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3 Non-Obvious Tips for Your YC Application

It’s that time of year again. Y-Combinator applications are due at the end of the week. If you’re reading this, you’re likely applying. That’s great! You absolutely should. Tons of upside. And...well...I can’t think of any downside.

As a YC Alum (Tiempo S14), I’ve been asked to review a few applications. It’s a thrill to pay back the kindness that alums like Webflow, Zapier, and Abacus paid us when we applied.

But, I’ve noticed some things…

Here are 3 tips to help make a common application into a standout one:

Be Awesomer

Look at each of your answers and ask yourself, “what would make this awesome?” Think of a great book or a movie trailer. They throw you right into the action. They grab your attention. They leave you wanting more.

If you built a robot as part of summer school project, don’t say, “During my summer between sophomore and junior years, I wanted to learn more about robotics. So, I embarked on a research project with a colleague in the lab. After 3 months, we had a robot that could grip cylindrical objects.”

Here’s what would be awesomer:

“I built a robot that can drink beer. Here’s a video.”

Hopefully your robot is better than the one in that video, but you get the point. In 11 words you’ve conveyed everything essential that was previously conveyed in 40. More importantly, you’ve piqued the reviewer’s interest. It’s hard not to check out that video. The reader wants to know more because you’ve given them less.

It’s also more compelling. That robot could grab many cylindrical things. It could grab a tube, a bar, or a roll of toilet paper. Yawn. A robot that drinks beer is intriguing. Maybe “a robot that can wield a sword” or “hold lipstick” would be even more compelling.

Find those opportunities to be concise and punch up the language.

Give Less Context

You don’t need so much set up. It’s tempting (and often best practice) to provide additional context when you’re communicating to an unfamiliar audience. “These people weren’t there, so I need to set the scene,” you might think.

For the YC application, there are a couple reasons why this works against you.

First, YC partners have more context than you realize. They’ve dealt with over 1,000 portfolio companies and many more thousands in applications. In group office hours, I watched as YC Partner (and creator of Gmail) Paul Buchheit went from grilling us (contractor payments), to a health imaging company, to a social media company, to ecommerce, and then finish it off with a biotech company. Occasionally there was a nuclear fusion startup. All of this was done without missing a beat. More importantly, it was done with enough domain expertise to get to the crux of the issues facing each company. Whatever it is you’re doing, the YC partners have seen some aspect of it.

Second, it takes away from what differentiates you. You spend precious space (and therefore reviewer’s time) talking about what is instead of the what will be because of your amazing startup.

Continuing with the Summertime Robot example, the original 3 sentence description spends the first two sentences setting the scene. The two introductory sentences contain information that you likely feel portrays positive aspects about you or your startup. You’re showing the initiative to learn something new. You’re showing how you’ve accomplished something at an early age.

While that’s true, there are already many accomplished, intelligent people applying to YC. But, not as many have built a working robot (or whatever your awesome thing is).

Focus on what makes you different.

Fight Humility (aka Don’t Sell Yourself Short)

You may have been part of a team doing something fantastic. But, unless one of your cofounders was part of it, it’s usually extraneous to include.

Using the Summertime Drinking Robot example one last time, the lab partner doesn’t need to be mentioned.

Leaving someone out of the story may make you feel bad -- like you’re stealing credit. But, so long as you’re not misrepresenting your achievements, it’s ok. Those other people aren’t applying to Y-Combinator!

In the applications I’ve reviewed, it’s usually taken the form of “as part of a team” or “with a partner” or “at my previous job.” All extra words that take away from time you could be talking about the amazing things you and your cofounders have done.

Tying it All Together

Sam Altman, president of YC, recently hosted an AMA on Hacker News and answered a question about what causes applications to be quickly dismissed:

”The biggest mistake founders make is burying whatever it is that's exceptional about them or their company deep in the application.”  –– Sam Altman

Focus on what makes you different, tell a compelling story, and don’t sell yourself short. Above all, be concise.

If you can do that, you’ll stand a much better chance of making it to the interviews.

Best of luck! Applying to Y-Combinator remains the single most pivotal decision we’ve made for our company. I hope you get the chance to experience it as well.

Great YC Resources

•  YC’s "How to Apply” – The definitive post from Paul Graham

•  Sam Altman's AMA on HN - The most recent info straight from the head of YC

•  Mattan Griffel’s “Getting Into Y-Combinator” – Thorough advice for how to make a good case to YC and investors in general

•  Aptible’s Application and Interview Primer – Particularly good preparation for the interview

•  iPG - Rapid fire interview question prep

Tad is the Co-Founder and CEO of Payable.

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