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This is actually fairly good advice. There are only a few things I'd disagree with.

* You don't have to use 4-5th grade level English for our sakes. It might force you to explain things better though.

* When answering the question about the most impressive thing you've achieved, it's not necessary to "focus on things that can be useful in a startup." In fact that's a common mistake. If you won an Olympic gold medal and can also write hello world in Ruby, we want to hear about the former, not the latter.

* How you hacked some real-world system to your advantage is not a super important question. Probably not even in the top 10.

I don't know about the other YC partners, but the two most important questions to me are what you've done in the past that's impressive, and why you chose the idea you're working on.

The biggest mistake founders make when applying is to confuse us. Half the time when I'm reading an application I'm thinking "I have no idea what this person is even talking about." I suspect this often the writer's own confusion showing through.

It's surprisingly hard to explain oneself. Even startups that we've accepted and have spent months working with say things in draft Demo Day presentations that make me ask "what does that even mean?"


"things useful in a startup" does seem like misleading advice. Because people applying don't yet know what's useful. So it's obvious to me that having won an Olympic medal is super useful, but it's probably not obvious to the applicant. Hmm, and "useful" is probably not quite the right word here ... I'll try to cover this more in emails.

You comment above rates 6.5. Your writing style is very unusual though. It remains easy to understand despite being somewhat complex linguistically. 6 is about the maximum I can usually understand in a single pass. And after reading a bunch of applications my abilities degenerate. Best direct response copywriters consistently rate at 4.

Would it be in the category of "if you have to ask,..." to ask for a tightly clustered list of actual impressive things? It's easy to say "a Nobel" or "a knighthood", but I suspect the mean is lower down the log scale. After all, if you've won the holy grail you might not be motivated to spend your next 5 years on a startup :).

If I recall correctly from my AP Journalism class a billion years ago, mainstream journalists - we didn't have such a distinction then but I'm imagining that would be the equivalent - are taught to write at a 6th or 7th grade level. Of course the site just rated the above at 18.2. I'm going to have to work on this.

Is this linguistic scale available somewhere?

gleb linked to a grader in the article. It probably uses one of the formulae listed here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Readability

Ah, thank you. Missed that when I was skimming.

A little off-topic, but I read the "The Launch Pad" and one thing that stuck out to me was how you teach the YC companies that during Demo Day the investors will only remember a couple of words about the individual startups - in the best case scenario. Sometimes only a single word will be remembered.

I assume that these applications are very similar (although different in that you can take your time and reread parts as you see fit). But the shear amount of applications and the time frame allotted to go through them, I imagine it can be difficult to remember large parts of applications.

Yes! People who apply to anything would be so much better off if they tried to envision the conditions under which the applications are read.

I've found that people tend to feel the need to fill applications with useless jargon, especially when they aren't sure if their answer or they aren't good enough. They feel that they need to make what they're doing sound more impressive over being honest. When 90% of readers will always see through bullshit. If they doubt what they're writing they just continue until they have a lengthy piece of writing.

This clarification was much needed. I just spent some time editing our application and re-submitting it to make it less verbose based on the advice in this article, which I think was incredibly sound, but I could not get my writing level anywhere near a 4th grade level.

I was actually considering writing a post entitled "4th Grade Writing Level: Why I Should Have Had an Engineering Major Write My YC Application". I still think that would be a good joke.

Writing well at a 4th grade level != writing like a 4th grader, and I suspect it is equally difficult for science/eng majors and humanities majors. While it may not be necessary when writing for pg et al, remember that the average American reads at a 7th to 8th grade level[0] and that "for recreation, people read texts that are two grades below their actual reading level"[1]. In other words, you might be able to sell your startup idea to pg at a higher reading level, but you shouldn't count on selling it to consumers (and dare I say even investors/businesses?) that way.

[0] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literacy_in_the_United_States

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Readability

Agreed. I realize I should have thought about it MORE like how I write on a landing page and less about how I write just generally.

> I was actually considering writing a post entitled "4th Grade Writing Level: Why I Should Have Had an Engineering Major Write My YC Application". I still think that would be a good joke.

Yes, suggesting that engineers have the writing skill of 4th graders is sure to go over well on a site called Hacker News.

Just classic humanities vs. engineering ribbing. As a student of the former who has transitioned into the latter I enjoy both the bad writing engineer jokes and the "can't get a job" humanities jokes

Ah! I was thinking the less common pure vs applied sciences contention :)

If we edit our application now and re-submit, doesn't that create a problem where different people at YC have read different versions of the application?

One solution would be to only add to our answers, not subtract, by adding "EDIT: I wanted to clarify this point by saying x,y,z" at the bottom of a question.

Of course, the problem is that adds to the verbosity, making your lives more difficult with more to read, not less.

Why would it be a problem if we've read different versions? If the new version would be better, better for it to have been read by 1 partner than 0.

Your system is a bit of a black box, so I'm just going by my best guess here. I'm imagining that after the obviously great applications have been added to the interview list, and the bad applications have been tossed, that there will be ones in the middle that require discussion and debate between reviewers.

If I was a reviewer, I'd be annoyed if I spent a bunch of time debating the merits of an application with another reviewer and discovered we'd been looking at completely different versions, submitted a month apart. "This application is awesome, they clearly have what it takes as founders and have a cool idea with a prototype." "What are you talking about? That application was one of the most confusing I read. And it was just an idea, no prototype." "Oh, we were looking at different versions. Damn."

It sounds like it isn't a problem though, so maybe this situation is rare, or for the first cut you don't discuss at all and just go by pure score averages, or there's something else I'm missing. Thanks for the feedback.

If two people were debating the merits of an application, they'd look at it, and they'd both see the latest version.

No one would try to talk about an application without it open in front of him; they're too complicated and there are too many of them.

I have to imagine that the system is something like this:

1. Each partner has a queue of pending applications that have changes or have yet to be seen.

2. Each application shows a simple diff between the last time this partner saw it and now, if changes have been made.

3. Each field on the application has a space for the partner to write his or her own notes.

4. Each application has a space for the partner to write his or her own notes.

And then it's just a matter of having changes put your application back into the queue for each partner. Come the submission deadline, everyone is up to date once all of their queues are empty and then discussions about who to interview can commence, etc.

I think it is interesting that the writing advice I see promoted each year around the YC application cycle is more or less identical to the advice that I received when applying to graduate research fellowships. Have you seen any over representation of former fellowships winners in the "well written applications" stack in the past?

I wonder if there are ever applications that caused you to ask "what does that even mean?" which also turned out to be from successful groups.

If so it'd be great to hear about them.

Such as?

Edit: Oops! Caught you before your edit. Thanks!

Have the two most important questions to you changed over time?

Yes, because we only added the second one I mentioned a few cycles ago.

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