Improving student retention and success by enhancing transition and the first year experience is widely accepted as an institutional priority. This paper draws on evidence from a three-year programme: ‘What works? Student retention and success’ in England, involving seven projects and 22 higher education institutions. This study identified the importance of student engagement and belonging. Student engagement enables belonging through: supportive peer relations; meaningful interaction with staff; developing knowledge, confidence and identity as successful HE learners and, an HE experience relevant to students’ interests and future goals. The ‘What Works’ model emphasises: early engagement; having an explicit academic purpose; and developing student and staff capacity to engage/be engaging. Focusing on transition (pre-entry interventions, induction and learning and teaching in the first semester/year) this paper presents specific examples that have had an impact, and relates them to the ‘What Works’ model to evaluate their implementation and outcomes. It concludes with a reflective checklist to assist readers to improve transition.