Greek Life: An American Tradition

For most international students the idea of fraternities and sororities is something they come across in films set on US colleges. Dating back to the early 1700’s fraternities and sororities have grown into an American tradition, with a presence on campuses across the country. In this article I will explain what they are, the benefits of ‘pledging’, and concerns that many have about them.


What is ‘Greek Life’?

Greek Life is the collective term used to describe the fraternities and sororities frequently found on the campus of colleges in the US. It’s called Greek Life because these organisations take their names from a combination of letters from the Greek alphabet, common examples are Sigma Alpha Epsilon or Pi Kappa Alpha. When the first fraternities were formed college was a male only preserve but when women started to appear on campus they set up their own organisations or sororities. For the most part this divide, on the grounds of gender survives to the current day.

The common view of what fraternities and sororities are about probably comes from films like Animal House, the 1978 film that satirised and glorified Greek Life, in its portrayal of the drinking culture found in some fraternities. It was deeply influential in what people thought a US college experience should look like and has arguable lead to some of the challenges to the Greek system in recent years.

While the Animal House portrayal probably does exist in some places most Greek organisations have their roots firmly rooted in traditional values of camaraderie and philanthropy. Many of them will have a specific focus, for example, philanthropy, medicine, law or business. Some may be dedicated to a specific religion or ethnic group.

How do you join?

Following criticism of the way members were inducted into Greek Life some fraternities, sororities and indeed colleges have changed how they select new members. Traditionally those who wanted to join would first ‘rush’: this is the process where students choose which Greek organisations they want to join, attending recruitment events and interviews. Greek recruitment leaders use these events to take notes on the impression of the applicant and determine whether they would be a good fit for their organisation. If they believe a person would work well they will offer the applicant a ‘bid’ or invite to join their fraternity or sorority.

Having accepted the bid, the student becomes a ‘pledge’ member of that Greek organization until the following recruitment period. A pledge receives a ‘big’, someone that has been in the organization for one or more years than them, who will act as a mentor to the pledge, introducing them to people and showing them around the Greek organization. Bigs often pass down decorations, memorabilia and Greek letter clothing to their ‘littles’ (the pledge they are looking after) as a way to continue spreading the word about their organization.

Why should you join Greek Life?


For many students arriving at a new college, and perhaps a new country, can be a daunting experience. Having people who can show you the ropes and ease your transition into college life can be a great help and joining a fraternity or sorority is one way to access that help. Once joined students tend to form a bond with other members, often these begin to resemble familial ties – fraternity members often refer to each other as ‘brothers’ and sorority members refer to each other as ‘sisters’. Many Greek devotees say that the friends you make in the house are strong, lifelong connections. Having these close friends can be an invaluable source of support during their time at college, it has been shown that members of Greek organisations have a lower dropout rate than non-members.


The Greek organisation a student belongs to will almost certainly be part of a larger network with brother or sister organisations on other campuses. Altogether it is estimated that there are in excess of nine million alumni of fraternities and sororities spread across the world and in all careers. Greek life gives students access to this network and can provide opportunities for internships while at college and help with employment and advancement post college.

Giving back

One aspect of Greek life that is often neglected in their portrayal in popular media is the work done to instil a strong commitment to service and philanthropy in their members. It is normal for a chapter to have somebody in a leadership position who will log the time members put in and coordinate events and fundraising. The work done at a particular chapter will often be part of a nationwide drive and it is not unusual for the national chapter to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars each year for their chosen charities.


What are the drawbacks?


If you intend to join a fraternity or sorority you should prepare for it to take over your time outside of class, particularly while you are a pledge. When you first join you are likely to be required to spend much, if not all, of your free time in meetings, completing tasks or just being at the chapter house. This can place a huge strain on your ability to keep up with coursework, so much so that some colleges have banned rushing during the freshman year.

Even after you are a full member of your fraternity or sorority there are still many commitments you are expected to meet, taking part in fundraisers, social events, attending meetings and so on. Students need to have great time management skills and the ability to balance conflicting demands.


In some colleges, it may feel as if going Greek is the only way to make friends and have a social life, however, the cost can be one of the largest expenses in your budget. 

Most fraternities and sororities will have a joining fee and then dues of up to $1,000 per semester. On top of this, there will probably be incidental fees associated with being Greek such as fines for missing a compulsory meeting or other misdemeanours, clothes in your organisations colours or with their name on it, ‘donations’ to good causes supported by the chapter and tickets to formal and informal events. It all adds up.


Described as ‘a ritual that involves risk, pain, or harm to gain some form of initiation’ and has been linked with the deaths of 40 students between 2007 and 2017. As a result of the publicity caused by these tragedies many colleges and Greek organisations have put a ban on hazing and many states have made the practice illegal. The reality is that informal hazing still continues, often it will be trivial or demining tasks but at the more extreme level, it can also involve the consumption of large amounts of alcohol and ‘tests’ of physical and psychological strength.


Final thoughts

The choice of whether to go Greek or not is a personal one, many people gain a great deal from the experience and the connections they make but it is not for everybody. Think about what you want to get by joining and then spend time researching to find fraternities and sororities that match your personality, interests and identity. If you do decide to pledge, be smart, be safe and don’t let yourself be pressured to do something you don’t feel happy doing.

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