greek organization will extend past your time as an undergraduate. You'll be a sister or brother for life once you join! In the next couple of sections, I’ll go over some pros and cons of joining a fraternity or sorority to give you a better idea of what it’s like.
One of us. One of us.
Academic and Financial Pros and Cons of Greek Life
These pros and cons are factors that relate to the explicit policies and structure of sororities and fraternities and how they might affect your academic and professional success as well as your college experience overall.
Access to Connections With the Alumni Network
This is one of the main reasons that many people join sororities and fraternities. Once you join, you will be able to communicate with a large alumni network (especially if you end up being in a national organization) that is usually very enthusiastic about helping fellow members. This can be awesome for your career prospects after college.
Great Leadership Opportunities
If you join a Greek organization, you might end up becoming a part of the governing body of the sorority or fraternity. Most of these organizations elect presidents, vice presidents, treasurers, social chairpeople, and other representatives. It can be a nice way to get leadership experience in a friendly context.
This experience will carry over into the professional world after college. If you were the president of your Greek organization, it's a strong indication that you will perform well in a leadership role at your job. Employers may see it as a sign pointing to your potential within the company and be more likely to hire you.
Your potential employers will imagine you as a featureless shape wearing a tie, and they will imagine all the other candidates as featureless shapes that didn't even bother to dress up.
Living in a House Instead of a Dorm
Another great thing about being in a sorority or fraternity is that you’ll probably have the opportunity to live in the house as an upperclassman. This can be a really fun experience, especially if you’re close with the other people living in the house. You can hang out or study with people in a more relaxed, comfortable environment than a dorm or the library. You can also get support from friends easily at any time.
Damage to Your Academic Record (and Mental Health) If You Become Too Invested
At many fraternities and sororities, you’re considered a “pledge” when your first join, and you’ll have to go through initiation to become a full member. I knew people who joined fraternities at Dartmouth and took fewer classes during their “pledge term” so that they could handle all the things they had to do for the fraternity. This included lots of beer-fueled meetings and special events that left them tired and hungover.
During pledge term, some new members are “hazed” or put through degrading rituals as rites of passage, which is a very problematic aspect of fraternity culture (and sorority culture, but less so). I definitely heard about people in fraternities having to eat gross things (or the same thing in the dining hall day after day, which almost seems more sadistic) or chug alcohol until they puked.
These rituals are technically optional, but the pressure to do them to earn your place in the group is often very strong. Members will often take pride in the fact that they survived pledge term without quitting. If you end up spending too much time partying or trying to show that you’re the most dedicated pledge, you may lose sight of your academic and personal goals.
I'm not saying pledging will involve fire-eating, but I'm also not saying it won't.
Members of Greek organizations usually have to pay dues, which go towards the maintenance of the house and funding for social events. An extra financial strain is the last thing that most students are looking for in college. This is part of what contributes to the stereotype of the privileged frat boy or sorority girl. Fees and other costs associated with membership can sometimes reach over $10,000 a year.
I want to stress that this isn't the case in every fraternity and sorority, and it absolutely wasn't my experience. There were people in my sorority who didn’t pay dues because they simply couldn’t afford it, and that was fine. Most of the members paid around $75 a term for social dues and less than $200 a term for house dues (less than $1,000 per year). Because we were a local sorority, we had a lot more control over how much we charged people for dues. National sororities have less flexibility in their policies and may not have the ability to be as lenient in granting financial aid.
You can also take your chances and hope that a cashnado tears through your sleepy college town, ripping the roofs off houses and replacing them with solid gold.
Social Pros and Cons of Greek Life
These pros and cons deal with characteristics of fraternities and sororities that will affect your social life and interactions in college.
Meeting Lots of Cool New People and Gaining Upperclassman Mentors
When you join a fraternity or sorority, you’ll meet a big group of people who you might not have interacted with otherwise. It can introduce you to all kinds of varying perspectives and lead to amazing friendships. You will also most likely be assigned an upperclassman mentor in your sorority or fraternity, called a Big Sister or Big Brother. This person will introduce you to the organization and be a helpful resource for navigating college in general.
Invitations to Tons of Fun Events and Parties
If you’re in a fraternity or sorority, you’ll get lots of invitations to parties and events with other Greek organizations and internally. There will probably be an event going on almost every night of the week, so you’ll have the opportunity to socialize or hang out whenever you want.
My sorority had weekly wine and cheese and movie nights, themed meetings, and get-togethers with other fraternities and sororities on the weekends. Sororities and fraternities also have formals, which are fancy parties at the end of the semester where everyone dresses up nicely. It’s kind of like prom but less ridiculously overhyped, less expensive, and more fun.
This was pretty much what wine and cheese night was like at my sorority except instead of fancy bread we had Wheat Thins and instead of utensils we had no utensils.
A Built-In Support System for the Rest of College (and Your Life!)
This is one of the best things about being in a fraternity or sorority. You’re surrounded by a group of people who you can always ask for help or encouragement if you need it. Even if you are confused about college policy or need to ask a question about how to declare a major or sign up for a certain class (or whether a certain professor is good or not), you can easily get great advice from people who have been there. When you’re in one of these organizations, you’ll never feel totally alone or isolated. Someone will always be willing to hang out with you and watch a movie or just grab a meal between marathon study sessions to cheer you up.
If you have to chop a bunch of onions, metaphorically speaking (or even literally speaking), you'll get lots of support.
Rush Is Superficial (and You Could End Up in the Wrong Place)
Superficiality is a major criticism of the recruitment process, especially in sororities. Different colleges do rush differently, but commonly it’s a process that happens over a short period of time where you briefly visit each house and have mini-conversations with the members. This doesn’t give anyone a great chance to get to know you, and if you’re not good with small talk, it can be a nightmare.
Judgments based on appearances and initial impressions tend to happen. This often leads to disappointment if you’re rejected by a house where you feel you belong or unhappiness if you join a sorority or fraternity that ultimately isn't a good fit on a deeper level. Many Greek organizations hold events before formal rush to give you the opportunity to get to know the members better, but if you’re shy the whole thing is a difficult process. (I say this from personal experience.)
Accurate representation of how awkward I felt during rush...
Divisiveness and Stereotypes Run Rampant
Most sororities or fraternities have certain reputations, and this can cloud judgments about where you should join and what members are like. People will sometimes make assumptions about a student based on which fraternity or sorority he or she is in that are totally inaccurate.
This can lead to fears about what people will think about you if you join X sorority or fraternity, which might mean that you end up somewhere you don’t belong to avoid being judged. Some sororities and fraternities have mentalities about only associating with certain other Greek organizations or keeping themselves insular from the general population of the school. These types of boundaries may stunt your social life even while you are participating in lots of events within the Greek system.
Other Problematic Aspects of Greek Culture
I mentioned hazing above, which is an issue that affects members internally. There are also problems with the climate the Greek system can create on campus. Particularly with strong fraternity systems, power dynamics are often skewed in favor of the brothers who host parties at their houses. This can lead to situations where other students are victimized and objectified.
When Greek life has a strong hold on the social scene, some people get a little wrapped up in their egos about being in a certain house and holding the keys to the best parties (and alcohol). They might try and show off to their friends in the fraternity (or sorority, although it happens less often) by bragging about how much they can drink or how much they’ve slept around. This culture can sometimes turn otherwise decent but insecure people into jerks.
Should You Go to a College with Greek Life?
Many colleges have fraternities and sororities, and their existence will not necessarily make or break your experience there. Even at campuses with a strong Greek system, other social outlets exist, and there are still students who decide to remain unaffiliated. However, your personality may make you more or less comfortable in a campus environment with Greek life.
You Should Consider Going to a College With Greek Life If:
- You like being around people most of the time, and you need to talk things out with others before you make decisions.
- You enjoyed being a part of a close-knit group with shared interests in high school, such as a sports team, and you’re looking for a way to find the same type of camaraderie in college.
- Socializing is an important part of college to you; you know you’re there to learn, but meeting new people is also very high on your priority list.
Colleges With Greek Life Might Not Be a Good Fit for You If:
- You are extremely academically oriented, and the college party culture doesn’t appeal to you.
- You are a very independent person, and you like to have a lot of alone time to do your own thing.
- You prefer to have just a couple close friends and are a little overwhelmed by meeting lots of new people.
Then again, the characteristics on the second list could describe me, and I ended up joining a (very nerdy) sorority, so don’t discount Greek life completely even if it doesn’t seem like it would appeal to you. You should also check what percentage of students actually join Greek organizations at the schools that interest you. Then you can determine whether you need to factor this into your decision.
If only a very small minority of undergraduates go Greek, then you might not have to interact with the system at all. If the majority of students go Greek, then you'll probably be more exposed to Greek life (especially if it's a relatively small school).
Remember that every college is different, and so is each sorority and fraternity! Greek life has its overall pluses and minuses, but if you end up joining a house that you really click with, it can be an awesome experience.
Worried about the costs of sorority and fraternity dues and college in general? Read our practical guide on how to save money for college.
For more tips on figuring out the right college for your needs, take a look at my guide to choosing a college and my step-by-step breakdown of the college research process.
One of the most major differences you'll see between colleges is the size of their undergraduate enrollments. Find out whether a big or small college is the right choice for you.Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
Samantha is a blog content writer for PrepScholar. Her goal is to help students adopt a less stressful view of standardized testing and other academic challenges through her articles. Samantha is also passionate about art and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College as a Studio Art major in 2014. In high school, she earned a 2400 on the SAT, 5's on all seven of her AP tests, and was named a National Merit Scholar.