Every winter, hundreds of freshman girls zip up their coats and rush the eight Panhellenic sororities at Penn. Isabella Simonetti (C '21), who is also a columnist for the Daily Pennsylvanian, was one of these freshmen. She wrote about her week of sorority rush for Street.

An Instagram bio decorated with Greek letters, hundreds of new Facebook friends, social relevance, an extensive lineage of big “sisters” to offer unconditional support. This is the promise of gaining membership into one of Penn’s eight sororities. The “top tier” ones, that is. They are the ultimate status symbol. I wanted it. And so did over 600 other freshmen girls. But only about 100 of us could be offered a coveted bid from the “best” sororities on campus. Some joined less exclusive, but respected, organizations. Others found their home in the so–called “bottom tier."

And some—like me—got lost along the way. I emerged from rush without a sorority, but I did get a front row seat to the elusive “process.”

The first day of rush is 14 hours long. By 9 a.m. on Tuesday, we’ve doused ourselves in perfume and plowed our heeled booties through the slush, marching towards Irvine Auditorium. Once there, we’re herded into smaller groups led by a Rho Gamma, an affiliated girl who will guide us through the rush process. While waiting, I exchange icy stares with the other girls in my line. We analyze each others’ outfits, from eyeliner down to individual dress wrinkles. Suddenly, the “snappy casual” blue dress I spent hours picking out feels all wrong. 

We all find seats in the auditorium and convocation begins. This is where they tell us the rules: submit any conflicts in your schedule that interfere with rush events, show up on time, communicate with your Rho Gammas. These seem standard. But then, I’m confronted by a huge green slide on the Powerpoint presentation that reads “No men. No alcohol.” 

I don’t understand what it means. No speaking with boys, or just no hooking up with them? What if I hook up with a girl? Is the assumption that we are all attracted to men? 

I scold myself for being too politically correct and crush Altoids between my teeth. I hope my fresh breath will compensate for the sorority stereotypes I lack. I hope my appearance will mask my bisexuality. 

After recruitment ended, Andrea Klein (C ‘18), the Vice President of Panhellenic Recruitment, further explained the “no men, no alcohol” rule to me. Andrea says that rush is about finding female organizations that will empower us, not about the men we might meet along the way. “So the rule is just like, 'no men, no alcohol' in recruitment events. Outside of recruitment, if they want to hang out with guys, like go to their boyfriend’s house afterwards, that’s not a problem,” she elaborated.

This is something I wished was clarified to me during rush, throughout which, I was reminded to be myself when it felt like my identity was something to be ashamed of. But the process is more toxic than its heteronormativity.  

Photo: Autumn Powell

At the first house I visit, the Rho Gammas bark at us to line up in alphabetical order. We shiver in the sub–freezing temperatures. When the doors open, we’re greeted by ear–splitting chants and aggressive smiles. Each rush is paired with a girl to speak with for roughly ten minutes, who will assess her before she’s tapped out by one of her sisters. 

I have the same conversation three times: majors, favorite TV shows, anecdotes from winter break. I laugh at unfunny jokes and nod my head at stories to which I’m barely listening. It’s like speed–dating for friends, or a job interview where I have no idea how I’m being assessed. 

Finally, the lights in the house flicker. The interrogation is over. The girl I’m talking to helps me collect my belongings and escorts me to the door. 

“It was so nice to meet you!” she says. 

I think I’ve succeeded. She liked meeting me! 

I find my friend outside and she asks me how it went. 

“They seemed pretty nice. I don’t know how I could’ve messed it up.”

Following the first open house, we have a short break inside of Annenberg. I remove my boots, re–apply lip gloss, hike up my stockings, and find a seat in the auditorium. 

I know why I’m rushing: mainly for female friends, social opportunities, and a community to support me. But also for superficial reasons, ones that not many girls are willing to admit. Walking down Locust in a Greek letter–emblazoned sweatshirt makes a bigger statement than any designer label. It proves a girl’s social prowess: that she has cool, hot friends. That she was tested by Penn’s eight sororities and sorted into a sisterhood. That she is worth knowing. That’s part of why I rushed, too.

In the seat next to me is Gillian Teitelbaum (E '21). Gillian is skeptical of the process, but didn’t want to let potential lifelong friends and an empowering female community pass her by.

“I’ve been told that it’s better to try to rush and drop out rather than not have any experience with it,” she says. “In Engineering, there aren’t that many girls in classes in general, so I kinda wanted to meet more people.”

Like so many girls, Gillian is looking for friends and social opportunities, which may prove elusive as a freshman at Penn. Still, in order to do so, she must decide if the cost of the rush process is worth it.  

Soon, the break is over. Until 10:30 p.m., I run from house to house, complimenting girls’ nail polish, discussing vacations, pretending to care about my potential sisters’ extracurriculars and hobbies when all I want to do is sleep. Then, I head back to Bodek Lounge in Houston Hall to submit my preferences.

We use an app called PNM (Potential New Member) Companion to rank the different houses. Since it’s the first day, we rank six sorority houses as our first choice, and then two as our second and third choices. 

I, like so many other girls rushing, had decided some of my preferences before I even stepped foot into a sorority house. Still, I try to use the process to my advantage, remembering where I had the best conversations and made the most memorable impressions. But they all blend together.  

During recruitment, we’re told to ignore what we’ve heard and read online about the different chapter houses. Websites like GreekRank and tabloid-esque reviews of Penn’s sororities use adjectives and phrases like “lots of cocaine,” “international," “rich,” “Jewish,” “WASP–y,” “blonde,” and “party girls” to describe my would–be future sisters. These troubling descriptors provide far more information than the short, superficial conversations I had at each of the houses, which all market themselves in the same way. 

However brutal the seemingly endless Open House Round was, the next day is worse. It’s the first day of cuts.

“I don’t want to get into too many details, but the way recruitment works is that sororities that tend to do really well and have PNMs rank them really high have to cut more people because we don’t want them leading so many girls on,” Andrea explained. “And so like, the first day, I’m sure you can guess which sororities cut like half the people they see.”

We huddle in Bodek with our Rho Gamma groups, anticipating the release of schedules on PNM Companion. One of the Panhellenic Execs speaks into the microphone to make a muffled announcement and reinforce the process’s rules. Then she says: “Your schedules are available now.” 

Our thumbs feverishly refresh the app. I am greeted with cold rejection. I’ve been cut from five sororities, and asked back to three, one of which I ranked as my last choice. I maintain a poker face, but I’m painfully embarrassed. What’s wrong with me? Am I not interesting enough? Am I ugly? What could I have said to make things better? 

How could these women decide that I wasn’t right for their organization after just a few minutes? The hard truth is, as much as they might have tried to evaluate me based on the substance of our interaction, they had to rely on stereotypes as well: what being from New York City and having attended private school says about my status and how much I party, how my student–journalism background might jell with their organization, how my blonde hair and blue eyes will influence their image, and how the designers I’m wearing reflect my family’s bank account. 

According to Andrea, sororities use varying methods to rank the girls they meet. Some use colors to describe their impression of a girls, others have different categories and assign the PNM they spoke with a numerical score for each. 

Shrieks and whispers break out around me. Did you get it? Me too! Ugh, I can’t believe they cut me. I only got asked back to four, I’m so mad! 

Our next round of recruitment, Sisterhood, is two days long. I’m supposed to visit two houses tonight and one tomorrow. What’s more, I must return to every house I was asked back to, or I will be cut from rush. I consider dropping out, but force myself to keep going. Maybe the houses that cut me aren’t the places for me. Maybe I really do just have to trust the process. 

I visit Chi Omega, then head to Alpha Delta Pi. On the cold sidewalk outside, girls compare their schedules. 

“Do you have any more to visit today?” One girl asks me. 

“No. I just have two today and one tomorrow.”

“What? You only have three? I thought we were supposed to be asked back to at least four!”

I shrug and stare down at my boots. During so many moments in my life as a woman, I wonder what is wrong with me. When I apply my makeup in the morning, when a male student interrupts me in class, when I’m catcalled on the street, when boys stare at me at the gym. But sorority recruitment, a process that is supposed to connect me with like–minded women and offer female solidarity, made me feel worse about myself than any man ever has.     

Standing behind me in line is Angela Sun (E ’21). She tells me about how her friends were cut from a lot of houses today.

“I felt kind of bad about it, but also it kind of shows you how—I don’t want to say superficial—but how very pressure–filled this whole process is,” she explains. “So when you talk to someone, either they got one that you didn’t or they got one that you did, it’s kind of uncomfortable, especially if that’s what they wanted.” 

This year, Panhellenic tried to improve recruitment by placing a strong emphasis on mental health. During convocation, we were provided different hotline phone numbers to reach out to for support. We were also invited to a meditation session to decompress. While these efforts are admirable, they ignore that, at its core, the process destroys our self esteem. It takes confidence to parade around campus in dresses and heels, essentially begging older girls to be our friends. And however amazing joining a sorority may seem, recruitment subjects us to a very personal type of rejection, a process that can leave us feeling powerless and confused for placing blind trust in it. 

I find solace in commiserating with other girls. Some are happy with their remaining prospects, while others are disgruntled and skeptical like me, I discuss how the process might be racist with girls from a minority group, and how some sororities are looking for a token woman of color to diversify their pledge class.

“In terms of like ethnicity and socioeconomic status it’s, yeah, it’s just not very diverse, and I don’t think that’s something specific to Penn,” Andrea added.    

This year, Panhellenic tried to improve diversity by appointing a Vice President of Diversity who helped coordinate events between Panhellenic Execs and Penn Non-Cis, as well as the South Asian Society

Still, since their inception, sororities have been organizations for affluent white women, and they don’t appear to have changed very much. Nearly every sorority sister I spoke with was white. Penn isn’t very diverse to begin with, and its sororities seem even less so. 

Additionally, sororities are intrinsically associated with fraternities. These are the same fraternities that admit men and women into their parties at unequal rates in order to ensure that their brothers get laid. The types of boys that allow rules like this to persist are the ones that, if I join a sorority, I will be attending mixers with. 

During the second day of Sisterhood round I visit Zeta Tau Alpha and then return to Bodek to submit my preferences for Philanthropy round. Since I only have three houses remaining, I’m forced to rank them all as my number one choice.

The conversations I had during the second and third days of rush were lengthier, and slightly more personal than the first day. They also played us short, jazzy videos set to up-tempo music that revealed a little bit about the sorority’s community. After paying close attention to the torrent of clips, I felt like Chi Omega was the place where I connected with everyone the most, and somewhere that could be my home on campus. 

So at 3 p.m. on Friday, freshly charged with sleep and false hope, I returned to Bodek again to see which houses I was asked back to. After a few cursory announcements, the schedules were released. Yet again, I opened the app that would show me which houses had asked me back, which girls had liked me, which could rechart my path for four years. 

I was cut from Chi Omega.

“Did you get it?” The girl sitting next to me asks.

“No, I was cut. Did you?”

“Yeah, I did. I’m really sorry.”

I don’t want to stick around while everyone flaunts their schedules. It feels like doing poorly on a test in high school while all your classmates all got A’s. But instead of being evaluated on how much we studied, we are judged based on our personalities. I felt like there was something about me that wasn’t good enough for the houses I wanted to be in. I didn’t think anyone I met really knew me well enough to determine my belonging. One of my Rho Gammas takes me to fill out a purple slip and I formally withdraw from rush.

Now, after many of my peers have received bids from sororities that rejected me, I am forced to confront my own questions and insecurities. Will I be okay at Penn without a sorority to hide behind? If I’d received a bid from a chapter house I wanted to be in, would I have accepted it? The answer to both is probably yes. Had I had a more positive experience with recruitment, joining a sorority wouldn’t seem all that problematic to me. I say this to highlight that girls in sororities are not bad people. Still, they are part of a system that hurts young women, and that needs to be acknowledged. 

I made some mistakes in the process too. At times, I relied on stereotypes and superficial reasoning to guide my decisions. But in lieu of ample time and information about different houses, that was all I had. 

The process failed me. It commoditized me and took advantage of me at my most vulnerable. So if the pain that rush caused me might offer comfort to fellow freshmen girls or guidance to future potential new members, it was worth it. I might not have Greek letters to define me, but I’m stronger for it.