© 2019 by the author; licensee Cogitatio (Lisbon, Portugal). This article explores changing national widening participation (WP) policy and responses from Higher Education institutions (HEIs) from a cross-national perspective. Specifically, the use of contextualised admissions and the provision of foundation year programmes in selective universities in Ireland and England are the key foci of interest. Using data gathered from WP students in two selective universities in Ireland and England, we explore how student characteristics differ according to the WP route undertaken. In an attempt to generate more knowledge of how HEIs enact WP policy, we draw on interviews conducted with staff involved in admission decision-making to explore how those with responsibility for admission within each institutional context perceive the WP pathways and their aims. The findings highlight how important it is for selective universities to adopt multiple WP pathways given that the use of contextualised admission and the provision of foundation years attract quite diverse student intakes. In both contexts, those entering through foundation years have experienced greater levels of disadvantage in terms of family history of education and family occupation compared to their contextualised admission counterparts. The qualitative findings reveal that those with responsibility for admission perceive the WP admission routes in different ways, highlighting a clash between institutional culture and the goals of WP.