Practical Handbook for Applying to Y Combinator

Chapter 3: Applying to YC

September 2020
Still from our Team Video, recorded on an iPhone at our HQs (aka bedroom).

Now that you have decided to give YC a shot, the first step is to apply. There are two components to this: the Written Questionnaires, and a Team Video. My advice for this stage boils down to: be clear, be concise, and follow instructions. If you do this, you’re already in the top 25% of applicants.

📓 General Advice

Don’t spend too much time on this

The application is designed to be answered in a few hours, and the video can be completed in less than one hour, so you shouldn’t really spend more than a few days preparing your application. Shipping product and spending time with customers are significantly better investments for your company than perfecting your application over many weeks. Remember, getting into YC won’t make your company great; you get into YC by being on your way to becoming a great company.

Don’t overthink your stage

Some startups get into YC with just an idea and have never raised funding, others have six figures in monthly revenue and have raised a seed round already. YC is as diverse in fields as it is in stages, so if you feel you can get something out of it, just apply.

On Deadlines, and applying early/late

Every six months there is an official application deadline for the upcoming YC batch. Ideally, try to submit yours by then. What many people don’t know is that YC actually accepts applications year-round. If you're ready before the deadline (even if it’s by months), submit early to get in front of the line and get an early decision. If you miss the deadline, apply late. There’s not much to lose and a lot to win -- many admitted companies every batch apply past the official date.

✍️ Written Questionnaires

Be extremely concise

This is the #1 thing you can do to improve the quality of your application. If you don't put in the effort to distill your answers to their most important components, YC partners won't do that for you, and they'll skip straight ahead. For reference, most answers shouldn't be longer than one paragraph.

Don't sell, answer the question

Founder’s instinct is to sell at all times, the written application is not the place to do this. The way you achieve concise answers is by cutting the buzzwords, avoiding long stories, and getting to the point.

Don’t exaggerate your progress to get an interview

Don’t do this even if you’re insecure about your progress, it’s ethically and legally wrong. To be frank, it’s not even a good strategy for getting admitted. Even if you manage to get invited for Partner Interviews based on lies, you’ll spend the time leading up to the interviews catching up to what you said was done already. This means that at the interview you’ll underwhelm the partners by seemingly making little progress since the time you applied.

Review previous successful applications

Many alums have published their successful applications online. Take advantage of this, and skim through a few to get a sense of how everything comes together in terms of structure and content when things go well. You can find links to some of these in the Appendix.

Get feedback from alums

Alums love to pay it forward when it comes to helping startups apply to YC. Try to get your application in front of 1-3 of them to identify any potentially big issues with it (no need for more since you’ll just be optimizing for style at that point). If you don’t know any, don’t be afraid to reach out coldly on Twitter, LinkedIn, or email to a few (being mindful of their time).

📹 Team Video

Don’t over-produce the video

Partners should be able to see and hear you clearly. Other than that, fancy editing and production won’t help you, and might even hurt you. One continuous shot, recorded on a phone with a decent camera, in a quiet environment, is sufficient.

All founders should participate

The main goal of the video is to get to know the founders, so make sure you plan ahead so that all of them actually participate. Ideally, you’ll be physically together, but if it’s not safe or possible to do so, a videocall should be fine.

Focus on the team

The whole point of the video is to get to know your team, so focus on introducing the founders, and explaining what they do. In the remaining time, you should briefly state what problem you’re trying to solve, how you’re tackling, and what’s your progress so far. Except in rare cases (like companies building a supersonic jet), this isn’t the place to demo/tease your product.

Stick to the 1-minute limit

You’d be surprised how many companies don’t follow this instruction.

Plan it in advanced

While you want to avoid reading from a prompter or reciting a memorized robotic speech, it does make sense to loosely script the video in advance. By doing this, you can be deliberate about what information you want to convey, the words you’ll use to do so clearly, and which founder will say what.

Watch previous successful videos

Just like with the written application, many alums have published their successful videos, and YC has examples of what they want on their website. Spend 15 minutes watching a few, and you’ll gain an intuition for what it should be like. You can find links to some of these in the Appendix.

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