You know you want to study in the USA... but how do you start narrowing down where in that great big country you want to go? This guide breaks things down region by region to work out which areas might be right for you.
US regions: the basics
Because the USA is so big, even people within the country find it easier to think of things regionally - and different regions do tend to have a shared local character, due to their climate or how populated the area is. These regional differences apply to the local colleges and universities as well. Obviously, there are exceptions to every rule, so if you’re looking at a specific university or city, dig deeper before you assume everything in this guide is true for that place!
Every state in the country has at least one large public university, usually named after the state itself, and usually more than one. Pretty much every region also has some quantity of smaller liberal arts and private universities, religious institutions, and other kinds of colleges. If there’s an area you like and a type of university you like, there’s probably somewhere that can tick both boxes.
There are a million different ways to think about dividing the US (just ask a Texan if they’re from the South or not), but for the purposes of this guide, we’ll keep it simple and stick to five major regions.
Rainy and temperate, the Northwest is a lot like the UK in terms of climate. There are lots of beautiful mountains, forests, and even the Pacific Ocean - but don’t plan on swimming, because it’s pretty cold! The Pacific Northwest is relatively rural, so if you’re looking for an urban campus, Seattle, Washington; Portland, Oregon; Denver, Colorado; plus some cities in Northern California, including San Francisco, will be your best bets.
Life out west is generally seen as more laid back than in other places. It has a reputation for being environmentally conscious and the more rural campuses are great for people who love outdoorsy activities like hiking, skiing, and camping. The region is famous for its great wine, coffee, and beer. Seattle’s music scene is legendary, Denver has some of the most beautiful skiing in the world, and Portland’s great restaurants put it on the map. San Francisco is of course the hub of the tech industry, home to Google, Apple, and Facebook, so it’s a great place to make connections if that’s your desired field.
Go Northwest if: you want to own a flannel shirt, develop intense opinions about coffee, or go hiking on the weekends.
The Southwest is warm and dry and defined by the two biggest states in the country, California and Texas. Yes, California’s so big it covers two regions. If you want warm winters, this is the region for you (though they’re accompanied by sweltering summers - but don’t worry, the US has lots of air conditioning). The region has lots to offer, from the extremely popular and prestigious University of California and University of Texas systems to little liberal arts colleges like Trinity University in Texas and Pitzer College in California.
The Southwest and the Northwest share a relatively informal, relaxed character, though really, Texas has a personality all its own. If you have dreams of stardom, you could work on making connections in Hollywood, or check out the burgeoning tech hub of Austin, Texas.
Go Southwest if: you’re constantly cold, you love a bit of drama, or you like long drives.
People from the Midwest and the Plains regions will be the first to tell you that they’re really very different… but basically, we’re talking about the big, middle section of the country. The Plains is more rural (think states like Nebraska and Wyoming), while the Midwest includes big cities like Chicago, Illinois and Detroit, Michigan. Once again you have a range of huge universities, including some famous ones like Notre Dame, Northwestern, and University of Michigan - but also a surprising concentration of very highly-regarded liberal arts colleges, including Oberlin College and Grinnell College.
In this region, you’re in for long, cold winters and humid summers. The cities tend to be former manufacturing hubs, so there’s a rich history there, and a lot of diversity - in contrast to the more rural regions, which tend to be predominantly white. Midwesterners are also thought of as friendly, polite, and community-minded. Chicago has an amazing arts scene, particularly theatre and improv. The region is also known for absolutely loving sports, especially football (the American kind, of course).
Go Midwest if: you love to know your neighbors, you look good in earmuffs, or you want to experience American college football mania.
Pretty much all of the most famous American colleges and universities are in the Northeast: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT, and so on. Most of the top 50 colleges and universities in the country are in this region, and it’s where you’ll find the largest concentration of small liberal arts colleges. The climate is a little less intense than the Midwest, but you’re still in for some snowy winters - especially when you get all the way north into Maine. There are few things more beautiful than autumn in the Northeast, though.
The Northeast is known for being ambitious and fast-paced. This is where you’ll really encounter America’s version of the class system, with old money and legacy admissions playing a big role at some of the oldest, most prestigious institutions. On the other hand, it’s also a top destination for college, so you’ll meet students from across the US and the world. And of course, there’s the huge cities: Boston, Philadelphia, and of course New York City. It’s also one of the easiest regions to travel around without a car.
Go Northeast if: you love pumpkin spice lattes, love riding trains, or want to be able to facetime with people in Europe at a reasonable time of the day.
Like out west, the Southeast is hot - but humid, too. This makes for some beautiful winters (though it does get colder in the north of the region) and pretty sticky summers. Maybe it’s because of the heat, but people in the South are seen as taking life a little slower, and observing traditional manners. The most famous universities are the big ones - Duke University and University of North Carolina, for example - but there are also mid-sized and smaller schools like Vanderbilt and Washington and Lee University.
The region is stereotyped as being more socially conservative than the rest of the country, but this isn’t universally true, especially in cities like Atlanta, Georgia, New Orleans, Louisiana, and Memphis, Tennessee, which are vibrant cultural hubs and extremely diverse. The South has some of the best food in the US, not to mention some of the most famous music scenes, especially for jazz, blues, and rap. And don’t forget those warm Florida beaches.
Go South if: you like long nights and lie-ins, you like to become an expert in the regional cuisine when you travel, or you would consider wrestling an alligator.