I am Charlotte Simmons is the story of college student Charlotte Simmons's first semester-and-a-half at the prestigious Dupont University. A high school graduate from a poverty-stricken rural town, her intelligence and hard work at school have been rewarded with a full scholarship to Dupont.
As Charlotte prepares to say goodbye to her family and leave for college, an event happens at Dupont that will play an important role in her future. Hoyt Thorpe, member of the exclusive and powerful fraternity Saint Ray, and fellow frat brother Vance, stumble upon an unnamed California Republican governor (who was at the college to speak at the school's commencement ceremony) receiving oral sex from a female college student. When the governor's bodyguard spots the two fraternity members, a fight ensues with Hoyt and Vance beating up the bodyguard and fleeing. The story of the night (called "The Night of the Skullfuck") soon spreads across campus, increasing Hoyt's popularity on campus.
Charlotte arrives on campus in the fall. Her roommate is wealthy Beverly, the daughter of the CEO of a huge multinational insurance company. She is obsessed with sex, in particular with members of the school's lacrosse team.
Jojo Johanssen is a white athlete on the college's predominantly black basketball team. He is struggling to keep his position because the school recently recruited an up-and-coming black freshman player, and the coach wants to bench Jojo in his senior year. This would severely hurt Jojo's chances of playing in "the league" (the NBA).
Jojo enjoys the spoils of being a college athlete, such as using a tutor program to force other students to complete his school assignments. Jojo's "tutor" Adam Gellin is, like Charlotte, from a working-class background. Adam writes for the college's independent newspaper and is a member of the "Millennial Mutants," a group of like-minded intellectuals who oppose the anti-intellectualism and class snobbery they see in their fellow students.
Charlotte and Adam first meet at the university's computer lab, where Adam is to write a paper for Jojo. Charlotte does not back down when Adam insists that he needs a computer more than she does. Adam is instantly smitten.
Charlotte finds herself dealing with the sexual temptations of college life, culminating in her hooking up with Hoyt, who tells Charlotte of catching California's governor receiving oral sex from a college girl. He also tells Charlotte he knows that Adam Gellin has begun investigating the incident and how a large Wall Street firm (on the behest of the governor) has offered a high-paying entry level job to Hoyt, in exchange for his silence. (The firm, Pierce&Pierce, is the name of the one that Sherman McCoy works for in Wolfe's earlier novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities .)
Hoyt and Charlotte attend an important fraternity formal together, after which Hoyt takes full advantage of a drunken Charlotte, seducing her into giving up her virginity to him. The following morning, Charlotte is dumped by Hoyt. She is further humiliated when she returns to campus and discovers that Hoyt's seduction and rejection has been made public via two girls Charlotte had previously befriended. The two cruelly mock Charlotte, both over her poverty-stricken background, and for the way that she drunkenly lost her virginity.
This drives Charlotte into a depression and eventually into the arms of Adam, who has wanted Charlotte for her beauty, innocence and intellect since they first met. Charlotte finally emerges from her depression but finds that she has received terrible grades (B, B-, C-, D) for her first semester at Dupont.
As Adam prepares to publish his article, his world collides with Jojo Johanssen's when a paper that Adam wrote for the athlete is accused of being plagiarized. Jojo, who treats Adam as being beneath him socially, denies the plagiarism charge and protects the athletic department's perversion of the athlete/tutor program from being exposed.
Jojo has begun to transform himself academically from a stereotypical "dumb jock" into a student who takes his academics seriously and even develops an interest in philosophy (partly as a result of the influence of Charlotte). Jerome Quat, Jojo's professor, confronts Adam about the plagiarized paper and shows sympathy towards him in a college dominated by students obsessed with sports and sex. However, when Adam confesses to writing the paper for Jojo, the professor double-crosses him. He will sacrifice Adam in order to bring down the basketball program, which has circled the wagons to protect Jojo.
This devastates Adam, who breaks down and needs Charlotte to take care of him as he waits to be formally charged with cheating. In the meantime, Adam's article on "The Night of the Skullfuck" is published. The sordid details of sex, violence, bribery, and a high-profile political figure cause it to be picked up by the national media. The governor's Presidential ambitions are potentially ruined, and the job offer/bribe made to Hoyt is revoked, effectively shattering Hoyt's life.
Hoyt now faces a post-graduation judgment day, with his family's life savings exhausted in order to pay for his college education, and a college transcript with such bad grades that will effectively keep him from gaining a job as an investment banker. Jojo's and Adam's necks are saved, as the liberal college professor decides to drop the entire plagiarism complaint so as to avoid undercutting Adam's credibility in destroying the conservative governor's political career.
Adam's self-esteem restored, he begins to bask in the glow as the student who brought down a governor. Adam and Charlotte drift apart and she begins to date Jojo. He keeps his position as a starter on the team. Charlotte ascends to the envied position of girlfriend of a star athlete.
Charlotte now reflects upon her first semester with an elitist view, looking down at her former friends and at Hoyt, who casually threw her away. She no longer feels intellectualism is what is most important to her— rather it is being a person recognized as special, regardless of the reason.