It many ways that seems obvious. To get in you have to have something going for you. To not get in you don't have to do anything wrong, you just have to not have a thing that does get you in. It would be just as hard for my college to write high school seniors a letter saying, well, you were 2nd in your class and had a 1500 but noting stood out as would be for YC to write people direct feedback at scale. What would it really mean? How do you action that? No special sauce isn't really feedback. You can't point to anything wrong other than you can't point to anything great.
This has proven true for me in the admissions processes I've gone through on the other side: whether at a consulting firm, or Stripe, or Standard Treasury, or Echoing Green (I read semi-finalist apps). Most people self-select to apply for good and just reasons but some people really excite you and some people don't. Some people just have that something special, and the people who don't don't really have anything wrong with them.
So to me this commentary rings true and is honestly put.
Even with our local (L.A.) film festival, we had a ton of submissions. I could cut 80-90% of them very easily. They just weren't very good. We got a lot of submissions that simply weren't competent, they had multiple fundamental flaws.
There's always a few that are easy calls. Very good work, and you know you can build a night around them. Then there's some that are obviously good enough to screen, if not to be the keystones.
Then there's the borderliners, and that's where you spend all your time. Trying to make those choices. Sometimes it literally comes down to how long a movie is and if it will fit in the slot you have to fill. Sometimes it's how a given movie will play off the others you've decided on already. It's not completely "fair", but it's how it is sometimes.
But you know, even those awful films (and some of them are really awful, worse than you've ever seen)... They represent a massive amount of work. And perseverance. And dreaming. And I always respected that, and it sucked to reject even the worst. These were people who DID something with their time, and I hated hated hated sending the rejection emails. Even the worst filmmakers deserved some respect for having actually done it.
It's important to separate the work from the person who did it. The person who did it almost always deserves respect and admiration.
It could simply be something like: "we already reached our capacity with 'definite yes' and 'yes', and there wasn't room".
Nothing specifically wrong with the application, just not as obviously strong as the ones accepted.
I really don't see your point here.
The same sort of pattern applies to virtually every other field where certain favored groups are "underrepresented" (the subtle implication being that they should be proportionally represented, although this assumption is almost never examined or justified). If you're allocating slots for some selective competition, and rejecting people for "poor credentials" eliminates all protect groups in your applicant pool, how sympathetic do you think the diversity committee will be to your selection criteria?
Yes there is - because they aren't the best of the best.
I don't see a reason to sugar-coat it. Being rejected means that YC doesn't think that you're one of the 50 or so best startups who applied. Nothing more, and nothing less.
True, but that's sort of ex post facto justification.
Theoretically, ten startups could apply and objectively be equally qualified, but YC may still pick only one. The key is that without completely exhaustive criteria for admission (which would not be practical), it's impossible to determine what defines "best" and how to become one of the "best".
This  explains it nicely.
Put yourself in the position of someone selecting players for a national team. Suppose for the sake of simplicity that this is a game with no positions, and that you have to select 20 players. There will be a few stars who clearly should make the team, and many players who clearly shouldn't. The only place your judgement makes a difference is in the borderline cases. Suppose you screw up and underestimate the 20th best player, causing him not to make the team, and his place to be taken by the 21st best. You've still picked a good team. If the players have the usual distribution of ability, the 21st best player will be only slightly worse than the 20th best. Probably the difference between them will be less than the measurement error.
The 20th best player may feel he has been misjudged. But your goal here wasn't to provide a service estimating people's ability. It was to pick a team, and if the difference between the 20th and 21st best players is less than the measurement error, you've still done that optimally.
 - http://paulgraham.com/judgement.html
But for the majority of applicants, there is a good reason - because YC didn't think that you were one of the 50 or so best startups. This doesn't mean that being denied means that you're not smart or dedicated or that your startup is bad. It just means that they didn't think it was one of the 50 best they received.
All of the information you need is contained in that above statement. All of this advice is basically just saying, "interpret that above statement literally, and don't make any false inferences from it".
None of these are true.
There is, frequently, a probabilistic scale of quality -- there are works or instances which will, generally, be considered "good" and some which are considered "bad", and, say in an iterated experiment model you'll generally come to at least some level of agreement as to what's what. Sometimes there are even very clear winners and losers.
But there's a hell of a lot of variance. There are things which people, often many people, like, often a lot, which others simply despise. I am, for example, not a fan of rap, hip-hop, house, and similar music. I really like Beethoven's late string quartets. I'm aware that by popular vote my preferences are likely unpopular.
And even where there is widespread agreement after the fact on something, experts in the field may not come to agreement. The Beatles were panned by several early music critics and record labels. Rob Malda's initial review of a new cellphone was less than whelmed. Oh yeah, it was called the "iPhone", you may have heard of it.
Tests for categories as seemingly refined as classical music performance -- both auditions of performers, and trials of classic vs. modern instruments, and fine wines, show that there are huge differences in non-blinded vs. blind trials (for music), and that wine experts are incredibly unreliable in how they grade, or even describe the qualities of, wines. Though this does make for an entertaining way to spend an afternoon or evening with friends.
In another interesting study, unreleased music was introduced to several different "worlds" of test subjects -- within a world the experiences were shared, but not between them. The result was that, from the same starting selection, different "hits" were selected by each.
And that's the whole point.
In any competitive selections process, especially where there are far more qualified applicants than there are positions, there will be many qualified applicants who aren't admitted. The reasons for denial will vary, but ultimately the selectors must adopt some arbitrary mechanism. Lottery would probably be the fairest, say, by assigning a rough percentile ranking to each candidate (perhaps by decile), selecting all within the top category (the clear winners), none below some cutoff, and a random selection within the grey range. More often culture, bias, hubris, or other factors will lead to other bases for decision.
But thinking you can, perfectly and without error, assess the quality of something as both nuanced and capricious as the possible value of a technology start-up concept based on a few brief exposures is really pretty arrogant. And all but certainly wrong.
I never said that they could assess it "perfectly and without error". I said that it means that "YC doesn't think that you're one of the 50 or so best startups".
YC can't unambiguously tell whether or not a particular rejected candidate should have been in the top 50 or not, at least not for a significant number of those rejects.
My point remains: quality or success cannot be foretold in advance. Particularly when much of that success depends on passing prior selection phases.
In evolutionary biology, as a comparative example, there's no question that luck plays a role in evolution. Your ancestors had the bad luck to live in an asteroid strike zone, on a tidal-wave flood plain, or within the affected region of an ancient pandemic? Pity, you're not here now. So the influence on survival exists.
The relevant part to evolution though is that luck is not an inheritable trait. It cannot be selected for. It's part of the random noise.
Similar logic holds true for YC prospects: some are successful, some are not. Passing the bar itself comprises in significant part a random "lucky" event. Yes, that can be influenced, but you cannot eliminate the error.
What's interests me the most is that I had no idea, no clue, that the skydiving team was a fast-track to promotion. I just wanted to jump out of planes. That wasn't the case with many of my teammates. We had some great talent on the skydiving team — the most talented men and women at West Point. But some of them hated jumping out of planes, and they did poorly.
Sama writes that the number and quality of YC applications has risen. That might not be a good thing. Talent and ambition aren't the greatest indicators of startup success.
I don't think its a coincidence that Dropbox, Reddit, AirBnb, Justin.tv, Loopt, and Stripe all came within the first few years of YC's existence, and that YC's more recent companies haven't taken off in the same way. It might be because immensely talented people see YC as their avenue to success.
If being immensely talented and ambitious was the prime requisite for startup-success, then YC would be in a great position. But as I understand it, having talent and ambition don't matter as much as having a determined, cohesive, and visionary team.
Your point about ambition is a good one though. Filtering out people who are just there for the prestige generally isn't that hard though -- they have ways of self identifying :)
I think the most salient fact about this stereotypical type of person is that they don't know why they're doing it. They wouldn't be doing it if it weren't prestigious. You lose something there, even if the person is theoretically better on paper.
But he kept getting letters from college students to the effect of "I read your book, where is that kind of opportunity now?"
It wasn't just the money, or the power, it's just being more whatever than anybody else...
The same thing can apply to YC. There are a bunch of people with good ideas and talent who want to be successful, but they hate jumping out of planes. They think that if they can just get into YC and deal with not really enjoying it that much, then they'll be putting themselves on the inside track and it'll be smooth sailing from there. I don't think that's really a great outlook on life.
It often feels like noone in that world has empathy.
For the ones getting rejection emails tonight don't sweat it. I got into YC on my Third try and it was worth every rejection.
We're building a company now and spent months getting rejected about raising a seed round before suddenly becoming one of the "hot" companies with investors and being in a position to turn the same people who were turning us away down for a change.
All this to say Sam is right. If you're working on something, there is traction and/or you truly believe in it don't give up.
The only validation to worry about at this stage of the game is user validation.
Talk to Users. Write Code.
Best of luck with whatever you're building and if I can ever be of help feel free to email me (email in profile)
The best analogy I can find for this is that applying to YC is like trying to pick up a girl or asking her out on a date. (I know many of us have yet to try, too). Get over the fear of rejection, and put yourself out there. Will your way to success. YC is like the smartest, most beautiful woman with the amazing personality everyone falls in love with (well, there's always the haters). Don't give up. Exercise, eat right, sleep, and strive to be better. You never know, one day that beautiful woman might actually say yes.
(To all the women on HN, replace girl/woman with guy/man and beautiful with handsome.)
So, don't give up.
I can't find the comment now, but here's at least half of it: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=6897904
And the funniest thing...I get more excited each time. Rejection after rejection, I get more and more certain that I'm getting closer and closer. Totally counter-intuitive from what I thought, both the excitement side of it and the applying for the 4th or 5th time... :) "Y" I ask you...
Yes, it would be useful, but YC's lawyers probably advised against it. Doing this could open the door for a rejected applicant to allege some flavor of unlawful discrimination (pick one: race / ethnicity / gender / age / etc.). I'm not sure the anti-discrimination laws would even apply to a situation like YC, but at a minimum the allegation could turn into a bandwidth-sucking distraction and PR headache.
(disclosure: I work for MC)
I would find it useful to know how I'm doing within the pool. Even if the answer is "bottom 20%", that lets me know how much more effort I have to put into it to improve.
We had concerns about:
a) idea b) team c) small market size d) something else
I applied about 5 times with various ideas to various programs (Boulder, Seattle, New York). I got close once -- I was a "finalist" for the Seattle program (Top 30), but didn't get chosen as the top 10.
Each time left me pretty crushed. But I decided early on that I could sit around and feel bad about myself, or I could use it to become better. After each time I was rejected, I contacted the head of the incubator and thanked them for their time, and if they could give me any tips towards success. And more often than not, I got responses that helped me become a better entrepreneur.
The first rejection is always the hardest. And so is the second, the third, the fourth, and the fifth. But Edison is widely quoted as saying:
"I have not failed 1,000 times. I have successfully discovered 1,000 ways to NOT make a light bulb."
To me that was the most interesting part of the article.
This did not deter us from continuing; our company was profitable already, and we worked our butts off for the next few years (without any reasonable perspective of ever getting acquired, or even growing the company to be big). The work was interesting, and for a company that size, we had a surprisingly large impact (indirectly) on the wider world, but it was heavy toil with little reward.
Either way - history then shifted under our feet, and it turned out in 2010/2011 that we had the combination of technology and team that out of a sudden had become pretty important to Google, and then after a long and painful negotiation process, we got acquired in 2011. Not a gangbusters acquisition by any stretch of the imagination, but one that worked out nicely for everyone involved.
So perhaps the takeaway from this is: YC is great, but perhaps the great redeeming quality of modern capitalism is that you do not require gatekeepers in order to be successful. "You play shit that they like, and people will come, simple as that." - e.g. if you build a product that people like, people will give you money to build more of that product. Decentralized decision-making and the ability to bootstrap with nothing but a compelling product may be the one thing that led to our current economic system to out-compete the others.
When we started the company, I wanted to build X. This was a huge endeavor, and I knew that on the way to X I'd need to build Y and Z; so I ended up building Z first, then used income from Z to bootstrap development on Y, then I got sidetracked a bit on B because we found a surprising application of our technology to a different field, and just when I was about to get back to X, we got acquired principally for B and Z. So up until today, we have made very little progress on X itself, but that doesn't matter :-)
So if you're rejected from YC, don't despair. Use it to re-examine what you're doing, understand that investment is like dating (some people are just not made for each other, and it will end in horror if you pretend to be someone you are not), and then channel your disappointment into velocity :-P
(PS: pg, if you folks have any notes whatsoever on reasons for rejection in the first YC batch, I would love to have more background info - but it is also pretty understandable if no memory at all exists ;)
I cannot even imagine the faces when you answer: "We built high-end reverse engineering software for purposes of security review and malware analysis."
You should sum it up to "I do... computering stuff" :)
E.g. there might be 4-5 checkboxes for reviewers:
- Ideas are not clear
- Ideas are not profound/original
- Not profitable
- No demo
So at least we could know what went wrong. As most of the applicants, I think my idea was pretty cool and I am not sure what part I screwed up.
https://twitter.com/search?src=typd&q=%23microconf - lots of information on the recently concluded MicroConf with patio11 and many others from HN.
And Rob's book, which is a great starting point: http://www.amazon.com/Start-Small-Stay-Developers-Launching/...
Granted, bootstrapping is not viable for some things, but for many others, it's a good path.
Inside YC, you help 50 companies. Outside YC, you help 2950 companies by giving your opinion on their performance. Some of these 2950 companies will someday blow everyone away!! They will give everyone a glimpse into a new world, just like the greats of the past did. And the likes of YC will be thanked, because every rejection will have some contribution in shaping them.
If you’re working on something that users love,
you like working on it, and
you have a plan for how to build a business around it
A great release, both in facts and vibe; Elon standard.
what are the % like? What are the criteria and what are they looking for?
Everyone here agrees that the way for HN to benefit YC's business is simply to have the best possible content. So we spend all our time working on the global optimum—how to get quality up—and zero time promoting this or that.
While I'm at it, if any of you have ideas about how to get HN's quality up, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
 We sometimes penalize posts castigating companies for something the poster didn't like, because the resulting threads tend to be indignation-fueled rather than substantive.
To date I've been very much impressed with your efforts to bring transparency to the moderation. Thanks for all the hard work.
As for your caveat: that's a very fine line. And if selectively enforced it could still have the same effect. I know that YC owns HN and that's all fine and good until there is a conflict of interest. And I personally feel that HN is more important than YC (though, of course the YC founders & partners would probably disagree with that, as is their good right).
edit: thanks, downvoter.
edit2: by the way, how about this one: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=7566069
That seemed to drop off the frontpage suspiciously fast even though it had an incredible number of upvotes.
Not sure I'm getting you about the caveat, unless you mean that we shouldn't penalize any threads. If we didn't do that, the front page would be overrun with low-quality controversies and shouting matches: in davidw's words, "articles that get you riled up, but really don't lead to any productive or interesting discussions". 
So there's editorial judgment involved. There always has been. HN has always been a blend of voting and curation.
What I'm saying above is that we exercise that editorial judgment less, not more, when YC-startup-related controversies crop up—precisely because we don't want to be accused of censorship for venal purposes. Of course people accuse us of precisely that anyway, but that goes with the territory. I don't expect not to get acccused; I do want to be able to reply in good conscience.
Two more caveats for you. I'm not saying there aren't unconscious biases—that would be foolish—just that we consciously try hard to guard against them. I'm also not saying that every bad story about YC gets a free pass to the front page. The bar may be lower, but it still exists. When articles come up that are just plain terrible, we don't, in Mrs. Thatcher's immortal words, go wobbly.
The "Drop Dropbox" story you cite is an example of all this. I initially penalized it. Why? Because it's a classic specimen of the riler-uppers davidw was talking about. The penalty made it go from #1 to the lower part of the front page. However, I forgot that Dropbox was a YC company (perhaps they're so big that I don't think of them as a startup any more). When someone reminded me of that, my first thought was that we needed to lighten the penalty and I immediately went and did so. That made the post go to #9. From then on, we didn't touch it at all . The reason it fell from there was because, as incredibly many votes as it got, it got even more incredibly many flags. I just wrote some code to scan the last million posts to HN and sort them by flaggedness. That post is the most flagged by far; it has 3x as many flags as the next. (In the same data set, it is the third most upvoted story and has 11% more votes than the next.)
 Actually, we did. A moderator fat-finger later that evening caused several things to happen, one of which was killing that story. I saw that in the moderation log and immediately reversed it, along with all the other effects of the fat-finger. I think the story was in that killed state for a couple hours. And now you have a complete dump of my memory about "Drop Dropbox". For the love of God or at least Mrs. Thatcher, please, no more "examples" tonight!
(Also, once Kevin's mobile-friendly markup is out, there should be no more moderator fat-fingers.)
Edit the morning after: I hasten to add that my Thatcher references were merely an attempt at a joke, not an oblique political statement.
More technical jacquesm classics take a while to produce :) But I'm sure something will pop up sooner or later, as soon as my current batch of commitments has been dealt with.
Thank you very much for the explanation, much appreciated. Interesting facts there about the flags. I've long since lost my flagging, posting and upvoting ability so none of that was mine, I merely wondered as an observer because the rankings of that page made absolutely no sense at times and I did spot it when it got deleted and then re-appeared.
I would say the biggest cause of this is likely the hundreds or thousands of people who applied to YC and are watching HN to see if any replies have gone out. This topic answers their question, so they upvoted it.
So when did this change and stop happening?
As someone who tangentially interacted with YC founders, I can confirm that HN does not inherently boost posts, but HN does identify YC alum posts to other YC alums, which is probably the source of the "boost". In fact, HN on several occasions has penalized YC alum posts (upvote ring detection).
I didnt realise they had taken out the alerts on their dashboards that led to YC members being picked up by the vote ring detection.
Their comments show up as Orange to other members, I would imagine that this would boost the amount of upvotes and assume that they would never get shadow banned etc.
The fact that this comment got pretty much the most number of downvotes on my account may indicate that these posts do get attention. The fact that YC can see submitters voting history etc might also play into it.
For a while, it was also the case that YC founders could see a list of submissions by other YC founders. But PG got rid of that over a year ago. It turned out to have voting-ring-like effects, which was never the intent behind it.