Woodley was born in Simi Valley, California. Her mother, Lori (née Victor), is a middle school counselor, and her father, Lonnie Woodley, is a school principal. She has a younger brother, Tanner. When she was 15 and a freshman, her parents divorced and she was also diagnosed with scoliosis. She was put in a chest-to-hips plastic brace to straighten her spine. Before landing the role of Amy Juergens in The Secret Life of the American Teenager, Woodley thought of studying interior design at New York University after high school. She attended Simi Valley High School.
In 2011 Woodley made her feature film debut in a breakout performance in The Descendants, for which she received critical acclaim and has been nominated for a Golden Globe and more than a dozen other awards. She also won the Independent Spirit Award. In this film, she starred alongside George Clooney as Alexandra King, the troubled daughter of Clooney's character.People named her one of 2012 Most Beautiful at Every Age. Woodley was also considered one of the 55 faces of the future by Nylon Magazine's "Young Hollywood Issue".
Woodley starred in the film adaptation of Tim Tharp's novel, The Spectacular Now. She plays a social outcast girl trying to plan for the future who meets a boy who is a senior in high school who likes to party and live in the moment. He begins to date her as a project and realizes he has the power to permanently impact her life. Production of the film occurred in the summer of 2012 and it premiered at Sundance in January 2013. She has also recently signed on to star in White Bird, an independent film about a troubled young woman whose life is upended following the mysterious disappearance of her mother, directed by Gregg Araki. In October 2012, it was announced that Woodley was offered the role of Mary Jane Watson in the upcoming sequel to the 2012 film The Amazing Spider-Man. On June 19, 2013 it was announced that Mary Jane was cut from the film. Director Marc Webb told The Hollywood Reporter that the cut was "a creative decision to streamline the story and focus on Peter and Gwen and their relationship," and that everyone loved working with Woodley. On March 19, 2013, it was announced that Woodley had accepted the role starring as Hazel Grace Lancaster in the film adaptation of John Green's novel The Fault in Our Stars. Green added about Woodley; "There were so many amazing auditions for the role of Hazel, but Shailene's love for the book and her understanding of Hazel blew me away." via Twitter.
Woodley is set to star as Tris Prior in the upcoming movie Divergent, which is an adaptation of Veronica Roth’s young adult novel. The movie is releasing in March 2014.