Making it big in Hollywood isn’t exactly easy, and yet sometimes, a window to success can appear out of nowhere. So when these celebrities were given the opportunity of a lifetime, they realized that college simply wouldn’t cut it. These stars were able to sidestep that particular milestone, and made their millions in a much different way — proving the worth and potential of college dropouts anywhere.
1. Ben Affleck
Ben Affleck has multiple claims to fame, and a Hollywood résumé that most actors would kill for. However, perhaps one of his biggest accomplishments was when he co-wrote the hit drama Good Will Hunting with fellow actor and best friend Matt Damon.
Affleck clearly had an intellectual chip on his shoulder that he was aching to get out, and this was his and Damon’s debut to the world. With so many accomplishments under his belt, some may be surprised to learn that he didn’t finish college. He started taking classes at the University of Vermont in 1990, but it wasn’t long before he moved on. In fact, the decision to drop out took all of one semester.
2. Amanda Seyfried
Amanda Seyfried slowly snuck her way into the upper echelons of Hollywood stardom, but her first claim to fame was in the cult classic comedy Mean Girls. Although she was a supporting actress in the film, she’d later receive much bigger roles in films like Mamma Mia and Les Misérables. But Seyfried has a uniquely brash story regarding how she dropped out of college.
Did she give it a year? How about six months? Even less, it turns out. When Seyfried attended Fordham University, she probably didn’t expect to get turned off by it all so quickly. But that’s exactly what happened, when she ended up walking out — on literally the first day.
3. Lady Gaga
Lady Gaga, originally named Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, was admittedly a bit of an outcast in high school. Chances are that her class members hadn’t even the slightest clue that the future face of pop music was in their very classroom.
But when Gaga decided to attend New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, she felt she was finally where she belonged. However, while it’s great to be around like-minded individuals, sometimes a star needs more space to shine. Gaga recognized that he had what it took to succeed without graduating, so this celebrity dropout opted to quit NYU. After all this time, we think it’s safe to say she made the right choice.
4. Jessica Biel
Jessica Biel first made her mark when she appeared as eldest sister Mary Camden in the popular wholesome ’90s TV series, 7th Heaven. Since then, Biel has appeared in a handful of movies, and more recently in the popular Netflix thriller series The Sinner. Not only that, but Biel is married to pop singer extraordinaire Justin Timberlake.
So it’s safe to say that Biel’s doing pretty well for herself. Long before she embarked on the road to stardom, she attempted to set herself on the path to academia. And although she dropped out of Tufts University after only studying there for a year and a half, it’s clearly not affecting her today.
5. Ashton Kutcher
Ashton Kutcher first made a name for himself portraying the dopey yet hilarious Michael Kelso on the popular early millennium sitcom That ’70s Show. Later, he’d go on to appear in a handful of other classic films, such as The Butterfly Effect — and much later on the Netflix series The Ranch. Now married to his former ’70s Show co-star Mila Kunis, Kutcher isn’t a man who needs to worry about money.
However, before he succeeded as an actor, his goal was to become a biochemical engineer — or at least, that’s what he studied at the University of Iowa back in 1996. After a few modeling and acting gigs came his way, however, he dropped out. And from what we can tell, he never looked back.
6. Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Not many people know that popular actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt began his career as a child star, portraying the supporting role of young Roger in 1994’s Angels In The Outfield. Clearly those angels were watching him for the rest of his career, because Gordon-Levitt has been absolutely killing it. And being a college dropout hasn’t hindered him a bit.
There was a period when Gordon-Levitt wanted to take some time off for college classes, and attended Columbia University. While there, he studied French, history, and literature as well; but he didn’t stick around for the long haul. It seems that may have been part of his plan all along — but with all his acting opportunities, can anyone blame him?
7. Anne Hathaway
Although Anne Hathaway won an Oscar for her supporting role as the devastated Fantine in the 2012 live-action remake of Les Misérables, she’s been around for quite some time. Hathaway’s first big break was in the movie The Princess Diaries, playing the role of Mia Thermopolis, a young beaten-down high schooler who one day learns she’s actually a royal.
However, as successful as she’s been over the years, Hathaway wanted to get a college education. She actually attended both New York University and Vassar College for extended periods of time, and while she didn’t end up graduating, like other famous college dropouts on our list, she managed to make her star shine nonetheless.
8. Zooey Deschanel
Zooey Deschanel is yet another actress who’s been around for a long time. While she mainly came into prominence in the last decade, for her roles in films like (500) Days of Summer and the sitcom New Girl, she can be spotted in random films from as early as 2000.
Like many others in her profession, she also tried her hand at doing the old college thing, enrolling herself into Northwestern University. It turns out that she didn’t last there very long, dropping out after a mere seven months. She later stated that her “specialness” wasn’t appreciated at the university. Well, in this case she really did have the last laugh!
9. Rebecca Romijn
Although she’s been under the radar in recent years, Rebecca Romijn was once among the top models in the world. Eventually her modeling success transferred quite seamlessly into the acting industry, where she became well-known for the role of Mystique in the live-action X-Men film series.
Before all that took place, however, Romijn was pursuing a music major, of all things. She had enrolled at UC Santa Cruz, and she was still figuring her life out. After a few opportunities came knocking, she decided it couldn’t hurt to be a college dropout if she had success as a model. However, chances are she didn’t think she’d be as wildly famous as she became.
10. Kristen Bell
Kristen Bell, like many other celebrity college dropouts, was inches away from graduating before receiving the opportunity of a lifetime. Bell had been a music and theater major at NYU’s famous Tisch School of the Arts, and things were going quite well for her over there.
In fact, they were going so well that she got an offer to appear in the Broadway musical The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Bell only had a few credits left to graduate, but she dropped out anyway to pursue this major opportunity. Ultimately, this was a fantastic decision that led to her achieving worldwide stardom.
11. Mila Kunis
There’s a famous story of how Mila Kunis tricked the casting directors on That ’70s Show to think she was older than she was. This little trick ultimately ended up working out pretty well for her, considering her role of Jackie was a major component of the show, catapulting her into a lifetime of career success.
However, she was still incredibly young during the filming of the show, and therefore wanted to take some college classes as well. She ended up choosing UCLA, which makes sense, considering its proximity to the sets of Hollywood. But soon enough she learned how hard it would be to balance it all — and she stopped taking classes.
12. Jake Gyllenhaal
Jake Gyllenhaal gave college a strong push, but something changed along the way. He had enrolled in Columbia University back in 1998, and pursued a major in cultural studies and religion. By the time the year 2000 rolled around, he decided he’d had enough, and dropped out to pursue acting full-time.
It turns out that this decision paid off shockingly quickly, for he immediately landed a role in the 2001 eerie sci-fi film Donnie Darko. Years later, he became an even bigger megastar for his portrayal of Jack Twist in the seminal drama Brokeback Mountain. Just goes to show how college dropouts can become Hollywood leading men.
13. Alicia Keys
Becoming a famous musician is no cakewalk no matter how talented a person is. The competition is through the rooftop, considering how coveted and fickle of a profession it is. Alicia Keys knew all this, and it’s probably the reason she originally attended Columbia University.
She had been pursuing her music career, but without any real opportunities at her doorstep, a college degree was a good thing to acquire. However, Keys ran into a major stroke of fortune when she received a record deal from Columbia Records. Confident that it would lead to more success, she figured being a college dropout would pay off — and was completely correct.
14. Tom Hanks
Is there any big-time actor more loved and respected than Tom Hanks? His characters have always had a certain wholesome quality to them, and it’s fair to say that these qualities are reflected strongly in the man himself. So how did he get to where he’s at right now?
Hanks was originally a theater major at Sacramento State, so he presumably already had plans on being an actor. But while attending college, he was given a slam dunk opportunity he couldn’t pass up, an interning gig working behind the scenes at the Great Lakes Theater Festival in Cleveland, Ohio. He took the bait, and the rest was history: from college dropout to two-time Oscar winner.
15. Brad Pitt
Once Brad Pitt cracked the surface of the Hollywood elite, he became a household name in the industry. However, while many people know Pitt for his work in films such as Fight Club, Ocean’s Eleven, and countless others, he almost didn’t become an actor. Pitt’s original focus was to become a journalist, and his goal was to graduate from the University of Missouri in his efforts to achieve it.
However, merely two weeks before graduation, he packed his bags and trekked on out to Los Angeles, to become a movie star. He was only two credits shy of graduating, but he didn’t care. Hollywood and fancy trailers were waiting.
16. Kanye West
Given the fact that one of Kanye West’s most influential albums is called The College Dropout, it stands to reason that he belongs here on this list. However, even while he was attending college, Yeezy’s eyes were always set on the prize of becoming a world-renowned artist.
That’s why he attended the American Academy of Art, as well as Chicago State University. His experience at these prestigious institutions undoubtedly prepared him for what was to come, but it was his innate talent that propelled even further. Once he made the decision to drop out — and to name his album after that decision — his career skyrocketed.
17. Bill Murray
Whether you love Bill Murray from his roles in various classic films such as Ghostbusters and Groundhog’s Day, or whether you’re more a fan of his standup work, he’s a bona fide comedic legend. He’s considered by many to be one of the greatest comedic actors of all time — but not many people know that he almost did something completely different.
In fact, back in his younger days at Regis University, he was a pre-med student. It’s crazy to think of Bill Murray as a doctor (or at least one who doesn’t make jokes over the operating table), but it was almost his destiny. However, he ended up dropping out to join The Second City, the popular comedy troupe in Chicago.
18. Ben Stiller
The son of Hollywood power couple Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, Ben Stiller seemed to have his path set out for him. That’s not to say that the kids of celebrities don’t have to work to find their voice — but it’s definitely helpful when your parents have such elite connections.
Nevertheless, while Ben Stiller was interested in comedy and acting, he at least wanted to study it in college first. So Stiller attended UCLA film school, gearing up with gems of knowledge that would help him in the future. However, it only took about nine months for him to decide that he already knew enough. This college dropout transplanted himself to New York City to pursue acting full time, and his gamble paid off.
19. John Mayer
Many of us tend to gaze upon famous musicians with star-shaped glasses, and assume they all just woke up one day as talented as they are now. But John Mayer, like other music legends such as Quincy Jones, actually attended Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts.
For a young aspiring rockstar, this was one of the best music schools in the country, and possibly the world. However, as exciting and promising as this venture was, Mayer dropped out of Berklee, figuring he could figure it all out on his own. Well, this may not be the best option for many people, as we all know, it worked out for him pretty well!
20. Ellen DeGeneres
Anyone with even the slightest affinity for talk shows in America has probably watched The Ellen DeGeneres Show at one time or another. Starting off in the big leagues as a comedian, she took a while learning the ropes before landing the esteemed gig of having her own show.
However, things weren’t always very peachy for the well-known star. Her journey from being a college dropout from the University of New Orleans to superstardom ended up taking a long time and plenty of determination. In fact, she worked as a clerk at her own cousin’s law firm, among a handful of other odd jobs, before finally reaching the top.
21. Sylvester Stallone
Most people know Sylvester Stallone quite well for his portrayal of the titular lead character Rocky Balboa in his string of ’80s Rocky films. But unbeknownst to many, Stallone had the eye of the tiger long before he appeared in the ring. As early as the late ’60s, Stallone had been attending the University of Miami, diligently pursuing a degree in the performing arts.
So what went wrong? It turns out his teachers were actually the ones who caused him to drop out. They discouraged him from pursuing an acting career — so in defiance, Stallone left school and moved to New York City to be an actor. He sure showed them, didn’t he?
22. Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan had been freewheeling for quite some time before actually becoming famous. His music had been slowly making its rounds in the early ’60s, particularly in his Greenwich Village circle, but it wasn’t until The Byrds released a cover of his “Mr. Tambourine Man” that people started tracing the source back to the poet himself — and the rest was history.
However, before Bob Dylan’s decision to become a voice for the people (let alone to go electric!), a young Robert Zimmerman attended regular college just like everyone else. He had attended the University of Minnesota in 1959, but clearly he didn’t feel it was for him, because he dropped out shortly after. The answer was blowing in the wind after all.
23. Richard Gere
Richard Gere was the consummate Hollywood leading man of his time. From An Officer and a Gentleman to Pretty Woman, Gere has been in the acting scene for decades now. But most of his loving fans would’ve never guessed that he attended the University of Massachusetts solely thanks to a gymnastics scholarship.
A philosophy major, he likely didn’t expect to drop out — but sometimes life has a plan of its own. After two years at the university, Gere decided college wasn’t for him, and said goodbye. As one of the greatest Hollywood actors of the ’80s and ’90s, and a personal friend of the Dalai Lama, it seems being a college dropout didn’t deter him in the slightest.
24. Mariska Hargitay
The daughter of ’50s starlet legend Jayne Mansfield, Mariska Hargitay may have had a leg up to succeed in Hollywood. Regardless, Hargitay has paid her dues and proved she can play in the big leagues of her own accord. Known for her stable role as NYPD Captain Olivia Benson on the crime series Law & Order, Hargitay is a fan favorite and television icon.
Having chosen to be a theater major at UCLA, she stayed there long enough to almost graduate. Her acting career was calling, and Hargitay was okay with not receiving an actual diploma. From where we’re sitting, we can’t say we disagree.
25. Bruce Willis
Although Bruce Willis is well-known for action roles in films like Die Hard and Pulp Fiction, not many people know he actually has a history of acting in off-Broadway productions. In fact, it was an off-Broadway play that caused Willis to drop out of Montclair State College in 1977, where he had been majoring in drama.
While a college diploma is certainly helpful, a big part of school is really about helping us get a good job one day. Since Willis had been majoring in drama, and an acting opportunity was at his door, he figured, “Why wait?” Ultimately, it was this decision to bet on himself that catapulted his career.
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