Ithaca & Cornell

Understanding the Sound and the Fury

an outsider’s look into the mythical world of the sorority rush

by ANNA ALISON BRENNER

Before I got to college, I couldn’t understand why anyone who wasn’t a “girly-girl” would join a sorority. The stereotype of prissy, Jewish American Princesses who slept on fluffy pink comforters and wore Juicy tracksuits everywhere was far too engrained in my head—by the media, and god knows what else[1]—for me to possibly imagine any alternative.

And then I came to Cornell.

Over my first few months here, I met girls who were actually in sororities. And while some fit the stereotype better than others, most of them barely did, and some didn’t at all. These girls wore t-shirts and jeans, watched Arrested Development, and loved Harry Potter, David Sedaris, The Catcher in the Rye. In other words, they were cool. Before long, many of them became my closest friends.

A year passed. I was now a semi-all-knowing sophomore, it was Fall Break, and all the dining halls were closed. Which was how my close friend, Ingrid[2] (with whom I had a long conversation during O-Week about how we were “not the sorority type”) and I ended up following a mutual friend of ours home for brunch.

“Home” turned out to be a beautiful, red brick house on North Campus. Our friend opened the double glass doors, and there we were, smack dab in the middle of the parlor. The parlor.

We made our way past the elegant dining room—which had wallpaper, real, nice wooden floors, and at least two large tables with fancy chairs—and into the kitchen, where we helped ourselves to chocolate chip pancakes and seemingly-unlimited fruit salad. And that’s when my best friend—who had been adamant that she “was not the sorority type” just a year ago—turned to me and said, “Hey, maybe we should rush.”

“If this is what being in a sorority’s actually like,” I said, “maybe we should.”

And then I laughed, because I was kidding. And she laughed, because she wasn’t.

I first thought to write this article my freshman year, after going to a Knicks game during the first weekend of winter break with my friend, Taylor. A year older than me, Taylor had rushed the previous winter and was, at the time of the Knicks game, living in her sorority. When we struck up a conversation about what we were going to do for the rest of break, she remarked that she had to return to campus early for rush week. I was intrigued.

“What’s Rush Week like?” I asked.

“It’s…stressful, honestly,” she answered. “There’s just so many people you have to talk to, and you only have such a short amount of time that conversations rarely get beyond what your major is and how cold it is outside. Plus, you have to dress up. And it’s really, really cold.”

“So why do you have to go back for rush this year if you already rushed last year?”

“Well, now I have to help run rush. Which I’m so not looking forward to…”

She proceeded to tell me how running rush entailed toiling through a packed schedule full of house decorating, cleaning, and, of course, meeting and evaluating the prospective new members.

“Plus, I really need to go shopping for new clothes before I go back.”

I was confused. “New clothes? But you’re not rushing, you’re only evaluating the rushees, right?”

“Well, yeah, but you want to give the house a good image. So we have a dress code.”

“A dress code?” I snorted. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Nope. And you have to get fancier as the days go on.”

A list of all the clothes Taylor needed to procure followed. I listened, incredulous.

“That’s so weird,” was the only response I could come up with.

“Yeah. It’s totally like it’s own little world, basically.”

It’s own little world, I remember thinking. Huh.

From that moment on, I was hooked. I knew I had to figure out what exactly rush week was, to understand its set-up, its rituals, the highs, the lows—everything.

And of course, like any good writer, I would have to write about it.

Except there were issues.

I first completed this article last year, which is why three of the following four interviews were recorded in the spring of 2013, each about the rush season that year. This article underwent numerous drafts and copyedits since then. It was finally proofed and set to make it into the kitsch layout for the issue that semester—when it was pulled from the magazine, due to fears that the article (and those interviewed in it) presented the rush experience in an unrealistic and potentially negative light.

While it is true that four people’s opinions are not the end-all be-all on rush and sororities, they are still four people’s opinions. They are stories about four different rush experiences—now from two different years, no less—and four different outcomes. They should be read and understood as such.

So, without further ado, here they are.

rush week dropout meets second-year sister

The first person I thought to interview was Jessica, a close friend of mine from L.A. who is, in many ways, your stereotypical girly-girl: her room is a pink explosion, she’s always dressed in J. Crew or Victoria’s Secret, and she has a 3:1 heels-to-sneakers ratio. I was surprised to learn that she dropped out of rush week early on in the process and figured her story would be a particularly interesting one.

By some bizarre twist of fate, the moment we sat down in my room to begin our conversation, Adele, another friend of mine and proud sister of a “lower tier” sorority, walked in. Figuring this would be my only chance to have both a current sister and rush week dropout in the same room, I asked Jessica to tell me about her experience.

“Um, it was like…I can’t even explain it,” she began, sitting down on my bed and making herself comfortable. “I dropped out because I got sick. Now I only really remember the ones I didn’t like.”

“That makes sense,” I responded.

She perked up suddenly, remembering Adele was in the room. “Wait a minute, Adele, you’re in a sorority, right?”

Adele turned around and smiled, “Yeah, I’m in [sorority name].”

“Ah, okay. I actually don’t remember that one, which means it must be nice. I only really remember the ones I didn’t like. Well,” she rolled her eyes, “it’s not that I didn’t like them, it’s just that…some of them have, like, Barbies. Like, I can’t explain it any other way. Like, [one of the upper tier sororities]—I don’t even know what they’re on. They’re on something, and I’m not sure what it is. But it’s a very hard drug.”

“Coke,” Adele offered, matter-of-factly. I laughed.

“Yeah,” Jessica continued. “It’s a very hard drug and they’re super peppy and they’re, like, if you wanted the epitome of a sorority girl on coke, you would go there.

“Anyway, in terms of the whole rush process, it’s like—you like wait in front of the house. And then the girls are like, ‘Okay, two minutes, guys!’ And then music starts blasting from the house. And then they start banging on the house—so much that you think the house is going to crumble. And there are screams, and pop music playing at screeching levels. Then they open the doors, and there’s dancing and music and more screaming and lots of hair flipping. And you go in, and you cannot hear—you go deaf—and one of the sisters like takes you—it’s very systematic—and they take you, and they sit down and they sit by you, and there’s lots of touching, lots of asking questions.

“And then the next sister comes back and then they like switch out. And you get two or three sisters. And, like, they have to memorize all this, so they have to really listen to you, because they tell the next sister stuff about you. And that’s just the first round…”

Adele jumped in, “It’s hard to remember names. I was so bad at that…”

“Those are the first two days,” Jessica continues. “You go to six houses each day. It is painful, Anna. I can’t even…in the cold, in the snow. And you have to look kinda cute. And you’re losing your voice after, like, one house. Because you have to understand, like, while they’re talking to you and asking you questions, there are like 50 other girls doing the same thing in a very small space. And it’s all very—it has to be very superficial stuff because they have to meet a ton of girls, like hundreds of girls. So they have to ask you the basic questions. And you do this over and over and over again to the point where you know what the person next to you did for winter break. You end up going to all of the houses. Then, after the first two days, you pref.[3]

“And they all have drinks, too. They have, like, their house drink, like salted caramel hot chocolate, hot apple cider. Warm drinks, that type of thing. Some of the houses had really good drinks—and like, you lose your voice—you need them, because you literally lose your voice.

“They also all have stories about how a sister came in their need. It’s like some story that rhymes and has a moral. And there’s, like, pictures and motions.

“Oh, and they all look nicer than you, which is something I didn’t understand. You look kind of cute, but they’ve all got full makeup, full hair—they all look nicer than you, which is a little scary.”

“Huh.” I leaned back in my desk chair in thought. “What’s it like being on the other side of that, Adele?”

“Honestly? It’s exhausting. Especially when you’re in charge of a round. I was in charge of pref round, the last round before bids. For my round, you have to order tables, tablecloths, chairs. You have to order flowers, vases, other decorations…There’s a ceremony.”

“So did you think it was harder to rush or to be in charge of the rushing?”

“See, I rushed as a sophomore and I think I was more comfortable as a person at that point,” she explained. “Like, a lot of times, second semester freshmen—you’re still really intimidated by older girls, and stuff like that. So I think it’s a little different.”

Then Adele left to decorate a basket for her little, leaving Jessica and I to sit around and procrastinate by discussing her experience as a debutante.

a not-so-princessy leia talks lord of the rings, joins sorority

My second interviewee was Leia[4], another close friend and classmate of mine, who, like me, is an aspiring playwright and screenwriter. I was pretty surprised when I heard that she had rushed, as she always struck me as someone who, although not exactly a tomboy, would certainly not be afraid to kick someone’s ass. I found it odd that someone so forceful, independent, and genuine would choose to rush after hearing both Jessica and Adele acknowledge the process’s superficiality. That said, I figured that Leia must have had a pretty good reason for rushing (and later, pledging). As we walked down to the first floor of Goldwin Smith one day after class, I asked her if she had always planned on going Greek.

“Yeah. I mean, I was kind of doubting it at the beginning of the year because everyone in my suite was rushing and they’re all really girly, and so I thought maybe sorority life isn’t for me,” she explained. “But then I spoke to my older sister—who didn’t go here, but who was in a sorority at her school—and she said, ‘Trust me, you have to do it. It’s fun just to rush! My friend rushed and didn’t even join a sorority, and she said rushing was fun!’

“But whoa, was she wrong! Rushing was horrible. Rushing was cold. We had to dress up—I don’t like dressing up. I didn’t like having to be identified by what we wear and dressing up to impress girls, I think that’s bullshit.”

I laughed. “So it sounds like rush wasn’t really what you were expecting…”

“No!” she exploded. “No one prepared me for that. That said, it’s really been so worth it in the end. The weird thing is I didn’t even like the sorority I’m in now until the fifth time I visited.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Really? So then how did you end up in [your sorority]?”

“Well,” she continued, “my best option was the one I’m in now. So I figured, ‘Okay, it’s either this or it’s nobody. I’ll go check it out.’

“Anyway, on the last day, I get to the house and go over to talk to this one girl—which is the only girl I’d get to talk to, because you only talk to one person on the last day—and, at first, the conversation was really awkward. But then we started talking about Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, and we clicked. That was definitely the moment I realized that there were people just like me in [my sorority] that I could bond with.

“So now being in the sorority is awesome. Yeah, there are some girls in the sorority who, well, I don’t hate them, I just don’t get along with them, but my pledge class is so big, I’m not going to get along with everybody, and there are definitely a lot of cool people who I do really get along with.”

“That’s awesome!” I smiled. “Anything else you want to say about the experience?”

“Yeah,” she continued. “My Rho Gamma[5] said everybody cracks. Everybody has a moment where they’re crying because they didn’t get into the sorority they wanted to. And it’s really stupid that you cry, because it’s not that big of a deal…I think you’re gonna end up in the place where you’re gonna end up. I had that moment before I found out that [my sorority] is the perfect house for me.

“So honestly, rushing is really whatever you make of it. If you go in thinking, ‘Well, this is going to be stupid,’ then it will be. But if you go in thinking, ‘I’m going to make this awesome,’ it’ll be awesome.”

reluctant rushee pledges house

I went to high school with Nicole. She’s the type of girl who says she hates girls, so, naturally, I was surprised when I saw she had rushed and pledged a sorority. We sat down one evening to talk, and I asked her what had made her change her mind about Greek Life.

“You know, originally, I absolutely despised the sorority system,” she began. “But I wanted to try something new and when I came here for rush week, I wasn’t going to pledge, I was just going to rush—see how it is, see what I’m missing out on. But, yeah, things changed.” She laughed.

“So what was the experience like for you?” I asked.

“So, number one: when I came in, I knew the basic rankings—like, the unofficial rankings—and I knew I did not want to be in the Core Four[6]. I would, like, kill myself if I were in there, because I knew, like, if I wanted to join a sorority, that was not going to be it at all. I needed something chill, [with] kind of bro-ish girls—[that] kind of thing. But it was weird—I actually ended up liking one of the Core Four…”

“Really?” I was surprised.

“Yeah,” she continued. “Some houses, I knew I didn’t want to be in them, but I wanted to be invited back. I was invited back to one of the Core Four, which I was surprised at, because I’m not blonde. Or rich. [But] as [stupid] as it is, I kind of wanted to feel like I could be in the Core Four if I wanted to—which is really sad when I look back on it. Because the thing is, I knew I didn’t want to pledge there. The way I see it, with the Core Four, they make their girls do whatever, like, to keep up their reputation. Like, you can’t wear sweatpants with your bag and shit like that, which is ridiculous. They tell you how to dress, they tell you who to talk to—”

I snorted in disbelief. “Wow, are you serious?”

“Yeah, it’s actually like that. And then Middle Tiers are usually trying to be that. So they’re working their girls hard as well. And then the Lower Tiers don’t really care. So that’s a lot nicer.

“But anyway, I realized how awful the process was when you get to cut the houses and they get to cut you—because I had the most amazing conversations at two “Upper Tier” houses, but I got cut. And it was, like, most of the houses I got cut from went like that. So throughout the week, you’d end up overhearing girls saying things like, ‘Oh, I’m probably not pretty enough,’ all the time. And honestly, I felt that way quite a few times, which really upset me.

“It was also really hard to stick to your own opinions of each house [because] there’s your opinion and then there’s the unofficial ranking, which really influences you a lot, which is really sad. I didn’t know if I wanted to pledge, because my house was Lower Tier and, while I liked the girls, I didn’t know if I wanted to put myself on that level. My mom told me to take a risk—I could always deactivate. And that’s how I ended up in my house.” She leaned back on the couch we were sitting on and looked up at the ceiling for a moment.

“Now that I think about it,” she continued, “my sorority is more, like, bro-ish. It’s exactly what I was looking for. So I am happy. I’m probably not gonna deactivate. But right now, the only thing is: do people look down on me because I’m in a Lower Tier? How embarrassed am I to wear my letters, even though I love my sorority?”

ingrid was totally not kidding, actually rushes

The last interview I conducted was with Ingrid, who, as the title of this section suggests, was totally not kidding and did rush.

“A lot of different things [made me decide to rush],” she began. “As a sophomore, I felt more comfortable with who I was. I feel like a lot of freshmen rush because they are lost and looking to find who they are. I rushed because I was already found…if that makes sense. I had my core group of friends and I was ready to branch out. I feel like at Cornell, everyone has at least two circles of friends, and I only had one. So I turned to rush. Also, my roommate last semester [Taylor[7]], was in a sorority.

“I came to Cornell with a very skewed depiction of Greek life,” she admitted, “mainly from popular culture. None of my really close friends freshmen year rushed, but second semester freshmen year and first semester sophomore year, I realized that other friends I was making, friends I had already made who I was getting closer to, were in sororities or fraternities. If they were in Greek life, it couldn’t really be that bad.”

When I asked her what the worst part of rushing was, she agreed that it was getting cut “by houses you really liked.” The best was getting called back to (and eventually a bid from) a house she loved. One peculiar thing that happened was when a girl tried to tell her that Demi Lovato’s version of “Let It Go” was better than Idina’s (“I didn’t really know how to react to that…”). However, in my opinion, the strangest story she told me of rush week itself was when a girl in one of the Core Four straight up asked if she “[went] to the Hamptons a lot,” since she is, after all, from New York City.

All in all, though, rushing was definitely a positive experience for Ingrid. “As a sophomore, I have had more time to listen to stereotypes about different sororities and have my own biases. Some of these stereotypes are true. And I was happily surprised that some of them are not.

“[My opinion of sororities changed—they] are a lot more inclusive than I thought they were, and also stand for a lot more than just partying. The first day after Bid Day, I was sitting in Libe, and a senior girl in my sorority came over and started talking to me, just because we had our letters in common. We had to learn mottos and ideals, and all about the philanthropies that my sorority supports.”

So what, exactly, is Rush Week?

It’s cold. It’s an attempt at community building, at presenting yourself in the best possible light in a very short amount of time. It’s getting sick, losing your voice, but still finding the will to keep on going—or maybe not. It’s a little “survival of the fittest” and a lot of running around in heels. It’s shallow—but it has to be, because how else could one possibly create enough of an opinion of someone to judge whether or not they’d fit in with their friends? It’s its own universe, but it’s deeply rooted in our own. After all, realistically, when aren’t you judged on your clothes or appearance—even in an “Oh, this person looks cool” or “Oh, this person looks sloppy” way?

But, more than anything, it is something you can never fully understand unless you live it. More than anything, Rush Week will always be a mystery to me.

[1] Middle school bullies? Thirteen years of prep school? Regardless, there’s no real excuse for my prejudice besides my own shortsightedness.

[2] Her name isn’t really Ingrid, but, in developing this article, I decided to use pseudonyms to protect interviewees’ identities, allowing them to speak freely and without fear of being found out.

[3] Pref (verb): the act of ranking sororities in one’s order of preference.

[4] This name was also changed. Actually, all of the names in this article were changed. Yay, anonymity!

[5] Rho Gamma (noun): sorority sisters who act as neutral recruitment helpers during the rush process; they lead groups of rushees (also known as PNMs—Potential New Members) and act as the main point of contact for prospective pledgers throughout rush week.

[6] The Core Four (noun): term used to refer to the four “Upper Tier” sororities

[7] Yep—mindfuck: the same Taylor I took to the Knicks game. Whoaaaa.

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