This paper investigates the experiences of students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) during their first year in higher education, based on 874 Danish and 1314 Norwegian students’ responses to an online questionnaire. Rather than focusing on averages, we compare the experiences of two distinct groups of students: those who rated their overall study situation as better than expected (the satisfied group) and those who rated it as worse than expected (the dissatisfied group). Although the satisfied group were more positive to many aspects of their study situation, the dissatisfied group were also relatively positive to many aspects. All respondents expressed that the study cost more time and effort than anticipated, but only for some students (notably the satisfied group) was this high cost counterbalanced by a high value in terms of subject interest and social integration. Implications are discussed in terms of future research directions and how educational institutions can improve students’ meeting with higher education.