Picture Credit: AL.com

Alabama Rush Week — Sorority Recruitment or Real-Life Hunger Games?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock or have self-selected yourself as “too old” for TikTok — (you’re not by the way) — then you will likely have been exposed to an avalanche of recruiting content this past week — specifically related to sorority recruiting at the University of Alabama, otherwise known as “rushing”.

To say this has taken off would be an understatement. Potential new members (PNMs) — i.e. candidates — have been showcasing their recruiting experience on TikTok primarily by twirling in their OOTD (outfit of the day) before setting off for another gruelling day of interviews. Viewers worldwide have become very invested in the fate of these young women and whether they will be accepted into their sorority of choice. According to CNBC, 19.6 million and 55.6 million people respectively have viewed videos with the hashtag #Bamarush or #Alabamarush in the past week alone.

Picture Credit: TikTok (link to video)

As a European woman living on the other side of the Atlantic, I’m not sure why this content is all over my TikTok feed. I have never lived in the US and up to 72 hours ago, I had very limited awareness of US university sororities, outside of cultural references from film and TV. But like many others I’ve become hooked. Whilst #Bamarush has exploded, sorority alumni, counsellors, recruiters and former candidates have started to weigh in, sharing content on what the recruitment process itself looks like. As a recruiting professional, much of what I’m seeing and reading has caught my attention. If you are only familiar with corporate recruiting processes, here is a whistle stop introduction to the frenetic world of sorority recruiting. Buckle up!

Picture Credit: TikTok (link to video)

University of Alabama — Sorority Recruiting Process

The Panhellenic Council is the co-ordinating body responsible for planning the sorority recruiting process. It’s a member of a wider national umbrella body — the NPC (National Panhellenic Conference) — which seeks to ensure standards of sororities are upheld and sets guidelines for recruiting.

This year, 2,500 women applied to join sororities at the University. I’ve included below a summary of the process but you can also check out the 110 page (!) full recruiting guide here.

Step 1: Application

As a first step, PNMs were required to submit a one-minute video, registration fee ($250–350), have a GPA of 3.2 or above (recommended) and to fully complete a detailed registration form including the information below:

Source: Alabama Panhellenic Association

Step 2: Open House Round

PNMs dial into a live session with video presentations from each sorority. This is virtual but PNMs are reminded to pay close attention as they will be visible to the entire group over zoom.

Step 3: Philanthropy Round

Held on day 2 and 3 of rush week, PNMs visit 12 sorority houses for up to 30 minutes each. This is an opportunity to meet with current sorority sisters to find out more about the group’s philanthropic efforts but also for the PNMs to be assessed and ranked by recruiters. Ranking is mutual so the PNMs also rank their sororities of choice in order of preference.

Step 3: Sisterhood Round

Longlisted applicants are invited to attend a maximum of 7 sorority “parties”, each 40 minutes long. According to the guidelines this allows time for conversations (aka interviews) between sorority sisters and PNMs. The recruiters are current sorority members who interview in pairs — a process known as “bumping”. The first interviewer spends an allocated time period asking questions and building rapport with the PNM, before being approached by her bumping partner who then takes over. The bumping pairs score the applicants out of ten — although the actual criteria used to assess the women is quite vague. The score helps determine who makes it through to the next stage.

Credit: TikTok (link to video)

Step 4: Preference Round

Again this is invite only and shortlisted PNMs can attend a maximum of 2 preference events, each 50 minutes long — essentially a final round interview. PNMs will also have the opportunity to speak privately with a member. They are advised to “wear a nice dress and heels or wedges” but nothing too short or tight. They also take part in a “preference ceremony” although the recruiting guidelines don’t detail what this actually entails. After the last preference party, applicants must leave in silence and submit a form confirming their preferred sorority.

Bid day

At the end of the week, all 2,500 PNMs gather in a neutral location and are given an envelope confirming if they have received a bid (i.e. an offer). For those accepted, mass celebration ensues. On average, about 90% of PNMs at the University of Alabama are offered a place.

Recruiting 101

I’ve worked in corporate recruiting for 15 years now, across roles at all levels and I currently specialise in executive hiring. I have yet to see a recruiting process in the corporate world that requires as many steps or in person meetings. By my count, up to 21 in person meetings/interviews are required over the course of a few days for women that make it through the Alabama process. Watching the time, effort and commitment required, one can’t help but give these women kudos. Getting into a US sorority looks more arduous than getting into college itself or even Goldman Sachs. So much so, some TikTok commentators describe it as akin to the Hunger Games for women. As a Kerrywoman, I would liken it more to the Rose of Tralee on speed!

A wealth of research has been conducted by Google on the law of diminishing returns in tandem with adding more steps to recruiting processes. They determined that 4 interviews are enough to predict with 86% confidence whether someone should be hired. Their analysis showed that after the fourth interview, the increase in accuracy dropped off dramatically — i.e. with each additional interview, the accuracy of the mean interview score’s ability to predict a hire/no hire decision increased less than one percent.

Credit: TikTok (link to video)

Not only this, but the more hoops in the process the more space created for bias creep. The NPC espouses what it calls values based recruitment in sorority hiring but how final scores are determined and selection decisions are made remains highly secretive. There is a pretty glaring lack of diversity in the viral content I’ve consumed over the past few days and seemingly sororities at the University of Alabama only formally desegregated in 2013. It is clear from NPC guidelines that measures are being taken to increase diversity and inclusion but they are still in their infancy.

A further barrier to inclusion are the hefty fees one must pay to be part of a sorority. The women who apply and are accepted typically come from wealthier backgrounds because they must have the means to afford sorority fees on top of standard tuition.

Source: 2021 Greek Chic Recruitment Guide

Benefits of joining a sorority and the “Network Gap”

So why join a sorority? The Alabama Panhellenic Association proudly promotes the enhanced academic achievements of sorority members. It states that sorority members’ GPA has consistently been higher than that of unaffiliated peer undergraduates since 1927. Other reasons espoused are the skills one acquires — through volunteering work and helping run the sorority; but primarily for the sisterhood and networks it helps women build for later in life.

This reminded me of a talk I saw LinkedIn’s former CEO Jeff Weiner deliver in 2019 on what he calls the Network Gap. Research conducted by LinkedIn found that if you come from a high-income background and attend a top school you are 6 times more likely to have a strong network — the kind of network that creates opportunities for you.

Credit: LinkedIn (link to video)

But if much of the opportunity for students to build strong networks in college lies within sororities — therein lies yet another layer in the network gap. It seems that even acceptance to a good college may not be enough for students to build a network that creates opportunities for them.

Where to from here?

Here in Europe, sororities are not a part of college life hence the entire concept feels foreign to me. In this part of the world, students seem to find their tribe via shared interests, clubs and societies that are open to all. I’m far from being an expert on this topic and this article focuses on the basics I’ve picked up over the last few days, specifically focussed on the University of Alabama process — although it is widely accepted that sororities are a central part of university life across the United States.

Overall, I’ve enjoyed the daily fashion displays from the PNMs on TikTok and have definitely been influenced to buy some Kendra Scott jewellery! But on a more serious note, in many ways –recruitment processes included — it seems to me that sororities help bind and strengthen traditional longstanding networks built on wealth and privilege. It’s difficult to see how their benefits outweigh the division inevitably created between those on the inside and those left out, between genders and people of different ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds.

This particularly interests me because in the corporate world there is a monumental focus on increasing diversity, inclusion and belonging across hiring at all levels. The youth are the leaders of the future. It’s hard to envisage how we can meaningfully build diverse workplaces if we continue to segregate talent according to traditional power structures from the moment they start college. I’m eager to educate myself on this further, and according to a very helpful TikTok contributor, the book “Paying for the Party, How College Maintains Inequality” is a good place to start!

Executive Search Recruiter @ HubSpot