Cream of the Crop: Celebrities Who Went to Ivy League Schools

When it comes to education, these Hollywood’s A-listers refused to settle for second best.

To think of celebrities as mere beautiful faces is old-fashioned. Some of the best ones gained fame in front of the cameras, and performed just as well in their secondary fields of interest.

Here, a list of the celebrities who attended Ivy League schools.


Natalie Portman
Psychology at Harvard University, 2003

Portraying multi-faceted characters demands depth and substance, and Natalie Portman certainly has these things: She was innocent but menacing in Léon: The Professional, seductive yet smart in Closer, and controversial in Black Swan. 

Portman, who was enrolled under her real name Natalie Hershlag, did not just finish college at Harvard, but graduated with honors, too. She even returned to her alma mater in 2015 to deliver a commencement speech—an event she regards as "genuinely one of the most exciting things I've ever been asked to do."


John Lithgow
History and Literature at Harvard College, 1976


It all started with a performance in Gilbert and Sullivan's "Utopia Limited," a romantic-comedy opera, which made Lithgow decide that he wanted to pursue an acting career. He has won multiple awards for playing Dr. Dick Solomon in NBC's 3rd Rock From The Sun and Winston Churchill in Netflix's The Crown.

Tommy Lee Jones
English at Harvard College, 1969

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Before Men In Black, Tommy Lee Jones attended Harvard on a need-based scholarship and graduated cum laude. He also played offensive guard for the school's undefeated varsity football team, and was part of the most famous football game in Ivy League history, where a last-minute 16-point comeback to tie with Yale took place.

During his time in college, he was roommates with former American vice-president Al Gore and actor John Lithgow.

Ashley Judd
Public Administration at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, 2010

During her yearlong stay completing her master's degree, Judd was a devout fan of the Kentucky Wildcats men's basketball team and was often seen in most games.

She is known for portraying tough-but-soft-hearted female leads, as in Double Jeopardy and The Divine Secrets Of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood, and today, continues to be active with her humanitarian work for AIDS victims.

Matt Damon
English at Harvard University, 1992


Although he left a semester short from his graduation, while at Harvard, Damon had already accomplished an early treatment of the screenplay Good Will Hunting. He eventually won an Academy Award for it in 1998, with the trophy being handed to him by alumnus Jack Lemmon. In 2013, he was also awarded the prestigious Harvard Arts Medal.


Emma Watson
English Literature at Brown University, 2014


Emma Watson is undeniably a smart woman who makes all the right career choices—from the Harry Potter series (the last two installments even forcing her to take a break from school for a while) to the classic Beauty and the Beast.

This role model of an actress is a pro at balancing priorities, too. On top of being a candidate for 2017's highest paid actress, she is also a U.N. Women Goodwill Ambassador and the founder of the He for She gender equality movement. Recently, she expressed her determination to change the retail scene with her advocacy on sustainable fashion.


Lupita Nyong’o
Acting at Yale University's School of Drama, 2012

After completing her master's degree at Yale (she was only one of the 16 in the program), Nyong’o found her breakthrough success in 12 Years A Slave, and the rest, as they say, is history. Her Oscar-winning performance has landed her more notable roles in Hollywood films and on covers of fashion magazines. She is fluent in several languages, including Luo, Swahili, English, and Spanish.


Meryl Streep
Acting at Yale School of Drama, Class of 1975

Streep hasn't been called the "Greatest Living Actress" for nothing. Apart from earning her bachelor's degree and postgraduate studies, she has also received honorary doctorates from Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. The Academy Award-winning actress was also invited as the Belknap Visitor by Princeton University's College of Humanities, where she talked about her acting career to 450 students. She also gave a commencement speech at Barnard College in 2010.

Claire Danes
Psychology at Yale


Golden Globe and Emmy accolades aside, this Romeo + Juliet and Homeland star was also named Hasty Pudding’s Woman of the Year in 2012. In order to be awarded the famous Pudding Pot by the Harvard-founded student society, Danes, a Yale dropout (she was enrolled from 1998 to 2000), had to accomplish a series of outrageous challenges, such as recite a faux-Elizabethan monologue and perform a dance-off with a virus.

Jodie Foster
Literature at Yale, 1985

Aside from her Academy Awards for The Silence Of The Lambs and The Accused, Foster received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from her alma mater, Yale, in 1997. She graduated magna cum laude and was invited in 1993 to deliver her commencement speech to the graduating class.

Jennifer Connelly
English at Yale


The multi-awarded actress admits to her insecurities, was often picky with accepting roles, and had a preference for playing only "smart people, characters that are complex".

Before her lauded performances in the 2001 biopic A Beautiful Mind and the 2009 romantic comedy He's Just Not That Into You, she first attended Yale in 1988 for a year, before moving to Stanford in 1990, and dropped out, too.

Edward Norton
History at Yale, 1991

As a student, Norton wasn't dedicated solely to acting, but was equally active in basketball, the rowing team, and classes in astronomy, history, and Japanese. His interest in multiple disciplines shows in his choice of work, performing across genres, from Fight Club and American History X to Wes Anderson films to the R-rated animation Sausage Party.

Sigourney Weaver
Acting at Yale University School of Drama, 1974


While school mate Meryl Streep was given all the glamorous lead roles at Yale, Weaver was told she had no talent. But the actor-producer was determined to rise above the criticism and prejudice, and eventually went on to bag sci-fi queen roles which she would win multiple awards for.

Liev Schreiber
Dramatic Art at Yale School of Drama, 1992

Tony award-winning Shakespearean actor Schreiber initially wanted to become a playwright, but upon attendance at Yale, he was advised by one of his teachers to try acting.

He made his Broadway debut in 1993. He was given the title roles in Henry V and Hamlet, as well as in other famous works of Shakespeare, as Banquo in Macbeth and Iago in Othello.


Wentworth Miller
English Literature at Princeton University, 1995


When he wasn't playing the hunky Michael Scofield in Prison Break, Miller busied himself writing screenplays. But his best-written work is said to be the 120-word letter that he penned to turn down an invitation to a film festival in Russia. In the same way that he was able to eloquently express his disagreement in the government's treatment of the LGBT, it was also his official coming out piece.

Brooke Shields
French Literature at Princeton University, 1987

A commercial model at 11 months old by way of an Ivory soap ad, Pretty Baby Brooke Shields is famously known for putting her acting career on hold to attend school. During her days at Princeton, the paparazzi tailed her shamelessly. They dressed up as students, followed her around, bribed her classmates, and even attempted to snap her in the nude while she was taking a shower.

But the Calvin Klein model managed to graduate with honors, and in 2011, leaders of her alma mater’s senior class voted for Shields to become their guest keynote speaker at the University’s Class Day ceremony.



Jake Gyllenhaal
Eastern Religions and Philosophy at Columbia University

The younger Gyllenhaal dropped out of university after two years to focus entirely on his acting career. His notable performance in Brokeback Mountain won him a BAFTA, an Academy Award, and a nomination at the Screen Actors Guild Award. Despite his Hollywood success, he continues to support the university by sponsoring advance screenings of some of his films.

Maggie Gyllenhaal
Literature at Columbia University, 1999


Hailing from the same celebrity family, the elder Gyllenhaal starred in many of her father's projects while in school. She is known for her performances in indie films Secretary and Sherrybaby, and her leading role in the 2008 box office hit, The Dark Knight.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt
History, Literature, and French Poetry at Columbia University

Gordon-Levitt might as well have been in school for the full university experience. During his stay, he became a professed Francophile, was a regular at the Morningside Heights, and was madly involved in discussions with Symbolists.

The former go-to actor for indie projects, however, seemed to always be distracted by the Hollywood limelight, and ended up dropping out.

Amanda Peet
American History at Columbia University, 1994


Peet was an actress who took her education seriously and initially had no intentions pursuing an acting career. That is, until one of her teachers gave her a recommendation to an audition, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Soon after, Peet appeared in off-Broadway projects one after another, made her debut in the 1995 film Animal Room, and has starred in The Whole Nine Yards and The Good Wife.

Emmy Rossum
Art History, Columbia University

Talent, good looks, and a drive for continuous learning have propelled Emmy Rossum to be the multi-talented artist that she is today. But during her first semester at Columbia, she got a message from her agent confirming her roles in Mystic River and The Day After Tomorrow. She accepted, and hasn't looked back since.

While she was in school, Rossum studied art history, French, and philosophy.

Julia Stiles
English Literature at Columbia University, 2005


Young and reluctant to fall in love in 10 Things I Hate About You and madly chasing her dream in Save The Last Dance, Stiles was and remains an actress who always made us felt like she was one of us.

Like the rest of us, this John Jay awardee has had her fair share of struggles in balancing school and career, too, and admits to having performed poorly in her exams while she was busy filming the Bourne series.

James Franco
Fiction Writing at Columbia University, Class of 2010


Man of our dreams James Franco is nowhere near stopping his educational pursuits. Apart from being able to star in several projects simultaneously, he also went on a learning spree, studying filmmaking, literature, creative writing, and poetry all at the same time. The truly restless James Dean, Pineapple Express, and Milk star is now on his way to getting his English Ph.D. at Yale University.

Katie Holmes
Columbia University

Holmes scored a 1310 out of 1600 on her SAT, and almost studied to become a doctor, as per her father's wishes. But she deferred her admission to Columbia in 1998 when she was offered the role of Joey Potter in the hit teen drama Dawson's Creek, which was perhaps one of the best decisions she's made in her life. In the summer of 2000, Holmes finally took one photography class at the university.


Shonda Rhimes
English and Film Studies at Dartmouth College, 1991


Aside from being the brains behind long-running series Grey’s Anatomy, and recent hits Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder, Rhimes' list of achievements also includes being a mother of three daughters (two are adopted) and founding ShondaLand, her production company.

Rhimes is a Golden Globe awardee and a three-time Emmy nominee. In 2014, she was invited back to her alma mater to give the commencement address, where she challenged the graduating class to practice activism beyond hashtagging.

Mindy Kaling
Playwriting at Darthmouth College, 2001


Before The Office and The Mindy Project, this actor-producer-writer was an active student. She joined the college paper, where she created “Badly Drawn Girl”—a campus comic strip that poked fun at the institution and its frat culture, also funnily documenting the daily lives of students.

Kaling also interned at the Late Night with Conan O’Brien show, where she admitted to spending most of her hours stalking Conan instead of doing actual work. Today she is one of the most in-demand women in Hollywood and is often referred to as a comedic genius.


Jane Lynch
Theatre at Cornell University, 1984

It all began when she portrayed the role of a candle at a grammar school play. Before her award-winning role as Sue Sylvester on Glee, she was a regular at
theater houses, a home-shopping TV show host, and a commercial model for Frosted Flakes—all of which she says significantly helped propel her career.


Lynch has a published memoir called Happy Accidents. Her work has also earned her a star on the prestigious Hollywood Walk of Fame.

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