Australian universities are enrolling a larger and more diverse undergraduate student population. Counter to this trend, several states have developed plans to restrict entrance into the teaching profession. This study investigates the role of engagement, motivation, Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR), and emotional intelligence in the academic achievement of first-year, pre-service teachers. Eighty-three regionally enrolled pre-service teachers agreed to complete self-report questionnaires that assessed engagement with learning and emotional intelligence. The questionnaire data were supplemented with findings from a series of focus groups. Although ATAR scores were found to be a significant predictor of academic achievement, scores on the Motivation and Engagement Scale emerged as a much stronger predictor of first-year grade point average. Measures of emotional intelligence did not add to the model. The results support the need to consider pre-service teachers' motivation and engagement with learning, especially given the high stakes nature of proposed reforms to initial teacher education programmes.