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What is a Fraternity?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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A fraternity is a male-only association with members who are linked by common interests of some form or another. The most famous form in North America is probably the college fraternity, although it is also possible to find social and a variety of other fraternal organizations around the world. College fraternities date to 1776, when Phi Beta Kappa was founded in the United States.

Many college fraternities are established with academic criteria for membership. People who wish to join typically participate in activities that take place over the course of a week at the start of a semester. Since most colleges with a system have multiple fraternities, these events usually take place during the same week for all groups, allowing people to explore all their options. This period is known as “rush week.”

After rush week, current members of the fraternity decide which new members should be voted in. Traditionally, new pledges participate in an initiation ceremony that has historically been accompanied by hazing challenges. Due to concerns about the risks of hazing that involve dangerous activities and drinking, many colleges have explicitly banned it in the interest of student safety. Some colleges have also cracked down on fraternity parties in response to complaints from other students and the surrounding community.

Membership in a fraternity can confer many advantages. It is not uncommon for these groups to maintain living quarters and private clubs that are only open to their members. Special scholarships may be available, and membership can be used for networking which will be valuable later in life. Many people also enjoy the brotherhood that comes with membership.

Fraternities are often identified with Greek letters, as in the case of Lambda Chi, a Christian fraternity, and Phi Iota Alpha, a Hispanic fraternity. These letters often represent the group's motto. Thanks to the common use of Greek letters in their identifications, the culture is sometimes described as “Greek,” as in “Greek life” or “Greeks” in reference to the members. It is also possible to use an English name, as in the case of the Skull and Bones, a notorious Yale fraternity.

Public service is often a part of fraternity membership. They usually include a specific charity or cause in their mission, with members donating funds or time to the cause each year. Members are sometimes frustrated by the judgmental attitudes of people outside the Greek system, pointing to their fundamental missions of service and brotherhood to counteract stereotypes about lewd behavior and decadent parties.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Practical Adult Insights researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Izzy78 — On Apr 07, 2012

I was involved in a fraternity when I was in school, and I think there are a lot of negative connotations that come with being involved in the Greek system. Like the last couple people have said, the reputation all just depends on the house.

That being said, some fraternities and sororities are universally known as being bigger parties than others no matter what school you are at. Most of the time, though, it just depends on the individual chapter.

I think people think too much about the hazing as well. Again it depends on the chapter, but mine just involved some minor stuff like raising money for charity and various social events. The vast majority of groups I've been around, though, do have parties with alcohol, so if you aren't comfortable with that, a fraternity might not be for you.

By jcraig — On Apr 07, 2012

@titans62 - My college was like that too. I think you made a good point when you said to watch out who you end up with.

The school I went to has the biggest Greek system of any university in the world, and a huge number of students were involved with it. I wasn't involved myself, but it was hard not to know people that were. Basically, rush week is just a chance to visit different houses and talk with the members. It is basically an interview process for you and them to decide if you fit together.

After the end of the week, they choose which new students they would like to have join them. Then like the article says, you become a pledge and go through different initiation ceremonies depending on the fraternity.

By titans62 — On Apr 06, 2012

@Emilski - It sounds like you at least have a little bit of knowledge about how the system works, which is good. At least as far as knowing that not all fraternities operate the same.

I don't know if it is this way at every university, but when I went to college not too long ago, there was a period right before the start of classes where all of the different fraternity and sorority houses would set up booths and tables on the quad to promote their house.

You could walk around to each of the booths and ask them questions about what sorts of things they were involved with and what kind of people joined. I know at my school there were special fraternities for agriculture students as well as math and science students, but most houses don't have a specific requirement to get in.

I wasn't personally in a fraternity, but I know a lot of people that were. There are a lot of perks to it, but unless it's what you're looking for, make sure you don't get in with a bad group of individuals.

By Emilski — On Apr 05, 2012

What exactly is involved in a rush week? I am getting ready to go to college next year and might be interested in joining a fraternity of some sort.

First off, how do you even figure out which fraternities might be right for you? It sounds like each fraternity might have different standards and activities that it engages in. Like the example with Phi Iota Alpha, they might even be just for certain segments of the population.

Unfortunately, no one else in my family has been part of a fraternity before, so they aren't really able to help me a lot with this. I have heard a lot of bad things about the Greek system, but I think if you find a group that is mature enough there are a lot of benefits to it. I just want to make sure I know who might be best for me.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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