Educated is primarily retrospective, consisting of Tara Westover's memories about her past. She tells the story of the events of her life from a vantage point in her late twenties, occasionally interjecting to comment on the process of trying to arrive at an accurate version of the past. Tara was born the youngest of seven children to parents whom she refers to as Faye and Gene (pseudonyms). The Westover family lived on a farm in rural Idaho, where Gene made a living salvaging scrap metal while Faye worked as an unlicensed midwife and herbal healer. Gene suffered from paranoid fears about interference from the federal government, and as a result he refused to allow his children to attend school, receive birth certificates, or receive medical attention. Gene was also a devout Mormon who believed in radical self-sufficiency and an impending Day of Judgement.

Shifts in the Westover family dynamic began to emerge when Tara was about nine. Her mother's work as a midwife increased her sense of independence, but after sustaining a serious and untreated brain injury in a car accident, Faye began to lose confidence in her skills, and focused instead on using herbal remedies and a form of intuitive healing. Around this time, Tyler (the third son) announced that he was going to attend college, which estranged him from his family. Tyler's absence forced Tara to become more involved in helping her father with his scrapping work, which left her constantly exposed to the possibility of dangerous injury. It also made her more curious about possibly pursuing an education herself. When Tara was ten, she told her disapproving father that she wanted to begin going to school, but nothing came of the idea.

As Tara grew into her teens, she acquired more independence from her family due to taking on various jobs and pursuing singing and musical theatre in the local community. However, her life was dominated by the strict rules and religious doctrine her father imposed, and Tara often worried about becoming sinful. When Tara was thirteen, her older brother Shawn moved back home. At first Shawn and Tara were close and spent a lot of time together. When Tara was about fifteen, however, Shawn began to be physically abusive toward her. His behavior only got worse after Shawn experienced a head injury. Tyler eventually realized that Shawn was hurting Tara, and he urged Tara to seriously consider applying to college and getting away from the family. Although she was uncertain at first, Tara began to study and was eventually accepted at Brigham Young University, having passed herself off as homeschooled.

In January 2004, when Tara was seventeen years old, she moved to Utah to begin her college education. She found the adjustment very difficult at first, but eventually began to excel in her studies. Tara's finances were precarious, and she had to hold multiple jobs and maintain very high grades to retain her scholarship. Her emerging independence also caused a threatening dynamic between her, Gene, and Shawn. Whenever Tara returned to Buck's Peak, her father manipulated her into working for him, while Shawn continued to physically and emotionally abuse her. Tara eventually confided to a bishop about her life, and he helped her to secure funding to finance her education. Tara's studies, and the people she met, also gradually opened her eyes to different realities and force her to realize how damaging and isolating her childhood has been. Tara eventually changed her major to studying history, and is encouraged to apply for a study abroad program at Cambridge University in England.

Tara's experience at Cambridge broadened her horizons even further, and she was encouraged to consider graduate studies. Tara still felt isolated from her peers, and ashamed of her origins. She hid most of her past even from her friends and the men she occasionally dated. She was eventually awarded a prestigious Cambridge Gates Fellowship and moved to England to pursue a Master's degree. She remained in close contact with her family and returned to Idaho regularly to visit, but her relationship with them deteriorated. Shawn was growing increasingly erratic and violent, and Tara feared for the safety of his wife and young child. By chance, she revealed to her sister Audrey that Shawn had been abusive with her, and Audrey later confided that Shawn abused her as well. Audrey blamed herself for not protecting her younger sister, and suggested that she and Tara confront their parents and Shawn about what happened to them.

By then Tara had built a happy life for herself in England, and was working on a PhD in history at Cambridge. However, the attempt to speak the truth quickly became a source of conflict in the family. Tara became more and more ostracized within her family, eventually culminating in Shawn learning that she had been telling their parents about the abuse she suffered. Realizing her family would never trust her claims, Tara became estranged from most of them, with the exception of Tyler. The estrangement from her family prompted grief and depression for Tara, but she was finally able to heal, and successfully completed her PhD. By the end of her memoir, Tara has accepted that she may never have a relationship with her family again, but she takes pride in the independence she has established, and the life she has built for herself.