6 Tips to Standing Out in Your Y Combinator Interview

5 min read
6 Tips for Standing Out in Your Y Combinator Interview

The first step on the road to YC is to apply to Y Combinator. If your application is accepted — congratulations! Your next destination is the interview. These six tips will help you understand what you need to do to give yourself and your team the best chance of nailing the interview process and earning a spot in Y Combinator’s coveted startup accelerator program.

1. Get Tons of Practice

Preparing for Y Combinator interviews requires plenty of practice. Most importantly, you should be able to clearly and concisely articulate the purpose of your startup. Prior to the interview, prepare a brief mission statement that accurately captures what your company does in just a sentence or two. Study this mission statement and practice delivering it confidently.

You should also know what questions to expect ahead of time. Here are some common YC interview questions:

Come up with brief (less than 10 seconds) answers to the most important questions and practice delivering them off-the-cuff. Record yourself answering the questions (audio is good, video is better) and review the recording to help you improve. Pay attention to your body language as well as the content and delivery of your answers.

2. Display Co-Founder Synergy

Convincing your Y Combinator partners that you have a winning team is actually even more important than convincing them you have a winning startup idea (though ideally, you can convince them of both). The most important qualities YC looks for in founding teams are confidence, industry expertise, and cohesion.

It’s critical to have complementary skill sets or areas of focus within your founding team. Even if all founders on your team come from similar backgrounds, each needs to be focusing on applying their skills in separate, complementary ways. For example, it’s alright if you have multiple founders who come from technical backgrounds as long as one is focusing on product development while another is focusing on marketing.

You should also consider which founders will answer which questions during the interview. It’s important that everyone speaks, but everyone doesn’t necessarily need to speak an equal amount as long as everyone has a specific role and adds clear value to the team. For example, it’s okay if one cofounder answers most of the questions and the other cofounders only answer a question or two each — just make sure that the questions the other cofounders answer pertain specifically to their areas of focus or expertise. In other words, their one or two answers need to be answers that no one on the team could have given except them.

3. Understand Your Zero to One and One to N

Going from zero to one means creating something completely new that didn’t exist before.

Going from one to N means improving, iterating on, or scaling something that already exists.

It’s crucial to understand which of these two categories your startup fits into as you prepare for your interview. A brand new solution that’s never existed before (a zero to one solution) has a natural competitive advantage. If you plan to improve on an existing solution, your solution needs to be significantly better than any other to be worth building at all. Either kind of startup is viable with the right approach, but you need to display to the YC interviewers that you understand which kind you have.

4. Focus the Conversation on Your Strengths

It’s important to play to your strengths throughout the whole interview process. Focusing on your strengths means not only highlighting your strengths as an individual, but more importantly, as a founding team and a business.

To help you keep the focus of the interview on your strengths, write down a list of the strongest aspects of your application and study this list carefully. You should learn your startup’s most impressive advantages and successes this far inside and out so you can steer the conversation toward these points during your interview.

5. Avoid Buzzwords and Jargon

Never assume your Y Combinator interviewers are already familiar with anything about your startup or your industry. When describing your startup, steer clear of jargon, buzzwords, and any other kind of cliche that will dilute the impact of your interview. Flashy marketing terminology has no place here. The interviewers need to understand right away what your startup actually does. Approach the interview less like a polished presentation and more like an open, authentic conversation about your business and its goals.

6. Be Confident and Concise

When it comes to conveying confidence, getting straight to the point is key. The best answers are those that are concise yet comprehensive. You only have a few minutes for your Y Combintor interview, so you need to provide all the necessary information without wasting time on any unnecessary fluff. 

It’s okay to be nervous, but it’s also important to outwardly project confidence. You might find it helpful to remember that you probably know more about your industry than most or all of the people interviewing you. YC partners are experts at evaluating startups and founding teams — but that doesn’t necessarily make them experts in every subject those startups and founders bring to the table. When it comes to your startup, your team are the experts in the room.

Lastly, don’t forget to infuse your answers with an appropriate amount of enthusiasm. The interviewers should be able to feel the passion you have for your startup. A palpable sense of enthusiasm shows that you have the drive to succeed long-term as well as the know-how to get the venture off the ground.

Prepare for Your Y Combinator Interview with Help from a Mentor

It’s important for your whole team of cofounders to work together to prepare for your Y Combinator Interview. However, it can also be beneficial to work with someone who has prior experience applying to Y Combinator. You can use Mentorcam to speak with YC alumni who have taken their startups through Y Combinator’s accelerator program and have gone on to achieve success. Find out how they passed their YC interviews and get their advice for preparing for your own.

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