The choice is yours
They meet in classrooms, apartments, common rooms and tombs. They gather on Thursdays and Sundays, veiled in nightfall and secrecy. Some don formal wear, others sport party attire — tuxedos, gorilla masks and skunk costumes. They convene to drink and be merry, to dine and debate, to spend the hours with 15 like-minded peers. They are Yale’s senior societies —the much publicized, much fantasized group of 40 or so “secret” social clubs for undergraduate seniors.
The first and best-known, Skull and Bones, was founded in 1833, followed by Scroll and Key in 1841, and Wolf’s Head in 1883. As society prestige peaked in the late 19th century, groups even emerged for underclassmen, including short-lived freshman societies that recruited from prep schools and sophomore societies that were closed in 1900.
Today, Yale has over 40 senior societies, including four with assets of over $4 million, as of 2014. Yale’s societies have even crossed oceans, with the establishment of Leones Luminantes, a secret society at Yale-NUS. With references permeating pop culture, like the 2000 thriller “The Skulls” and the cult-hit “Gilmore Girls,” both of which allude to Skull and Bones, the idea of a Yale senior society has established itself in conventional lore as secretive, elusive and elite.
But this mythology is changing, thanks in part to an array of recent developments. For 25 years now, many senior societies have been coed, and they continue to undergo reforms to increase their diversity and accessibility. Most recently, the Yale College Council has spearheaded multiple efforts, including allowing juniors to remove themselves from the society tap process in February 2014, and supporting the establishment of seven new senior societies in 2015. The seven new societies were part of a larger collective called the Yale Society Initiative, an organization established to create new societies as needed in order to make the entire society system more inclusive for all.
“Some [societies] are still very intense, concerned with their tap lines and alumni network, but I think that’s a very small portion of the societies. The vast majority I would say are just a group of people who you generally didn’t know before and you just hang out with them, get to know each other. It’s not a high-key thing at all”, said senior Jeremiah*, who is in a society.
Jeremiah said he is glad there has been a shift away from mystery and prestige surrounding most societies and is happy to be a part of that change.
In previous decades, when a society’s prestige was more important, some people would try to plan their extracurriculars and life at Yale with the end goal of getting into a particular high-level society. Senior Byron*, who is also in a society, said he knows people who might get caught up in the allure of a prestigious society, but he knows no one who would ever choose their extracurriculars just to gain admittance. Many of the seniors interviewed noted a decline in society exclusivity and influence among students. According to Byron, seniors no longer prioritize senior year societies over postgraduate employment, as societies no longer provide direct connections to job opportunities. Rather, their purpose now is to give seniors the chance to bond with an interesting new group of people.
“I think the experience and the nature of getting to know completely different people from your friend group is super rewarding,” said Jeremiah.
All of the six current society members interviewed feel that their societies are a low-key, fun way to get to know different people outside their own friend groups. But there is a range in how invested each of them are in their societies. They do not see their societies as a huge time commitment or investment, instead viewing them as a fun addition to the rest of their activities.
“I would say even for those that are in rigorous societies it affects who you spend some of your nights with, but I don’t think it affects the composition of your friend group. So the friends that you’ve had, through freshman, sophomore, junior year, you stay friends with them. But it definitely has colored my senior year in a way that would have been different if I was not [in a society],” said senior Donna*.
Senior Leslie* noted that she is not strictly attached to everyone in her society, but “it has been a great way to meet people that I never saw on campus before.” For Leslie, society has not only been an avenue to meet new people, but also a way to spend time with people she already knew in a different context. Her suitemate, whom she has lived with for four years, also happens to be in her society. Leslie found it interesting to hear her suitemate’s “bio,” a lengthy personal biography of a society member and was surprised to find out new information about her. She did say that society takes up a decent amount of time and she considered quitting, but is glad she stuck with it.
Byron agreed that society allowed him to meet new people while still having an ample amount of time to spend with his other friends.
“My senior weekends at the end of the semester are going to be spent partially with my society and partially with other friends that I want to hang out with. But I imagine that there are societies who want you to spend a large chunk of that time with them,” Byron said.
Jeremiah offered a slightly different perspective, as he is more invested in his society than the other seniors interviewed.
“[Investment] definitely ranges in spectrum. … I spend a ton of time with the people because I get along with them very well, and we hang out a lot even outside of designated society times, which are Thursdays and Sundays,” Jeremiah said.
Jeremiah believes that there are many levels of investment across the different societies, and “buying into it” is key. You have to be committed to investing and spending several hours a week with the society, he said. Jeremiah also noted that two people dropped from his society early on, but they were the ones who had committed the least to the society.
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For the most part, societies don’t seem to have much social influence on the senior class, beyond determining where some seniors decide to spend a couple nights a week.
“Once you’re in, societies are sort of nonplayers on the social scene. You do things together — go dancing, get dinner, see a member’s a cappella jam — but getting through bios and tap eats [up] a ton of time, and socializing between societies happens, but not that often”, said Elliot*.
The only time societies branch out socially is through mixers with other societies. According to Byron, this is “a fun way to meet or see seniors you haven’t seen in awhile.”
There is a hierarchical component that emerges with mixers, particularly in regards to which groups participate and where they take place. This is where exclusivity can play a role in the social scene, as the difference between landed and non-landed societies becomes an issue. Landed societies are the more established groups that have a prominent meeting space on campus.
“There’s a big divide there, in terms of which societies will throw mixers with others. You’re kind of trading the secret of your tomb or house, so I can see that as a very real reason for keeping your mixers among [other landed societies]. So for our mixers [with nonlanded societies], we’re going to local bars or common rooms. For me there’s no hard feelings about that, I see it as a natural course”, said Byron, who is in a non-landed society that is around 10 years old.
Beyond determining mixers, the specific society a senior is in—or not in—does not have much social influence on their final year at Yale. According to the seniors interviewed, societies have more social influence on the juniors attempting to join than the seniors themselves.
According to Elliot, “Societies have a role in the social scene, primarily in the way in which they exert pressure on nonmembers. Junior spring can be a really stressful time for hopefuls [and the tapping members], and the prestige game [in my day] was not pretty.”
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The stress level of the tap process varied across the seniors interviewed. Half of the seniors discussed the process said that they did not feel stressed as juniors.
“[The tapping process] was very low stakes for me. I did not feel married to the idea that I needed to be in a society to feel good about my senior year. And so I did not feel pressured, worried, scared or anxious about it. But I do know that some people do feel that way”, said Donna.
Leslie noted that she had actually not been planning on joining a society at all, but quickly decided to apply through the YSI from the influence of friends. She was hesitant at first, but decided on a whim, filling out the application about two hours before the deadline.
On the other hand, for those who were more invested the process was much more stressful.
Jeremiah, who said he felt heavily invested as a junior, said, “I remember being stressed that others of my friends had been tapped and I hadn’t, even though I ended up getting [invitations] and it was fine.”
But this diverse spectrum of feeling stressed or more relaxed based on how much someone is invested in the outcome throughout the tap process could be applied to many other situations.
“It can be a little jarring. It’s like any other extracurricular at Yale, where you’re going to get rejected and it’s probably going to feel bad but you get over it pretty quickly — at least most people I know definitely got over it pretty quickly,” said Byron.
According to Byron, the amount of taps people get vary. Last year, some people got just one letter, but others got 10. Throughout the tap process, societies conduct several rounds of interviews and mixers.
Because each society only admits around 15 people, the process is selective. This is why the traditional tap process has been a matter for debate, particularly in recent years.
As a society member choosing juniors to tap, Jeremiah said, “I understand why [the process] happens [now] because I want to get to know the people before. But on the flip side, when you’re doing it, you have to compete and seem really cool to get in. So that I have more mixed feelings about. It’s been an awesome experience and I love it, but that whole exclusivity thing I have mixed feelings about.”
According to Leslie, “people’s complaint with the more traditional structure is that it’s not as accessible if you don’t have super close senior friends when you’re a junior.”
Traditionally, current members of a society will tap juniors that they know either through extracurriculars or their residential college; it isn’t based on any sort of application. Some seniors like this process because it creates a group of people that they have deliberately chosen and gives the current members the freedom to craft a class that will fit with the vibe of the group.
As Byron said, “I think societies do a good job of selecting the people that would be inclined to join them.”
Another benefit to tapping, according to Jeremiah, is that it sorts a “diverse yet complementary group of people.” He said, “something that I marvel at with my society all the time, is [there are] people that I knew of but had never hung out with, and we all fit together very well but we’re all very different.”
Even though some people prefer the traditional tapping process and think it leads to diversity in the members, one senior thinks that it in some cases it does lead to less diversity.
“My own society happens to be very diverse in terms of socioeconomic status, ethnic background, religious background. But I think sometimes the tapping process—because the people who are part of the group tap the people beneath them—sometimes that can get into people choosing people like them, or people with like-minded interests. So I have seen some groups which are less diverse,” said Donna.
In response to concerns over the exclusivity and stressfulness of the tap process, the Yale Society Initiative has created an alternative process for society applications. According to Chanthia Ma ’17, a liaison on the YSI board, the system is intended to relieve stress and give more choice to juniors.
“Rather than just being picked based on who your friends are, you are actually sorted based on your characteristics,” Ma said.
The YSI application is largely question-based, with each member society submitting two questions they feel are most important to them. Applicants thoughtfully respond to these questions, as well as express their personal preferences. Some characteristics include an inclination for tradition—lending them towards groups created with more established practices—or a desire for lengthier biographies, which would suggest groups with a more personal focus. Taps are based almost entirely on applications, in stark contrast to the traditional society tap process, which heavily relies on recommendations from current members. “It’s the same experience of society without the exclusivity and social posturing of the tap process,” said YSI member Fish Stark ’17. “We sort people into societies based on what they want to get out of the experience, which means that people are well-matched and get along really well.”
All interested juniors are guaranteed a spot in a YSI society, as long as they submit a “reasonable application,” with complete answers. This week, emails for the initial round of YSI applications were sent to the junior class, and, as of Thursday night, the YSI had already received over 120 responses indicating interest. Ma said that even if more juniors apply than the current YSI societies can accept, the board will create additional societies to accommodate all.
“The initiative has been able to bring more of an inclusive and accommodating atmosphere to the senior society scene,” Ma said.
However, student opinions varied on the effectiveness of the YSI system to establish meaningful, diverse friendships within societies. Byron, who tried out the YSI system but then ended up joining a non-YSI society, said he was “fine” with his society placement, but he didn’t really bond with his fellow society members. Elliot, another non-YSI society member, said the traditional system is more effective because it is organized around the idea of meeting new, diverse voices.
“My society in its tap considerations actively sought out people who were different from one another,” Elliot said. “Society is organized around the experience of meeting new people at Yale and, more broadly, reiterating how fascinating and deep other people’s stories are.”
Still, critics of the traditional tap process say it is stressful, exclusive and relies too heavily on tap lines—a system of annually choosing members from specific campus groups. Byron felt that tap lines foster competition between junior members of the same groups, and lead to some feeling left out. Leslie said the traditional structure represents much of what people criticize about Yale, and that juniors should not buy into it just because it’s tradition.
“I like the idea of YSI because traditional society structure was way too exclusive,” Leslie said.
Nearly half of Yale seniors eschew the society process all together, yet most remain happy with their decision. Byron said his non-society friends are perfectly happy “doing their own thing” on Thursday and Sunday nights, and do not feel unfulfilled without a society.
“My impression is the people who aren’t in society likely chose not to be in society, [but] they did have a choice to be in a society. There are still maybe very real reasons to feel left out of more elite or prestigious societies, but I would view it in the same way as extracurriculars. Not everyone can be on the spring fling committee, not everyone can be on the board of the [News], for that matter”, Byron said.
Some seniors also drop their societies early in the fall semester. Byron said that two to three members dropping from each society seems to be standard procedure on campus.
“A lot of people I think go into the society process not knowing that they really are going to have Thursday and Sunday nights pretty much taken up, so that’s why people drop at the beginning of [senior] year as well.” Bryon said.
Coryna Ogunseitan ’17, a former editor at the News, quit her society after the first semester because she didn’t feel close to most of the group. She also said that as the only woman of color in her society class, she felt uncomfortable bridging “the huge culture gap.”
“I think for people who don’t feel happy with their friend group, society can be amazing because you make a bunch of new friends, but I think for people who have a set of close friends, it’s not everything,” Ogunseitan said.
But regardless of those who left or decided not to partake, the storied display of tradition and friendship — the Yale senior society — is alive and well on campus.
Just as it has been since the days of Tafts and Bushes, the society tradition is still attracting hopeful juniors. For Russell*, a participating junior, the entire tap process is teeming with possibility. Still, he acknowledges an opinion that many modern Yalies hold, in contrast to their predecessors — societies are great if you want them, but they’re not a necessity. They don’t need to be secretive, exclusive or stressful.
“If you like meeting new people and having discourse, it seems like a good time, but secret societies are all pomp and circumstance,” Russell said. “You could potentially gain just as much from sitting in your college’s common room and striking up conversation with folks you know.”
*Names have been changed