When you tell your British friends you are planning on attending an American university, you'll find at least one of them will look at you with pity and mutter something disparaging about fraternities.
These "Greek" societies have been much parodied in Hollywood movies, most famously the iconic Animal House, and remain among the most notorious features of US universities, at least in the minds of Brits.
These social groups (often named after random Greek letters – Sigma Alpha Epsilon and so on) are particularly dominant in Southern and state universities, but exist across the United States, known as fraternities (for boys) and sororities (for girls). The latter are often somewhat more civilised than the fraternities.
On many campuses, they form an integral part of the social life, offering the students privately owned buildings where it is possible to party (and drink) in relative peace.
They also offer accommodation for their members - frequently seen as a welcome alternative to the university dorms.
Although some of them remain secretive and exclusive, many universities have insisted that any Greek house on campus open its doors to all students.
For whatever reason, fraternities and sororities have become much more integrated into college life than they used to be, from extensive open-door party weekends to community work events. Many are certainly more a part of general campus life than the mysterious secret societies that still thrive at Yale or UVA.
Scandals do, however, continue to hang over these Greek institutions. Accusations of sexual assault, drunken casualties and ‘hazing’ - which takes place during rush and initiation seasons when the frats are recruiting more members (and which has, on rare but tragic occasions, gone horribly wrong and resulted in a fatality) - are rife.
Widely associated with but not exclusive to fraternities, it’s common knowledge that sexual assault is far more likely to happen at college than in other environments. The most shocking statistic is that apparently 25% of women will be assaulted before they graduate.
It’s not clear whether this is a bigger problem at US colleges than at UK universities (perhaps due to fraternity culture, or different attitudes towards women, or possibly even the higher drinking age) but it makes sense to at least be aware of the dangers. On a more positive note, there is all sorts of work going on to combat these problems, much of it student-driven.
As far as you are concerned, most of the schools mentioned in this guide are not dominated by Greek institutions (although the majority have active chapters on campus), and nowadays most students find their social life extends in other directions. However, if you are bent on being the next member of Iota Gamma, it pays to do your research before signing away your life. After all, you don't want to become the next John Belushi.