Emotional intelligence (EI) is foundational to students’ success in the university. However, past studies on EI in the higher education context have mostly focused on how EI is related to academic achievement neglecting student engagement and other learning-related outcomes (e.g., generic outcomes). In this study, we examined whether and how individual differences in EI influence students’ learning, engagement, and achievement during their first year at university. An explanatory sequential mixed-methods design was used to garner both quantitative and qualitative insights. We recruited and followed up with 560 first-year students in Hong Kong. The quantitative findings revealed a strong EI gradient with more emotionally intelligent students having higher levels of learning, engagement, and achievement. Qualitative findings corroborated the quantitative results and further showed that emotionally intelligent students are goal-directed, assertive, and self-regulated. Taken together, this study sheds light on the importance of EI for the optimal functioning of first year university students. Theoretical and practical implications of the findings are discussed. Copyright © 2021 The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature.