Handbook for Applying to Y Combinator

Chapter 4: YC Partner Interviews


October 2020

last updated:

June 2021
YC Partners showing off at YC HQs.

👉 If you have an upcoming interview for YC, I'm happy to help you with a mock interview, just shoot me a DM on Twitter.

The second and final stage of the YC Admissions process is the Partner Interview — an intense 10-minute conversation between the founders and a panel of around four YC partners. Just like in the Application stage, what sets apart great founders in this stage is communication skills. As such, the most important advice I can give you is be sharp; prepare to give direct, clear, and concise answers to each question.

📐 General Strategy

Exceed expectations

After you apply, don’t take the foot off the gas, keep moving forward. The best way to prove to YC that you’re an A-level team that moves fast is by making a lot of progress between the time you apply and when you interview.

Team dynamic

Pay special care to how you behave as a team during the interview — remember that above all YC is evaluating your team, and making a bet on it. What you do says a lot more than what you say, so don’t let the nerves get in the way of you being good teammates when the pressure gets high.

Bet on 3 key points

There will be a lot of things that you’ll want to convey at the interview, but with only 10 minutes, you won’t get most of them in, and you’ll be lucky if they remember 3 of the ones you do. As such, it helps to identify the 3 most important points, and make a conscious effort of nailing them during the interview, and finding ways of sneaking them in if partners don’t think to ask about them. Ideally, these will be aligned with the three things YC looks for in startups. Examples of this can be “we’ve know each other for 10 years hand have previously built X thing together” or “we began working on this 3 months ago, launched 2 months ago, and have been growing 35% every week since”.

🏋️‍♀️ Preparation

The only way to achieve clear communication in a rapid-fire 10-minute conversation is to do the work of distilling your answers days before the questions are asked in the first place. How you go about this is very subjective, but this is what worked for us:

Step 1: Create a Question Bank

Create a Google Doc or Sheet, and toss in all the questions you think YC might ask about your team, idea, and progress. Google YC sample interview questions and bring in all the relevant ones you find. Make sure to include questions about your weak points, and whenever you come across a new question in the subsequent steps, add them to the bank.

Step 2: Categorize and Split up

Color code and group the questions into categories; team, finances, technical, product, idea, traction, legal, etc. Assign one founder per category, who will be not only responsible for the prepared questions, but any unexpected question that comes up in the interview related to that category. This doesn’t necessarily have to be an equal split, if you feel the CEO needs to take 80%, and the CTO only 20%, that’s fine. This is especially true for international companies, it’s best to rely on founders that speak English fluently.

Step 3: Prepare your answers

Each founder should write answers for their assigned questions on the document. Most of them (except what does your company do?) should be under 15 seconds. Avoid jargon and buzzwords. Keep in mind what YC is looking for. Use a lot of numbers and figures, especially when talking about the problem, market, and traction. Don’t round these numbers, exact figures always inspire more credibility.

Step 4: Internalize the answers

The goal of the document is not to memorize and recite back the exact wording of each answer, but to do the difficult job of distilling the ideas before you're asked about them. Each founder should internalize their answers, and be able to respond naturally and conversationally when prompted.

Step 5: Practice as a team

To practice your answers, get someone to go down the list of your assigned questions, and respond out loud. Most of the prep work however, is about practicing the dynamic of the interview as a team. The PG Simulator or similar resources linked in the Appendix can help you with this. In the weeks before the interview, focus on your company, and only ramp up your practice in the week leading up to the interview, especially in the 3 days before. During this process, don’t just test if you know the answers, practice their sub-15 second timing, give each other feedback on wording, and iterate the answers on your Google Doc.

Step 6: Mock interviews with alums

YC alums love doing mock interviews. Reach out to 3-5 to schedule these in advance for the week leading up to the interview. This will give you feedback and confidence. I'm also happy to help with this, just shoot me a DM on Twitter.

🌅 The day of the interview

Like an athlete before a big game, the day of the interview is all about the mindset you put yourself in. I would clear my day, try not to cram last-minute prep, and focus on relaxing, bonding, and building up confidence as a team. Be on time, and plan in advance to ensure a reliable internet connection, and a quiet place.

🤾‍♂️ During the Interview

Introduce yourselves clearly

Even more important than your names is to have simple descriptions of what each person does. Partners need to build the mental model of who does what (CEO, CEO + engineer, sales, engineer + legal, etc) to effectively conduct the interview.

Nail the first question

The first question is always going to be What do you do?. It sets the tone for the entire interview, so make sure you have an incredibly simple and clear 30-second answer that any random person in the street could understand.

Be confident and resilient

The interview will be rapid-fire and messy, don’t let it rattle you. You know more about your business than the partners do, all that’s left is communicating that effectively.

Remember your 3 key points

Make sure to work in each of your three key points at least twice each, and nail their delivery. Even if they don’t ask you directly, if you think they are that important, find a way to bring them up.

Be a team

Don’t talk over each other, and don't contradict each other (I’m looking at you, CEOs 👀). If a teammate is struggling, help them without being aggressive. If you forget something, punt to your teammates “Carlos can actually tell you about…”.  It makes sense to have an SOS signal/keyword for this. Mainly, just give off the vibe you’d expect from people that actually like each other; you’d be surprised how many founding teams clearly don't vibe with each other.

Get out of jail cards

For the most part, you won’t be able to control the flow of the interview, embrace whatever partners are asking about. If at some point a partner is going down a rabbit hole that you feel is going nowhere, and is taking up valuable minutes, you can use one of your 3 points as a Get out of jail free card. Politely, but confidently say “What you need to understand, is that we’re going to win because [most relevant key point]”. If you do this right, you won’t just get the interview back on track, you’ll show the partners you have guts and resiliency.

Have a demo ready

Odds are partners won’t ask for a demo of your product, but come prepared to do a 1-minute one in case they do.

🍃After the interview

Getting a decision

YC is pretty good about making quick decisions, you’ll usually hear back from them at the end of the day you interview. Rejections are sent by email, which gives partners an opportunity to provide feedback, and acceptances over the phone. Make sure you have both on hand throughout the day.

Brace a long day

The truth is it’s going to be a long day waiting for a decision. Startups usually have a lot riding on getting into YC, and it’s really hard to know how you did in the interview. It’s normal to be anxious. I’d avoid scheduling commitments that require you to be mentally present that day, try to relax and take the opportunity to bond with your co-founders.

If YC requests a follow-up interview…

Sometimes YC will contact you throughout the day to schedule a follow-up interview with a different set of partners. This might be frustrating or nerve-wracking at first, but it’s actually a good thing: you’re still in the race. Regain your focus, and nail the next interview.

If you don’t get in…

Be gracious, and keep your head high. Remember that almost half of YC startups were rejected at some point. Only 1 in 10 startups that apply get to the interview, so you’re likely in a good direction. Decompress as a team that night, and get back to work tomorrow. If a partner gives you concrete feedback, be open-minded about it, and thank them for it.

If you do get in...

Congratulations! Celebrate that night, but don’t forget to get back to work the next day. Remember, you won’t succeed just because you got into YC, that is still up to you. Make the most out of your time at YC to grow as a company, meet interesting people, and raise money. When time comes, pay it forward to future founders looking to apply to YC.

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