Equality and quality in higher education (HE) are frequently juxtaposed in the literature. This paper presents evidence to contest deficit assumptions about widening participation, particularly the belief that entering HE with 'non-traditional' entry qualifications lowers standards. Drawing on a three-year constructivist grounded theory study with 45 school-leaver-aged access (SLA) and traditional-entry (TE) students at an Irish university, this paper explores how both groups managed the (academic) transition to HE. Despite lacking academic self-confidence, the SLAs reported being far more prepared for HE than did the TEs. Further, both groups reported similar academic experiences and achieved similar degree results. Indeed, in their transition from the 'spoon-feeding' school environment to the HE independent learning approach, the TEs struggled more than did the SLAs initially, requiring significantly more 'deconstruction' from their dependent approach. For both groups, however, their perception of what would be rewarded in assessment was the key factor influencing their approach.