Pervasive socio‐economic differences in relation to participation in higher education in the United Kingdom are particularly prominent in the most prestigious institutions. This study provides insight into why some individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds are successful in being admitted into one of these institutions. Underpinned by phenomenology, semi‐structured interviews were carried out to examine the lived experiences of high‐achieving students from socio‐economically disadvantaged backgrounds throughout their educational trajectories from primary school to a Russell Group university. Two main themes emerged from the data- identity and educational engagement. Various sources of disadvantage associated with material hardship, socio‐cultural and interpersonal factors were strongly linked to identity and students’ perceptions of their own social status. In turn, these factors and identity‐related constructs associated with peer‐group memberships, low expectations and negative group stereotypes affected how individuals engaged with education, contributing, for instance, to their lack of active involvement at school/college and poor attendance. However, identity‐related factors were also found to influence individuals’ educational engagement positively, including their motivations for overcoming obstacles, achieving high grades and pursuing HE. The barriers and facilitators discussed by these individuals have important implications for widening access to HE and thus require further consideration.