Sorority Recruitment Lessons from “Say Yes To The Dress”

by Tina VanSteenbergen

Enjoying a calm afternoon lunch at home, flipping through channels for a sitcom rerun to watch as I zone out and enjoy my sandwich, I stumble across The Learning Channel’s Say Yes To The Dress. Admittedly, I’ve never seen the show in my life, so my instant reaction was to turn the channel. Even more honestly, the only reason I didn’t immediately change the channel was because the narrator said the words “National Football League” and grasped my attention. Expecting to see a special on professional players taking dance lessons for their wedding or NFL team-themed and decorated wedding reception, I paused for a moment to investigate. Clearly I had never seen the show before, because neither of my predictions was even close to correct. This was an episode of Say Yes To The Dress that would profile the soon-to-be brides of NFL players as they searched for their perfect wedding dress. I’d been duped. But it was too late—I was hooked. So I threw on a blanket and got comfortable, prepared to watch a few minutes of some reality TV.

For those of you as unfamiliar as I, Say Yes To The Dress is a TV show about women in the process of planning their wedding who come into a bridal boutique to search for the perfect dress for their special day. Each bride is assigned a consultant who’s job it is to listen to the bride-to-be describe what she’s looking for and to help her find it.

In the two episodes I’ve now watched (they were back-to-back; don’t judge me), I’ve seen brides loosely describe their dream-dress in various categories: fit, fabric, silhouette, color, etc. Above all else, these women describe in detail how they’d like to feel in their dream dress. “Beautiful;” “sexy;” “like a princess.” It’s clear from the beginning that while finding the perfect dress is a complicated process, the feeling the bride gets when she puts it on is what matters most.

And so the process begins. The consultant brings dress after dress, the bride wearing it for a few minutes before deciding whether or not it is the right dress for her. She shows it to her friends, family and bridal party; hopeful they’ll feel the same way she does, either for better or worse. Sometimes there is dissention or disagreement about whether or not the dress is “the right fit” for this bride, and other times there is a unanimous agreement: “This is your dress! You belong in this dress!”

Now this is not a show I’ve ever seen, nor is my wedding day an event I’ve put a great deal of effort into planning at this point. I learned many, many things that afternoon about wedding dresses and the process I might one day undergo to find that perfect dress for my perfect day. But here’s what surprised me the most: how much this process reminded me of recruitment.

There is often a process we undergo to find our new members. We talk with our potential new members for a few minutes here and there, seek out the feedback of our sisters and collectively make a final decision about whether or not she is the “perfect fit.” Inevitably, even though we have some loose idea of what that person needs to be to belong with us (smart, fun, classy, cute, etc.), we make a decision about whether or not she should be a part of our sisterhood for life based on how she makes us feel. Did we like her? Did she make us feel funny? Bored? Connected to? And when we know, we just know: “She belongs here! I can just feel it!”

Shopping for the dress she’ll wear on her wedding day was, for most of these women, a truly emotional experience. There were ups, down, tears, laughter and ultimately (and hopefully) joy. I’ve never shopped for a wedding dress before, but I can imagine that the emotional assessment is an important part of the selection process. But I couldn’t help but wonder: wouldn’t a little objective analysis be helpful to these women? They rarely seemed to enter the boutique with a tangible list of must-haves (cut, color, designer, style, etc.), and it seemed to me that having that list might have taken some of the stress, uncertainty and even tears out of the process. Just like recruitment.

Taking the time to develop measurable selection criteria, a list of what we’re looking for in our future sisters and more importantly how we’ll know if she has it, is one way to ensure that we’re not simply making a decision based on pure emotion. What are we looking for? What do we value? What does a woman need to have to belong in our chapters? As you develop this list, think about what you and your chapter value: scholarship, sisterhood, leadership, service. Then, determine how to measure whether or not a potential member might possess those same values: How is her GPA? How many of our sisters can vouch for her? How many activities has she been involved in? Has she held any leadership positions? How often does she volunteer? Developing the list is like describing your dream member.

Finding your future sisters can and should be an emotional process, just like shopping for that special dress. But as I watched the women on Say Yes To The Dress ride the emotional rollercoaster, as I’ve watched countless sorority women ride that same rollercoaster through recruitment, it’s clear we’re missing something: the power of selection criteria—the power of knowing what we’re looking for and how to tell whether or not we’ve found it. Take the time with your chapter to develop your values-based selection criteria to avoid riding that rollercoaster and more importantly to avoid experiencing “buyer’s remorse” about your new sisters. Unlike a wedding dress that no longer feels just right, there are no return-policies when it comes to sisterhood.

Here’s a sample of a “Values-Based Selection Criteria” for sororities.

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