Advice on applying to hackNY

November 26, 2013


Over the last few weeks, I’ve gotten a few emails asking for advice on applying to hackNY. Each time, I’ve rewritten my thoughts on the application process — gradually refining the emails. Over the weekend, I decided to consolidate those emails into one, get feedback from the hackNY community, and publish it for anyone interested in applying to hackNY.

The following is the result of that process.

What does hackNY look for in applicants?

The #1 thing that we look for in applicants is a serious interest in building cool things. If you’ve built things that other people like, you’re in a great position to be a hackNY fellow. If you haven’t, but you want to build cool things, you’re still in a good position to be a hackNY fellow! The key to both of these situations is convincing the application readers that you’re a builder.

If you’ve already built a bunch of cool things, tell us about them! We want to see the projects you’ve created, hear why you created them, and learn about the problems you solved along the way. Let us know why you had fun and why you’re excited to build even more awesome things this summer!

If you don’t, we want to hear why you *will* build cool things. Tell us about a problem you have and how you’re going to solve it. Tell us about something small that you’ve started working on. Tell us about a class project that you got totally carried away with. Oh, and there’s no better time to start like the present, so start coding and tell us about that (when I applied, I sent an addendum to my application with a project I’d just started)!

Other than being a builder, we look for a few other things (listed below). You don’t need *all* of these things to get into hackNY (I didn’t have them!), but being strong in more than one area is important:

1. Strong coding and/or design ability. Chunks of code you write and/or things you’ve designed will be reviewed by people who are very good at what they do. If they think you’re good too, that’s a big plus.

2. Interest in the startup world. The majority of your summer will be spent working for an early stage startup. If that’s not something that you’re really excited about, hackNY probably isn’t for you. When we’re reviewing applications, we look for things that you’ve done in the past that convey this excitement. If you’ve founded your own company or worked at a startup already, talk about what you learned and why you want to do it again. If you haven’t, tell us about something you did something that felt like a startup and why you want to experience the real deal.

3. Good essays. An unbelievable number of applicants write unedited, seemingly thoughtless essays. If you write well-written, thoughtful, essays, you’ll get ++ by a bunch of the application readers (myself included). It shows that: (a) you can write, which is a great skill; (b) you care enough to put the time and energy into making your application great. Don’t bore us with 1000 word essays, but make sure that you put serious time and thought into them.

4. Online presence. I almost put this one in the next category, but decided to put it here for one reason: if we Google your name and nothing comes up, that’s almost always a negative for you. Make sure that we can find information about you with a simple search. For me, it’s one of the first things that I do. If you write a blog or have other cool stuff come up, that’s a big plus. If we see your Github profile and other accounts, that’s good. If there’s nothing, even when we Google “your name + your school” that’s not good. Obviously, if you have a super popular name then don’t worry about it.

There are some other things that we look at but are not that important (we don’t even ask about them specifically on the application):

1. Past internships.  I was one of two first-years in hackNY. Some other fellows hadn’t had previous internship experience. It’s a nice thing to have, but definitely not mandatory. If you’ve worked at cool companies, tell us what you learned in your experiences. If you haven’t, don’t worry about it!

2. School and grades. There’s a reason I put this one last, it’s really not important. If you have a 4.0 at a top CS or design school, it helps. If you have “bad grades” or went to a “bad school” though, we don’t care. Grades are a horrible marker of success in an environment like hackNY, but if you have it, that’s great. If you don’t, definitely don’t worry about it.


What did I do to stand out from other applicants?

To be honest, I was actually at the bottom of the selected applicants, so I almost didn’t make it. After talking to application readers that year, I learned that this primarily had to do with the fact that I was a first-year in college and had only started coding at the beginning of the year.

With those things stacked against me, I was told that I did a few things which led to my acceptance (all following the things above).

1. Even though I’d started coding months before I applied, I already had a few projects that I’d built and were publicly available. The first web application I ever built was one for my college and it already had a 1000+ users who actively used it when I applied. The second web app I built (the one I sent the addendum about) didn’t see the same success, but it was a much greater undertaking where I’d learned a lot (which I could talk about). The second one was also more startup-y, so I think that showed a demonstrated interest in the startup community.

2. I spent a lot of time on my essays (and I think they were good). A surprisingly large number of people put little to no effort into these essays. If you’re already a badass hacker with a bajillion cool projects, that might be OK. If you’re a relative beginner like me, the quality of these essays is going to be really important to your acceptance.

3.  I went to a small liberal arts school in California whereas most other students went to engineering schools on the East Coast. hackNY aims for diversity of every type in the program, so I’m fairly confident this helped me a tiny bit. If you go to a school like Pomona, definitely appy!

4. Luck! There’s always a little luck in getting into hackNY (or any other competitive program like this). There are *so* many qualified candidates, and we can’t let everyone in, so we end up saying no to a lot of good people.

If you’re thinking about applying to hackNY, you absolutely should. The summer I spent with hackNY (and BuzzFeed) was one of the best summers of my life. I learned an unbelievable amount about technology and startups, made friends that I’ll have forever, and had more fun than I could have imagined.

If you have any other questions about applying (or your specific application), don’t hesitate to tweet at me or email me


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