Crazy Smart People: 45 Celebs Who Have Random College Degrees From Renowned Institutions

By Phillipa G

This article was originally published on whythese

We all know that celebrities aren’t born stars, so many of them have had different careers before becoming well-known. In this list, we’ve put together the stars who had very good educations before becoming famous, many with really interesting degrees that aren’t related to showbiz whatsoever.

From Accounting to Engineering to Law, these stars have worked hard in their academic pursuits to earn these degrees, even if they don’t use them now. Loads of them attended very impressive schools, including the Ivy Leagues, Oxford, and Cambridge as well!

A common theme is that they have found their true passion while studying and decided to pursue that instead once they graduated. But there are also plenty of interesting and unique stories about how these stars became public figures.

Bridgit Mendler

The former Disney actress and singer, who starred in Good Luck Charlie, has hung up her entertainment boots and replaced them with books. This explains why we haven’t really seen much of her on our screens or releasing music recently. 

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She has a degree in anthropology and is now pursuing a Ph.D., which would make her Dr. Mendler! Her research topic is “technologies that support inclusive and collaborative governance and citizen engagement.” She has publicly said that she loves school and studying, which makes sense given the dedication required to complete a Ph.D.

Dakota Fanning

This former child star (she had her first job when she was just seven years old) is still landing huge roles in major films, but she took a break from acting to go to New York University to study. She majored in Women’s Studies. 

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Her studies were clearly relevant to her work as she focused on the portrayal of women in film and culture. After graduating in 2014, she went back to acting and has continued to star in blockbusters, including Oceans 8 and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

David Duchovny

David Duchovny has one long CV. He’s not only an actor, but also also dabs in writing, producing, directing, and songwriting. Despite being best known for his role as an FBI agent in The X-Files, for which he won a Golden Globe, he is also very well educated. 

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Duchovny has a master’s degree from the one and only Yale University in English Literature. In addition to his entertainment work, he also used his knowledge and talents to write four books in the last six years! He is one very busy man. 

Rebel Wilson

The Australian actress is not just a funny and talented actress; she’s also incredibly intelligent. She has a Law degree from one of Australia’s most elite universities. Although she’s not a practicing lawyer, she has used her skills to defend one of her film’s age ratings. 

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She decided to instead pursue a career in the entertainment industry, and it has certainly paid off for her as she went on to star in huge films such as the Pitch Perfect series, The Hustle, and How To Be Single

John Cleese

The English comedian, actor, producer, and screenwriter can also add ‘lawyer’ to his long list of professions. He found fame through his comedy shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and also on-screen through the iconic Monty Python series that still has a cult following these days. 

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Cleese attended the very exclusive Cambridge University in England, meaning he is super smart as well as funny, and studied Law. While he hasn’t been in the public eye much recently, he has been working as a professor at Cornell University. 

Gerard Butler

The Scottish actor started out as a lawyer before he moved into acting and producing. He studied at the University of Glasgow and began his career as a solicitor, but he had been going to the Scottish Youth Theatre since he was a teenager.

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When he was 25, he was let go from his job at a law firm, so he moved to London to pursue acting. He openly admits that his end goal was to become famous rather than the art of acting. Well, it seems like he managed to get it all.

Connie Britton

Connie, whose full name is Constance, Britton studied at Dartmouth (an Ivy League university) and graduated with a degree in Asian Studies. Because she majored in Chinese, she also spent some time at the Beijing Normal University during her freshman year.

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She then moved to the Big Apple to study at a prestigious theater school and pursued acting. She made her acting debut in an off-Broadway show and got her first film role in The Brothers McMullen, which was so successful that Britton was able to move to LA and pursue acting full-time.

Cole Sprouse

This popular Disney alum had an acting career before pursuing education. After finding fame early on through roles in Friends and The Suite Life with his identical twin brother, Dylan, Cole Sprouse went to New York University to study Archaeology.

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The actor studied geographical information systems and satellite imaging as part of his degree. After taking the time away from acting to focus on his studies, he has now returned to acting with a lead role on the CW drama Riverdale

Riz Ahmed

Now an actor and rapper, Riz Ahmed was a student at Oxford University at Christ Church college. The actor is a triple major in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics. Afterward, he studied acting at a prestigious acting school in his city.

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He is now a member of the rap group The Swet Shop Boys, known for their political activism in their music. He has also landed major acting roles in independent films, including Four Lions, Trishna, and The Sound of Metal. He got an Emmy for his work in The Night Of.

Brooke Shields

Brooke Shields began her career as a child model. She then moved into acting at age 12 with a leading role in Pretty Baby. She continued to act and model, starring in romantic dramas The Blue Lagoon and Endless Love.

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She studied at Princeton and earned a degree in Romance Language and Literature, which is clearly relevant to her acting work. She mainly studied French literature and graduated with distinctions. She went back to her acting work after finishing university.

Allison Williams

This American actress studied English at Yale, a very elite university in America, and graduated in 2010. While at the institution, she was a component of the St. Elmo Secret Society and Morse College. She began her acting career in 2004 but really started acting seriously after university.

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She made her debut in the series American Dreams and, in 2011, was cast as Kate Middleton in a short series about her and Prince William’s early stages. She is most well-known for her role in Get Out, for which she was nominated for an MTV Award and Screen Actors Guild Award.

Wanda Sykes

Before entering a career in entertainment as a comedian, actress, and writer, Wanda Sykes studied for a Bachelor of Science in Marketing at Hampton University. While she was there, Sykes was a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha. She then worked at the National Security Agency for five years.

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She then started doing stand-up comedy gigs in Washington DC in the 1980s and early 1990s before moving to New York, where her career really took off. She began doing more high-profile comedy shows and writing for the Chris Rock Show.

America Ferrera

America Ferrera has been interested in acting since she was at school and made her big-screen debut in the early 2000s. She then gained traction with roles in Gotta Kick It Up!, The Sisterhood of The Traveling Pants, and the American adaptation of Yo soy Betty.

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She initially dropped out of the University of Southern California, despite being on a presidential scholarship, to pursue acting, but then returned to the university later on to finish her studies. She majored in both International Relations and Theater and graduated in 2013. 

Gemma Chan

Gemma Chan was born and raised in the English capital and studied Law at the very exclusive Oxford University. The actress graduated from university but then decided to go after an acting career and enrolled at the Drama Centre London.

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She began getting smaller parts in TV series such as Doctor Who and True Love. She then acted in some independent films and got some minor roles in big-screen movies. She had her breakout role in the critically acclaimed Crazy Rich Asians.

Denzel Washington

The American actor has been critically acclaimed for his performances both on the screen and on the stage in plays and off-Broadway shows. He has won a number of awards, such as a Tony, three Golden Globes, two Silver Bears, and two Academy Awards. 

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Before he gained this success, he was a student at Fordham University. He double majored in Journalism and Acting, but after taking a semester off and working at a summer camp, he knew that acting was what he truly wanted to do.

Miranda Cosgrove

The former Nickelodeon star found fame very early on in life. She was the fiery little sister on Drake and Josh and then had her own show, iCarly, which was a massive success. She also starred in School of Rock and Despicable Me.

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While still being an actress, she studied at USC and got a degree in Psychology. After graduation, she went back to acting and starred in the second and third Despicable Me films. She continues to act in movies and TV shows.

Megan Thee Stallion

Megan’s story is a bit different from the other stars on the list. The rapper started posting her freestyles on Instagram and other social media platforms while she was studying, but her videos took off while she was at college. After gaining hardcore fans, she took some time off studying to pursue a musical career.

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The pursuit worked, and she has a successful career in her industry. Despite featuring on the Billboard Hot 100 and collaborating with Beyoncé and Cardi B, she also returned to college and graduated with a degree in health administration from Texas Southern University in 2021.

Rashida Jones

Rashida Jones is one of the nepo babies who actually deserve a spot in Hollywood. She rose to fame when she landed a supporting role on the American version of The Office, and is now featuring in Angie Tribeca and is on the writing team for Toy Story 4

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However, Jones is also really smart. She went to Harvard University (no big deal, right?) and earned a degree in Religion and Philosophy. The actress then decided to pursue a career in entertainment and has continued to find great success ever since.

Rowan Atkinson

Known as the iconic Mr. Bean, Rowan Atkinson has a very different academic background. He earned a degree in Electrical Engineering from a university in England. He then went and got a master’s degree from Oxford, also in the same field of engineering.

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After finishing his Master’s, Atkinson starred on BBC Radio 3 in comedy shows. He moved into doing similar work but on television. He worked with a number of big names in comedy and entertainment in the UK and then moved into acting as Mr. Bean and other major roles in films such as Johnny English.

Lisa Kudrow

Known for her major role in Friends as the one and only Phoebe Buffay, Lisa Kudrow is also a smarty pants. She was a student at Vassar College and studied Biology, specifically wanting to learn the reason why people get headaches.

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She worked in a clinic for eight years before landing some acting roles that took her attention. She had a few short gigs and roles that didn’t work out, but it all led to her role on Friends, for which she was the first cast member to earn an Emmy!

Chris Martin

The Coldplay frontman and pianist met his current bandmates while studying at the University College London. They were initially named Starfish but renamed themselves Coldplay in 1998. They then shot to fame in 2000 with the international success of their song Yellow.

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The lead singer majored in Ancient World Studies. He graduated with a first-class honors degree in Greek and Latin. Given the success of the band, he didn’t really need to use the degree, but his time at university allowed him to meet his bandmates, so it was worth it.

Ashley Judd

The American actress was always surrounded by those in the performing arts as her mother was a country music artist, and her half-sister also went on to have a career in music. Ashley Judd has had an acting career for over 30 years, but her academic background is completely different.

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The actress pursued a degree in French at the University of Kentucky. She then received a coveted spot at Harvard and attend grad school for Public Administration. Alongside her acting, she has used her master’s in her consistent humanitarian and activism work.

Ben Mackenzie

Before rising to fame for his role in The O.C., Ben Mackenzie was a student at the University of Virginia. Both his dad and grandpa went to the same university. While he was there, he majored in both Economics and Foreign Affairs.

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He instead decided to follow his dreams and pursued a drama career after he graduated. He moved to the Big Apple and worked in a few off-Broadway shows. He then moved to LA and was a waiter until he was cast in The O.C., and then his career took off. 

Danai Gurira

Danai Gurira had her breakout role in The Visitor in 2007, after a period of time teaching acting and screenwriting, and acting on the stage. However, her academic background started with a degree in Psychology from Macalester College in Minnesota.

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Gurira then got a Master of Fine Arts in acting from the Tisch School of the Arts in New York City. Her early career was very international, teaching in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Liberia before returning to the US as a playwright.

Vinny Guadagnino

Before becoming recognizable from MTV’s reality show, Jersey Shore, Vinny Guadagnino was a student. He studied at SUNY New Paltz and then decided to transfer to the College of Staten Island. The TV star finished college and majored in Political Science.

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After university, Guadagnino appeared in all six seasons of Jersey Shore. He then guest-starred in a handful of drama series following some acting classes and had his own talk show on MTV. He remained in the spotlight, going on Dancing with the Stars this year.

Sacha Baron Cohen

Sacha Baron Cohen has one long CV, as he is a comedian, actor, producer, and screenwriter. However, before he was in the public eye, he was a student at an elite university, Cambridge. He was at Christ’s College and studied History. He focused on antisemitism in history.

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He was a member of the student acting society and has used his studies as a strong influence for his acting projects. He gained notoriety because of (and is known best for) his politically charged satirical characters, such as Ali G and Borat.

Weird Al

Alfred Matthew Yankovic, now known as Weird Al, is a musician, producer, songwriter, author, and actor. He uses his musical talents in a parodical way, inspired by pop culture and other popular musicians. He has earned five Grammys for his songs.

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Even though his first song became popular when he was just 16, Weird Al also studied at California Polytechnic State University and graduated with a degree in Architecture. He worked at the local radio station while he was studying, so he was able to continue to pursue his music dreams at the same time.

Will Ferrell

Before being one of the most recognizable comics/actors, Will Ferrell was studying at the University of Southern California and was a frat boy at Delta Tau Delta. He graduated with a degree in Sports Information but dabbled in a few roles with little success before he decided to move to LA and become an actor.

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He was accepted into The Groundlings, a comedy group, where he gained some more skills. He then landed a recurring role on Saturday Night Live, and his career took off from there. He then landed roles in huge films like Austin Powers and Zoolander, and the rest is history.

Gabrielle Union

She is now a very successful actress, but Gabrielle Union also has a degree in Sociology from the University of California, Los Angeles. She transferred to UCLA from another institution. After graduating from university, she decided to pursue an acting career.

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She landed a number of roles in 1990s sitcoms, as well as huge films like She’s All That. She has also written four books since 2017 and has always been an activist for women’s health and violence against women issues.

Christy Turlington Burns

Christy Turlington Burns rose to fame as a fashion model, especially for her role as the face of Calvin Klien’s 1989 and 2014 campaigns for the Eternity fragrance. She is also a humanitarian and consistently campaigned for a number of health issues – particularly maternal health.

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This makes sense when you learn that she is very well-educated in this area. She has a degree from NYU in Comparative Religion and an MPH in Public Health from Columbia University. She used this knowledge to create the documentary No Woman, No Cry.

Kerry Washington

Kerry Washington is globally known for her portrayal of Olivia Pope in the television show Scandal. She has been performing since her teenage years, performing with the TADA! Youth Theatre, but went to George Washington University when she graduated from high school.

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She studied a double major in Anthropology and Sociology and graduated in 1998. However, she was studying and working as an actor at the same time, as she made her screen debut in 1994 in the TV series Magical Make-Over on ABC. 

John Legend

John Legend is a big name in the music industry, but the star’s songwriting talents didn’t come out of nowhere. Legend earned his degree in English from UPenn, an Ivy League institution. He focused his studies on African American literature.

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He was a member of musical groups and societies at university and went on to work in the background of huge names such as Lauren Hill and Jay Z. In 2013, his hit All of Me became everyone’s go-to wedding song, and he is now a household name.

Steven Yeun

Born in Seoul and raised in America, Steven Yeun has built an incredible career as an actor. People know him mostly for his role in the hugely successful Walking Dead series. His parents wanted him to be a doctor, even deciding to name him Steven after a doctor they had met.

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Yeun ended up attending Kalamazoo College and studied Psychology while focusing on neuroscience. While at university, he was introduced to comedians and improvising actors, which inspired him to enroll in an acting class. As they say, the rest in history.

David Spade

This Saturday Night Live alum was once a student at Arizona State University. He started studying Business at the Scottsdale Community College before transferring to Arizona but decided to drop out as he started seeing good income from stand-up comedy.

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He was quickly spotted by a talent agent and landed a role in the film Police Academy 4 in 1987. He then got a gig on Saturday Night Live, and his career really took off. He has since landed a number of acting roles and television hosting.

Hugh Laurie

Now one of the most recognizable names in acting and comedy, Hugh Laurie is also very well educated. He attended the ultra-private Eton College and then attended university at Cambridge. He graduated with a degree in Archaeology and Anthropology but also spent some time in the Cambridge student drama club.

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At the drama club, he met Emma Thompson, who introduced him to fellow comic Stephen Fry. Laurie and Thompson had a successful show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in their final year, and Fry and Laurie broke out with their comedy show, A Bit of Fry & Laurie, on the BBC.

Rooney Mara

Before becoming a major film actress, Rooney Mara resisted the entertainment industry even though her sister was an actress. Instead, she traveled around South America and attended George Washington University and New York University, studying Psychology, International Social Policy, and Nonprofits.

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She acted in some student films while at NYU and caught the acting bug, so she started to audition more seriously at the age of 19 after graduation. She debuted in an episode of Law and Order: SVU, but her most notable roles were in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Carol.

Dolph Lundgren

The Swedish actor and martial artist got his breakthrough in Rocky IV, playing a Soviet boxer. He has since featured in more than 80 films, mostly of the action genre, showing off his acting and martial arts skills on the big screen.

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However, before featuring in films, Dolph Lundgren earned a degree in Chemical Engineering from the KTH Royal Institute of Technology and a master’s degree in the same subject from the University of Sydney. He was working as a bodyguard for singer Grace Jones, who convinced him to move to New York and begin acting.

Dwayne Johnson

Dwayne Johnson, known as The Rock, has had quite the career. He attended the University of Miami and majored in Criminology on an athletic scholarship, was a professional wrestler (hence the nickname), a football player, and is now an actor.

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His sporting prowess was demonstrated from a very young age, being one of the top ten defensive tackle prospects in high school during his time. He moved into what is now the WWE after an unsuccessful drafting season after college before moving into acting.

Kenny Chesney

The country music singer has had a very long-standing career, recording more than 20 albums and having 32 number-one songs on the Billboard country charts and Billboard Hot 100, solidifying his success in the mainstream. His career began while he was at college.

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He attended East Tennessee State University and studied Advertising. While he was there, he self-recorded and produced his first album, which sold 1000 copies at his local club performances. After graduating, he moved to Nashville to pursue his passion full-time, which worked out well.

Freddie Highmore

Growing up surrounded by actors and acting agents, it is no surprise that Freddie Highmore was also a child star. He appeared in films such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Finding Neverland. However, he took time off acting to attend Cambridge University.

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He got a double first-class honors degree in Arabic and Spanish, as well as a summer studying Finance at the London School of Economics. He returned to acting shortly after. He was cast as Norman in Bates Motel and is now the lead in The Good Doctor.

Eva Longoria

Now well-known for her lead role on Desperate Housewives, Eva Longoria was previously in the STEM field. She received a Bachelor of Science from Texas A&M University-Kingsville, with a major in Kinesiology. After gaining fame, she went to California State University and earned a master’s in Chicano Studies.

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After graduating, she won a talent competition and moved to LA to pursue her acting talent. She worked as a headhunter for four years while trying to get her breakout role. She debuted on-screen in an appearance on Beverly Hills, 90210.

Ray Romano

While Everybody Loves Raymond, Ray Romano loves numbers. Before realizing his acting and comedic talent, Romano was a student at Queens College and majored in accounting. He didn’t start a career in this field, however, as he competed in the Johnnie Walker Comedy Search and gained popularity.

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He was on the Late Show with David Letterman performing a stand-up comedy gig before landing his sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond on CBS. In 2004, he was named the highest-paid actor on television because of his very successful sitcom. He probably loved those numbers as well.

Lionel Richie

Not only is he a talented musician and songwriter, but Lionel Richie is also a talented tennis player. Being a star in his high school days, Richie was offered a tennis scholarship to go to Tuskegee Institute. He graduated with a science degree, majoring in Economics and minoring in Accounting.

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While he was studying, he met other musically talented people and formed a number of groups. One of them, The Commodores, gained popularity and was offered a recording contract with Atlantic Records. The group became very successful, and Richie became a household name.

Natalie Portman

Despite being a very successful actress since she was 12, Natalie Portman also found the time and energy to attend Harvard University and graduate with a degree in Psychology. Perhaps this is why she is able to understand her roles and get into character so well!

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As a teenager, she was consistently appearing in films and Broadway productions. She has been critically acclaimed for her performances as complex and troubled characters. She won her first Academy Award for Black Swan, a psychological thriller, but had won a Golden Globe previously for Closer

Reba McEntire

The Queen of Country has made a significant name for herself in the country music and acting worlds. However, her success certainly wasn’t overnight. She originally studied to become a school teacher when she finished high school but continued to perform on the side.

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In 1975, she was discovered by Red Steagall, another country music star, who helped her to get a recording contract. Reba then left teaching behind, and her career took off. She has sold millions of records and then moved into acting.