I need more friends. Or, specifically, I need more photos on social media where I’m posing with my friends. That’s what Lorie Stefanelli, a sorority recruitment consultant who trains girls on how to get into the toughest houses in the country, would recommend if I were an incoming freshman.

“If your whole grid is just you by yourself, it looks like you don’t have any friends,” she says, bluntly. Though in real life I am a boring 28-year-old woman with no plans to rush anywhere except home to my couch, I have asked Stefanelli to advise me as if I were a freshman joining a sorority.

This is Stefanelli’s busiest time of the year, when rush week season begins and thousands of students at colleges across the US attempt recruitment into different fraternities and sororities. These houses, which are not administrated by colleges but student organizations, admit lucky freshmen into a world of special housing, elite parties, and networking opportunities.

But getting in isn’t easy: girls have to prove themselves through a series of events and group interviews with current members. The competition is so steep that in recent years, consultants like Stefanelli have started charging to hold girls’ hands through the process and land them a spot in their coveted house.

Alpha Chi Omega members cheer as the new recruits arrive at the sorority house during the University of Alabama Bid Day in 2017, in Tuscaloosa.

Many of her clients want to join houses like Chi Omega and Kappa Alpha Theta, two of the biggest and best-known sororities, with famous alumni such as Melinda Gates, Elizabeth Warren, Laura Bush, and Bush’s daughters, Jenna and Barbara. These institutions are an essential part of the way the elite and their privilege is protected in the US.

Getting accepted into these houses’ dizzying, mystifying, and dramatic world, full of rules and regulations, is like Miss Congeniality meets Lord of the Flies.

Not long after unpacking their new dorm rooms, girls attend a whirlwind week of events hosted by each house. In a process a bit like speed dating, they meet with as many current members as possible, hoping to leave an impression that will get them through the next round of cuts. It all culminates in Bid Day, a party where girls learn if their “bids” were impactful enough to earn an invitation to one of the sisterhoods.

Stefanelli’s services don’t come cheap: as she recently told the Wall Street Journal, her fee can be as high as $2,000. But she’ll also work pro bono for daughters of frontline workers and members of the military.

What do you get for all that cash? Results. “I expect that all of my girls will end up in a sorority this year,” she said. Last year, she had 13 clients – all received a bid except for one, who decided during the process she’d rather drop out.

But will she be able to help someone like me? I went to film school in New York. There were a few small sororities on campus, but we all thought we were too cool for them. It felt like paying to make friends. Then, during my first office job out of college, I was suddenly surrounded by sorority girls. Just about everyone on staff at the girl-bossy, pop-feminist website I worked at had been in one. They all spoke a language I didn’t understand, talking about their bigs (sort of like an assigned older sister) and attending chapter reunions. I’d sit in the corner at happy hours, nodding along as if I understood anything. Sometimes I wished I could join in.

Stefanelli is an expert in the field because she has life experience. She graduated from the University of Texas at El Paso in 1996 (where she pledged Chi Omega); she began informally coaching relatives and friends in the 2010s. Her business, called Greek Chic, officially opened its doors in 2013. She calls herself one of the “OG” consultants, but this has grown into a cottage industry: a quick Google search yields half a dozen similar businesses.


Stefanelli speaks to me with the enthusiasm of a human resources manager letting employees know there’s free pizza in a conference room. She tells me she has “to be a therapist” to her girls, “if they don’t have someone to talk to, it can be hard for them to really see the full picture.”

To best prepare her clients for the visual aspects of rushing, Stefanelli goes through their social media, editing where she sees fit. Actives are known to stalk “PNMs” online to get a feel of what they’re like. (A quick glossary: these bright-eyed newbies are called PNMs, or potential new members. The girls they’re trying to impress, who are already in a sorority, are called actives.)

“Social media is how [current] sorority members feel you out and learn what your vibe is,” Stefanelli adds. “Are you doing puzzles by yourself on a Saturday night, or are you showing pictures of you and your friends going to the movies and stopping at Sonic for shakes after?” (She says the latter is, obviously, preferable.)

There’s more to the social media policy, by the way: Stefanelli asks that her clients remove any TikToks where they’re lip-syncing to songs that “have, like, derogatory language” in the lyrics. “Bikini photos” are a big topic of discussion: it’s kosher to have one or two on the grid, but they should seem playful and fun, not sexy or brooding.

Already, I feel like this might not be for me. Doing puzzles by yourself on a Saturday night is, as far I’m concerned, extremely cool. Hiding your individuality rarely ends well, and it usually makes you feel even more alone.

I ask Stefanelli if she ever has to tell clients that they’re not cut out for rush.

“No, never,” she responds immediately. “I hate saying this, but sorority recruitment is a game, and you have to play by the rules. If I see a girl planning to wear an ill-fitting dress to a party, I’ll say that I saw a photo of her on Instagram wearing a different outfit, and suggest that one. Just because I want her to feel her best.”

Stefanelli says she’s just helping girls “brand” themselves. She recalls a mother calling her shortly after rush season, distraught that her daughter had not received any bids. The problem, in her opinion, was TikTok: the girl had posted videos in which she cried over a recent breakup. “I had to tell her that was a little cringe,” Stefanelli says. “One is OK, fine, but several in a row? Do you really want to be known as the girl who’s crying over her boyfriend on TikTok?”

Are her sessions like a movie makeover montage, where she transforms dumpy losers into bombshells overnight, simply by straightening their hair and swapping their glasses for contacts?

Again, no. “It’s not The Devil Wears Prada,” she says. “If you have purple hair and love it, great. Maybe I’ll suggest that we just style it differently. My job isn’t to change you, it’s to smooth out the rough edges.”

Sorority members on University of Alabama Bid Day in 2017.

She swears her job isn’t just about making women boring. “Not every girl I help with is going to be the Barbie doll-looking girl with blond hair and shiny white teeth who’s a size zero,” she says. “I’ve helped plus-size girls, I’ve helped girls from different socio-economic backgrounds, and first-generation students, too.”

Stefanelli says she recently worked with twins from Pakistan who planned to rush at the University of California at Berkeley. “I had to break down every single detail for them, even things I take for granted as an American, because they really did not understand how it works. They were very studious and taking notes the entire time.”

One of the girls ended up at Alpha Chi Omega, and the other dropped out of rush when she decided it wasn’t for her. “That sister was a bit more shy, and it felt like she was just doing it with her sister,” Stefanelli said.

Cheerleaders for sororities say girls are empowered to live their best selves. Critics point to the more problematic elements of Greek life: cliquishness, exclusion, hazing, and outright racism.

This year, Stefanelli has 10 girls vying for spots at the University of Alabama. All of them are white – a fact that seems relevant since these sororities were only forced by the university to end race discrimination in 2013, after a Black student wrote about her experience rushing in The Crimson White, a student newspaper. Two years ago, as #BamaRush first took over TikTok, The Crimson White found that sororities were still overwhelmingly white, with only 1.39% of bids awarded going to Black women.

young women cheer while holding signs

In Bama Rush, a recent Vice documentary which unveiled the curtain on the process, the southern scholar and writer Elizabeth Boyd says the tradition celebrates “competitive femininity”. To fit into the most competitive houses, girls must look a certain way, which often means fitting into a very narrow and whitewashed standard of beauty.

Stefanelli insists that sororities have “evolved over time” and are slowly becoming more inclusive. “We are making these changes, and it’s still not good enough,” she says. “I think that over time, sororities will get there.”

Not all consultants share Stefanelli’s “grin and bear it” approach. Audrey Atienza, another consultant and a senior at the University of Texas who co-founded the Sorority Sister Rush Guide, is much less cynical about the process. Unlike Stefanelli, Atienza is still in college herself.

She rushed in 2020, when the pandemic forced activities to take place online. Her outfits for recruitment Zoom events were “a nice top with sweatpants”, since people were only going to see the top half of her body. After joining a sorority, Atienza took to posting advice for PNMs on her TikTok. This summer, she decided to monetize the hobby, packing all of the information into a $199 online course.

I took Atienza’s class, which devotes a good amount of time to personal branding. In one video, she walked me through 30 outfits modeled on herself and friends, explaining why some worked for rush and others didn’t. Maxi dresses: big no, impractical, too difficult to run around campus in. Ditto for cowboy boots. Silk shoelaces: big yes, Atienza says, because those can spruce up otherwise boring trainers. Deep V-necks, mini dresses and corsets are all too sexy. Floral prints, billowing sleeves, and free skirts work well.

So basically, I tell myself, anything I would wear for a sexy-but-not-too-sexy Little House on the Prairie Halloween costume.

atienza in pink cowboy hat

The presentation feels like an old episode of Fashion Police, if the host wasn’t Joan Rivers but an unfailingly perky communications major – which is Atienza’s whole schtick. “Our goal is about finding what houses work for you,” Atienza says, instead of forcing girls to fit a specific mold.

“It’s very easy to go on TikTok and see all these choreographed dances and perfectly planned outfits and think that it’s a very fake process, but I want to make it clear that girls find a community and a house that accepts them for who they are,” she adds. “Sororities are flashy on the outside, but when the doors are closed, we’re having very genuine conversations and friendships.”

But not everyone feels that way. There are historically Black sororities, known as the Divine Nine, which boast alumni such as Kamala Harris (Alpha Kappa Alpha), Shirley Chisholm (Delta Sigma Theta), and Dionne Warwick (Zeta Phi Beta). But for students of color who want to rush in majority-white houses, representation can feel scarce. On TikTok, #BamaRush videos predominantly feature white students.

In 2021, one hopeful named Makayla Culpepper reported getting dropped from every house a few days after she posted that she was mixed-race. It was not lost on TikTok viewers that the only woman of color who went viral during rush season did not end up with a bid. (Culpepper, who leveraged her TikTok fame into an influencer gig, did not respond to a request for comment.)

One Latina student who rushed at a liberal arts college in the midwest ended up finding a sorority she loves. But the student, who did not want to be named, said she felt tokenized during the process.

“I had heard that some houses were more inclusive than others from the start, but I decided to go with an open mind, as everyone says,” she said. “But when I entered one of the sororities, all I could see were skinny white girls. They started that party talking about how much diversity was important to them; however, the approach seemed wrong, with the vice-president of DEI even saying, ‘Diversity is so important to us because, you know, diversity.’ It seemed like they cared but didn’t have the education to change.”

Last year, Grant Sikes hoped he’d find his place in a sorority. Sikes transferred to the University of Alabama, where his girlfriends encouraged him to rush. “I wanted to be in a sorority because that shit’s fun as hell,” Sikes said.

Sikes, who is 20, identified as non-binary at the time. The Alabama Panhellenic Association’s current rules say that “any student that consistently lives and self-identifies as a woman can rush”. Sikes was rejected from every house.

“Obviously, sororities are going to get out and preach that they want diversity, they’re not going to say: ‘We don’t want Black people and we don’t want gay people,’” Sikes says. “They’re going to try their hardest to come off as the most diverse place, but they had a decision to make with me, and I realized that all of that talk was just for show.”

Even though the rush consultants I spoke with said they’ve helped clients of color LGBTQ+ clients, it appears to me that no advice about what shoes to pair with maxi dresses and how to post on Instagram would change the more deep-seated reasons why people don’t make it into sororities.

I want to believe that Greek life is, as the consultants say, becoming more inclusive. But how can that be possible when their entire job is to teach girls how to follow the status quo? If things were really changing, there would be no need for consultants, and young women could come to rush as their real selves.