Are students transitioning from the secondary level to university studies in mathematics and engineering adequately prepared for education at the tertiary level? In this study, we discuss the prior mathematical knowledge and skills demonstrated by Norwegian engineering (N = 1537) and calculus (N = 626) university students by using data from a mathematics assessment administered by the Norwegian Mathematical Council. The assessment examines students’ conceptual understanding, computation skills and problem solving skills on the basis of the mathematics curriculum of lower secondary education. We found that calculus students significantly outperformed engineering students, but both student groups struggled to solve the test, with the calculus and engineering groups scoring an average of 60% and 46%, respectively. Beginning students who fail to master basic skills, such as solving arithmetic and algebra problems, will most likely face difficulties in their further courses. Although few female students enrol in calculus and engineering programmes compared with male ones and are thus underrepresented, male and female students at the same ability level achieved comparable test scores. Furthermore, students reported high levels of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and a positive relationship was observed between intrinsic motivation and achievement.