Bhatt's first acting role was as a child artist in Sangharsh (1999), starring Akshay Kumar and Preity Zinta where she played the younger version of Zinta's character. She had her first leading role in 2012 with Karan Johar's Student of the Year, alongside Sidharth Malhotra and Varun Dhawan.She portrayed the role of Shanaya, a sophisticated teenage girl who is in a relationship with Dhawan's character but is attracted to the character played by Malhotra. Taran Adarsh of Bollywood Hungama wrote of her performance, "Alia's role is reminiscent of Kareena Kapoor in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham. Stylish, classy, born with a silver spoon, she's someone who loves to flaunt not just her clothes and bags, but also her riches. Extremely photogenic, Alia makes a super-confident debut." Film critic Anupama Chopra of Hindustan Times also mentioned the similarities with Kapoor's character, but noted that her performance was "without the killer attitude."Student of the Year was a financial success, grossing ₹700 million (US$11 million) domestically.