New first-year students are vulnerable to dropping out of university because the transition into higher education (HE) is difficult to navigate. Using thematic analysis, we analysed focus groups/interview, exit interviews and qualitative survey data with university students during their first year as criminology undergraduates to explore how they transitioned into HE. Findings show that the transition to a new identity of ‘university student’ was hampered by feelings of awkwardness, which prevented students from fully integrating into student life. However, the subject of criminology was a protective factor because interest in the topic and wanting a degree for betterment, including for future career plans, buffered students against dropping out. We argue that subject-specific interventions may be better in supporting the retention of students and that addressing physical, social and academic awkwardness is key.