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is this sentence correct:

Clarence Darrow wanted to become a prominent lawyer, but he felt that he must first excel in history.

i have a feeling that the correct form of the sentence should be something like this:

Clarence Darrow wanted to become a prominent lawyer, but he felt that he had to first exceled in history.

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This sentence is perfectly fine, if somewhat formal sounding:

Clarence Darrow wanted to become a prominent lawyer, but he felt that he must first excel in history.

Your second sentence has two problems: "excelled" is misspelled, and it is not correct to use past-tense for something that has yet to be done.

This version would be OK because "Had to" and "Must" are synonyms:

Clarence Darrow wanted to become a prominent lawyer, but he felt that he had to first excel in history.

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