Both of Akhavan's parents immigrated to the United States following the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
Akhavan studied Film and Theatre at Smith College, a women’s college in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she was "a bit of a loner". After graduating in 2007, she studied film directing as a graduate student at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. She also spent a year studying abroad at Queen Mary, University of London.
Akhavan made her first short film Two Drink Minimum while studying in London as a graduate student. In 2010, she wrote and directed the short film Nose Job.
Akhavan identifies herself as a bisexual woman and a Brooklynite. She has a brother who is a paediatric urologist.