Before getting their big break in Hollywood, many of today’s biggest stars focused their attention on their studies. Though you may now know them as accomplished singers, actors and TV hosts, these famous figures also have some impressive academic achievements under their belts.
All of these celebrities attended extremely prestigious Ivy League schools. Some even went on to earn a second (or, in one case, third) degree. Read on to see which of your favorite stars are as brilliant as they are talented.
Mindy Kaling graduated from Dartmouth College in 2001 with a degree in playwriting. During her time at the school, the actress was a member of the a cappella group The Rockapellas and the improv comedy troupe the Dog Day Players. She also created a popular comic strip in the student newspaper, known as the “Badly Drawn Girl.”
According to The New York Times, the actress joked in her book,“Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?,” that she chose to go to Dartmouth to “pursue my love of white people and North Face parkas.”
The “Modern Family” star majored in Italian Renaissance at Brown University. She studied abroad in Florence before graduating in 1991. The star recalled her college days during a talk at the university in 2012.
“I lived in the Rock,” she said referring to the university’s Rockefeller Library, per the Brown Daily Herald. “I did everything all students have ever done. But I did it in the Rock.”
Count ’em: Angela Bassett has not one, not two, but three degrees from Yale University. The actress earned her bachelor’s degree in African-American studies from Yale in 1980. She then went on to get her MFA from Yale’s School of Drama in 1983. In 2018, she also received an honorary doctorate degree from her alma mater.
Besides being the site of her academic accolades, the school also played an important role in her personal life. She met her now-husband, Courtney B. Vance, at the university.
Connie Britton performed in a few plays at Dartmouth but majored in Asian studies. She credits her education as sparking her interest in activism.
“I remember learning about genocide in an international relations class and being cut to the quick,” she told Dartmouth Alumni magazine.
Her choice of major also led her to study abroad for a term in Beijing, where she roomed with now-Senator Kristin Gillibrand. Gillibrand later helped her navigate the adoption process of her son, Yoby, from Ethiopia.
John Krasinski graduated from Brown University in 2001 and has said that his time at the university had a major impact on him “in every single way.” According to the Brown Daily Herald, it’s his friends at school who exposed him to the albums and films that transformed him from someone “who had never seen a movie that wasn’t in a Cineplex or listened to music that wasn’t on the radio” to the actor he now is.
“I legitimately would not be half the person that you see in front of you if it were not for Brown. … I wish I could go back,” the actor told the paper.
Shonda Rhimes majored in English and film studies at Dartmouth College. Before graduating in the class of 1991, the TV creator directed student productions for the Black Underground Theater Association. She returned to the college in 2014 to deliver an inspiring and widely quoted commencement speech.
“Dreams do not come true just because you dream them,” she told students. “It’s hard work that makes things happen. It’s hard work that creates change.”
Conan O’Brien graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1985 with a concentration in history and literature. The talk-show host honed his comedy skills while working for the school’s acclaimed humor magazine, the Harvard Lampoon. He was also a prankster, reportedly stealing a costume from the ’60s TV show “Batman” that was displayed on campus.
Not only did John Legend earn his bachelor’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania, but he started his freshman year at an only 16 years old. The singer reportedly decided on the school after turning down admission offers from Harvard, Georgetown and Morehouse College.
While completing his studies in English with an emphasis on African-American literature, Legend also served as a president to co-ed jazz and pop a cappella group, Counterparts, and became a member of prestigious senior societies, the Sphinx Senior Society and the Onyx Senior Honor Society.
The “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” star went to Princeton as a field hockey player, not a comedy writer and actress. It wasn’t until her sophomore year that she shifted her attention from sports to improv. It’s in her college troupe that she says she first began honing her comedy writing and acting skills.
“This is enjoyable, and I feel like I have a handle on it,” Kemper told Princeton Alumni Weekly of first recognizing her love for performing. “That was a great realization.”
Jordana Brewster had already launched her career before getting into Yale, deferring her acceptance for a year to shoot a TV show. Once the project was wrapped, the actress had no qualms about temporarily putting acting to the side and focusing on college. She took a semester off in 2001 to film her breakthrough role in “The Fast and the Furious,” but returned to finish her degree even while fielding multiple offers from movie studios.
Elizabeth Banks became the first member of her family to graduate from college when she earned a communications degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1996. The actress, who graduated with magna cum laude honors, was a member of the Tri-Delta sorority, ran the work-study program at the Faculty Club and also performed in a college theater group.
“I think I slept an average of three to four hours a night all four years I was there,” she told the school’s newspaper.
While studying comparative religion at Harvard, Rashida Jones became involved in a range of campus activities, including the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club, the Signet Society, the Harvard Black Students Association and a co-ed a cappella group. She graduated in 1997 and went on to give a speech at the university in 2016, in which she joked about making the most of her time on campus with quick power naps in the theater and “impressive zzzs” in the library.
The address made her the college’s first ever “second generation” speaker, as father Quincy Jones delivered the Class Day address just prior to her graduation in 1997.
Hollywood’s arguably most-acclaimed actress earned her MFA from Yale Drama School in 1975.
Per Vulture, in the biography “Her Again,” author Michael Schulman details the time Streep participated in an intense “death scene” exercise for freshmen. While other students mimed shooting themselves or setting themselves on fire, Streep acted as if she was performing an abortion on herself. The performance was so intense, classmates reportedly later began saying “Streep it up” as a way to encourage themselves and others to step up their game.
The movie star enrolled at Brown University in 2009 to pursue a degree in English literature. She took a hiatus in 2011 to film “Harry Potter” and also enrolled as a visiting student at Oxford University’s Worcester College. Though she initially had fears about being accepted by her peers, Watson later revealed she was able to have plenty of normal college experiences.
“I’ve never even been asked for an autograph on campus,” she told Us Weekly in 2013. “I threw a party for nearly 100 students and not a single person put a photo on Facebook.”
Natalie Portman graduated with a degree in psychology from Harvard in 2001. The actress enrolled shortly after completing filming of “Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace,” and she wasn’t the only famous face on campus. In June, the star reluctantly admitted that she was “friendly” with Jared Kushner during her college days.
Her acting achievements are admirable, but Lupita Nyong’o boasted an impressive resume well before coming to Hollywood. The actress beat out 950 applications to earn a spot in an exclusive master’s program of only 16 people at Yale’s prestigious drama school. She graduated in 2012, only a year before starring in her Oscar-winning breakthrough role in 2013’s “12 Years a Slave.” During her acceptance speech, Nyong’o gave a shout-out to her alma mater and to her class, nicknamed “The Wilsons.”
After earning her undergraduate degree at Illinois State University, Jane Lynch received her master’s of fine arts in theater from Cornell. She graduated in 1984 and went on to appear in many TV and film roles, most notably her Emmy-winning part as cheerleader coach Sue Sylvester on Fox’s “Glee.” In 2013, Lynch became the first female alumna from Cornell to earn a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Amanda Peet graduated from Columbia University in 1994. As she told NJ.com, she chose to study history over drama because, “I wanted to be cool and not be like, ‘I want to be on stage.'” She returned to the arts after taking acting classes under acting coach Uta Hagen.
Paul Giamatti graduated from Yale, just like his father, who was a professor. He majored in English as an undergrad and later returned to get his master’s in fine arts.
“I had just graduated from Yale — in English — and thought about going into academic life, though I don’t think I would have been suited to it,” Giamatti told The Guardian in 2011. “It is because my dad died suddenly that I became an actor. I thought, I’m going to make money doing this thing I enjoy.”
Tommy Lee Jones
Harvard has yet another famous alum in Tommy Lee Jones. Before graduating with an English literature degree in 1969, the actor was roommates with two other very famous figures: former Vice President Al Gore and, later, John Lithgow. In 2012, Jones returned to his alma mater to receive the Harvard Arts Medal.
Tracee Ellis Ross
The “Black-ish” star graduated with a theater degree from Brown University in 1994. The college has continued to play a part in her life in the years since. In May 2015, she earned an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from the university. Later that same year, the Rhode Island school also appears in “Black-ish” in an episode in which Ross’ character, Rainbow, takes her daughter on a college visit.
“Both myself and Jonothan Groff, one of our executive producers, went to Brown, so we just thought it was a perfect match,” Ross said at the time.
The “Saturday Night Live” star majored in communications at the University of Pennsylvania. Before graduating in 2004, the actress was a member of the all-female comedy troupe, the Bloomers, at the university. She has often discussed how influential the troupe was in her life, telling a UPenn panel, “I enjoyed [Bloomers] so much. I hadn’t found anything like that except for school. I didn’t know what it was like to really enjoy and feel like you were excelling at something.”
Long before his “X-Files” days, David Duchovny was an undergraduate at Princeton and a graduate student at Yale University. He studied English literature at both Ivy Leagues, with the intention of writing fiction works or plays. His efforts to better understand theater led him to acting classes in New York, where he landed a commercial and some other small parts. Duchovny was initially pursuing his Ph.D. while also acting, but left his studies once more roles began coming his way.
Matthew Fox earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from Columbia. In 1989, during his senior year, the actor played wide receiver in a football game that went on to break Columbia’s record-setting, 44-game losing streak. But that legacy apparently wasn’t all that impressive to the class of 2007, many of whom protested his appointment as that year’s Class Day speaker.
The actress earned her degree from Harvard in 2002 after having been in the limelight for her role on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”
The actress and daughter of MSNBC’s Brian Williams began putting her acting skills on display during her years at Yale University. The actress was a member of improv comedy group Just Add Water. She graduated in 2010, but she didn’t have to wait too long to get her big break. The actress nabbed the part of Marnie on “Girls” only months later.
Julia Stiles majored in English at Columbia University, earning her degree in 2005. The actress said the school’s idea-oriented environment provided a good counterbalance to her fame-driven acting career.
“The reason I went in the first place was because I don’t want to be 40 years old, surrounded by studio executives who went to good colleges, and feel like I’m at a disadvantage,” she told Elle in 2002. “And, more importantly, I don’t want to get sucked into the whole Hollywood thing to the point where I can’t exist in a world that doesn’t revolve around me.”
Before reaching superstardom on “Saturday Night Live,” Kate McKinnon attended Columbia University. She appeared in several productions of the Varsity Show during her time at the school before graduating with a major in theater in 2006. It was only about a year after graduation that she landed a gig on Logo’s “The Big Gay Sketch Show.”
Michelle Obama graduated from two Ivy League schools, receiving her bachelor’s degree at Princeton and her law degree at Harvard. The former first lady was a first-generation college student, as she recalled in a throwback post on Instagram in May 2018.
“I was black and from a working-class neighborhood in Chicago, while Princeton’s student body was generally white and well-to-do,” she captioned the image. “I’d never stood out in a crowd or a classroom because of the color of my skin before. But I found close friends and a mentor who gave me the confidence to be myself.”
Anderson Cooper studied political science during his days at Yale. During his time there, the CNN host was reportedly a member of the Manuscript Society, a senior society focused on the arts. He graduated in 1989 and returned in 2016 to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Yale College Council.
“Parks and Recreation” alum Jenny Slate graduated from Columbia University in 2004 with a degree in literature. During her time there, she was a member of the Varsity Show and three different improv groups.
“Part of the reason I chose Columbia was because it was in New York,” she told Columbia College Today in 2011. “That was where all the comedy was happening.”
After transferring from Northwestern University, Laura Linney graduated from Brown in 1986. She earned her degree in theater before moving to New York’s Juilliard School for a graduate program in drama.
When asked what advice she would give her college self, Linney told the Brown Daily Herald, “I was a bit of a worrywart. I think I would have just told myself to breathe a little deeper.”
Aisha Tyler graduated from Dartmouth in 1992. She majored in political science with a minor in environmental policy, but later realized she was more drawn to acting.
“I realized that I wasn’t happy doing what I thought I was going to be happy doing, and that what I really loved was performing,” Tyler told Boston.com.
Brooke Shields’ experience at Princeton didn’t start off so well. In her memoir, “There Was a Little Girl: The Real Story of My Mother and Me,” she recounts how paparazzi used to sneak on to campus and follow her around. She also recalled showering in a one-piece bathing suit after a photographer attempted to bribe a student into getting a picture of her in the bathroom. Despite the security issues, Shields stuck it out with the encouragement of her mother and graduated in 1987.
Before graduating from Dartmouth in 1988, former “Saturday Night Live” cast member Rachel Dratch participated in a Language Study Abroad program in France and the theater program Summer Rep. In her sophomore year, she also joined the improv group Said and Done.
“It was with this group that I felt truly comfortable at Dartmouth — like I had found my people,” she told Dartmouth News of the troupe.