This article reports on a study focusing on the academic experiences of top achievers in maintaining excellence in first-year university programmes. The study investigated in particular the academic experiences of Grade 12 top achievers from Mpumalanga, South Africa, at various universities. A mixed methods approach was used to collect data, making use of a convenience sample of (n = 14). Data was generated using a closed-ended questionnaire, students’ academic records and standardised individual interviews conducted with eleven students. The results indicate that academic excellence in the first year is influenced by self-discipline, self-motivation, interest in the course, self-confidence, academic preparedness, effort and the belief students have about themselves. The investigation revealed that, generally, top achievers’ academic performance in the first year denoted what Viljoen and Deacon (2013, 242) term ‘academic fit’. The findings of the study emphasise the significant influence of positive ‘compelling forces’ at universities that assist first-year students in adapting to the university environment.