This article considers ethnographic data collected during undergraduate students’ transition to higher education. Drawing on communities of practice theory, the research focuses on the psychological process of identity as a trajectory, considering how reconciliation and negotiation of identities across and between communities influence transition. We aimed to explore the ways in which incoming identity influences participation and higher education learner identity, consider the academic practices which construct the transition experience and analyse those practices in terms of learner identity and participation. The data sources included observations, informal social interactions, one-to-one interviews and document analysis. Data collection took place over the first term of an undergraduate course. A theoretical thematic analysis was undertaken investigating the ways in which identity shaped participation, the practices that influenced participation and how participation subsequently influenced learner identity. We argue that the reconciliation of past, present and future identities is psychologically challenging for students during educational transition and this influences individual trajectories. Some practices assumed an already autonomous learner rather than enabling development of autonomy. Inability to participate in valued (and often implicit) academic practice was seen to negatively influence learner identities, delaying full participation. The focus for transition research could therefore consider enabling systems and practices which acknowledge differences and fully support successful changes in learner identity.