I've recruited international students for American colleges for more than a decade. Since I started working in Texas, I get asked the same question on nearly every trip abroad: "Are there a lot of cowboys there?"
I usually laugh and say that cowboys are part of Texas' rich cultural past – and I'm quick to add that not many modern Texans wear 10-gallon hats and ride horses either.
I like to point out that Dallas is consistently a top city for Fortune 500 company headquarters and that Houston Community College has one of the largest international student populations in the U.S. for a community college.
And Austin, where I live and work, is the Texas capital, has a world-renowned music scene and is a technology hub for companies like Dell, Apple and Google.
[Find out which four-year schools have the most international students.]
Many international students who want to study in the U.S. tend to overlook that there is much more out there than what's frequently seen in the movies or on television. In fact, there are nearly 4,000 accredited American colleges that span all 50 states, from big cities and small towns to tropical paradises and winter wonderlands.
Here's how you can narrow down your college location choices – from the comfort of your own living room.
1. Assess yourself: Be honest. What's most important to you about the city or town where you will study?
Do you want, for example, a vibrant music or arts scene that could lead to internships or other connections? Do you want to be close to hiking, skiing or biking? Do you need sunshine? Will you want a market nearby that sells staples from your home country?
Write down the qualities your ideal location will have. If you aren't sure, ask a family member or close friend, someone who knows you well, to help. Rank the characteristics on your list in order of importance.
2. Do your research: Search the Internet for places that meet your top criteria. You might search for things like "best American cities for business majors" or "American colleges with religious diversity" or "most temperate towns in the United States."
Jot down some of the locations that appeal to you and keep refining your search until you've got a firm idea of what parts of the country are a good match for you.
And remember, it's okay if you've never heard of some of the places that turn up in your search results. Boulder, Colo.; Madison, Wis.; Charlottesville, Va.; Athens, Ga.; Austin — you probably haven't heard much about any of them, yet they all previously made a U.S. News list of great college towns.
[Learn why you might want to rethink your top choice school.]
3. Ask a friend, or a stranger: Email friends or relatives who are studying in the U.S. – or admissions counselors you might have met at your high school – and ask about their university.
How many students go there? Is the campus in an urban area or a more rural area? Do most students live on campus or off? What's the winter like? What do they do on weekends? Is there public transportation, and is the location pedestrian-friendly?
Even if you don't plan to apply for admission to one of these universities, learning about the types of American colleges will help you narrow your search. If you're looking for a big public university in an urban setting, for example, you'll find that there are many similarities among those campuses.
The same is true for small, private colleges, liberal arts-focused schools and campuses tucked away in more remote areas.
4. Keep an open mind – and map: Like every student, every college campus has its own personality. Don't beat yourself up about finding the most perfect place in the country to study.
The truth is, you will get a great education at a lot of different places. After your top two or three needs are met, be open to what a college has to offer. You never know what amazing opportunities might await in a town you've never even heard of.
Amy Rader Kice is director of international admission and assistant dean at St. Edward's University. She has counseled international students for more than 10 years and volunteers for the CIS Committee on Europe, the Middle East and Africa. She has also completed the College Board's Enrollment Leadership Academy. Connect with her on LinkedIn or via email.