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Why being sorted is perhaps not as simple as it seems

As you know, Hogwarts famously divided its students into four houses. But a student was rarely ever sorted at the drop of, well, a hat.

Sorting Hat in Dumbledore's office
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Whenever the Sorting Hat sorted a brand-new, terrified and quivering Hogwarts student, it usually based its decision on a number of traits seen inside that person’s head. You all know the drill by this point, but just in case: students who were Gryffindors tended to be brave, Ravenclaws tended to be smart, Hufflepuffs tended to be kind, and Slytherins tended to be, contrary to popular belief, cunning and resourceful.

But it wasn’t necessarily that black and white…

The Sorting Ceremony
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Some Hogwarts students seemed to lean towards other houses

Certain Hogwarts students we met seemed immediately perfect for their house – can you imagine Draco Malfoy in Hufflepuff? Exactly. There’d be chaos.

But then there were people like Hermione, as brave as she was smart, who must have been picked for Gryffindor over Ravenclaw on a knife’s edge. It’s not a surprise to learn that the hat took four minutes to sort her into one or the other – nearly resulting in a ‘Hatstall’, which is when the Sorting Hat takes more than five minutes to sort a student.

Neville was in a similar boat: although he was picked for Gryffindor, Neville often displayed traits of a Hufflepuff – especially with his endless kindness. He even asked the Sorting Hat to consider him for the house, resulting in another near-Hatstall. In his final year, after being known as meek and forgetful for most of his time at Hogwarts, the Sorting Hat proved it had been right in sorting Neville into Gryffindor. After all, he destroyed Nagini the snake with the Sword of Gryffindor itself at the Battle of Hogwarts: possibly the most Gryffindor thing someone could do.

But a little bit of Hufflepuff tradition always seemed alive in Neville, especially as he went on to become the Professor of Herbology – succeeding Professor Sprout, the former head of Hufflepuff. He also married a Hufflepuff, Hannah Abbott. So although Neville was one of the bravest characters in the series, we could always see a little glimmer of yellow residing inside him.

Even the Sorting Hat could get stumped sometimes

Even holding an impossible, all-encompassing amount of knowledge didn’t mean the hat could just snap its fingers (if it had fingers, of course) and instantly know your house. Take the case of Minerva McGonagall, who took five and a half minutes to be sorted into Gryffindor over Ravenclaw; a testament to Minerva’s equal helpings of bravery and vast intelligence.

Sorting Moment for carousel

If students were sorted when they were older, would they be in different houses?

First-year Hogwarts students were usually 11 when they started school and got sorted. But Peter Pettigrew, who wasn’t exactly an example of noble valour, was sorted into Gryffindor. As we know all too well, when Pettigrew got a little older, he became so invested in the Dark Lord that he betrayed Lily and James Potter – again, not really a sign of bravery. Although the hat is known to stubbornly reject any suggestion it may have picked wrongly, would Pettigrew really still have been a Gryffindor so many years later?

A student’s house will often be the same as other family members – but not always

The Weasleys were notorious for usually turning out to be Gryffindors, and although the majority of this family of redheads were certainly very chivalrous, it took a long time for Percy Weasley to show his true red and gold colours. When Harry first met him, he was usually head-deep in a book, which was far more a trait of Ravenclaw. He was also known as furiously ambitious, which was much more the work of a Slytherin – especially when he became estranged from his family due to his work in the Ministry.

In the end, however, Percy’s Gryffindor stripes returned to him at the Battle of Hogwarts, where he hexed the Minister for Magic, Pius Thicknesse, and promptly resigned. Very Gryffindor.

Bill and Charlie fight with tables in the Burrow's garden.
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A student’s house preference makes a difference

Of course, where you’re destined to be is only one part of being sorted. Harry, for example, was plagued with horror stories about Slytherin before he even reached the Hogwarts gates, and desperately asked the hat to consider otherwise. Neville also struggled to believe he deserved to be a Gryffindor, the poor mite.

Eventually the hat took into account Harry’s suggestion, a fact that Harry would later go on to tell his son, Albus Severus Potter.

It goes to show that Dumbledore was right: ‘It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.’

Sorting Hat Illustration with grey background
© JKR/Pottermore Ltd. ™ Warner Bros.