In an Inc. Magazine article by Lou Adler on hiring, he claims that the most powerful question one can ask in an interview is this:
What single project or task would you consider your most significant accomplishment in your career to date?
Adler is talking about an interview, but YCombinator, according to Paul Graham has been using this question on their application since the beginning. Graham believes in the power of this question. He uses the story of a YC alum as an example:
“…For example, Qasar Younis started life in a house with dirt floors in a village in Pakistan. His family moved to the US, to Detroit, when he was 7. He appears to have worked his ass off from the moment they landed. We funded his startup, Talkbin, in Winter 2011, mainly because we were so impressed with him. Talkbin was acquired by Google soon after Demo Day, and he is now a part time partner at YC.
(Why do so many people assume that after 9 years of picking founders, we still have huge blind spots that are obvious to them but not to us?)”
Significant accomplishment needs to be understood in context.
Younis seems like a very determined person with an impressive story.
This got me thinking about struggles such as women in Afghanistan or the young men and women in Syria in the midst of a civil war. How does Younis compare? I just don’t think you can compare these stories or use them as metrics for future success in an online application. In an interview, maybe, but not when it’s an application without a dialogue.
I’m a woman and an immigrant from a third world country. I came to the US when I was 16. I have stories, but I consciously try not to highlight them. This article and the discussions that came out of it has me thinking as to why I never use my past to make our applications stronger or make me more impressive to others. Is everything about marketing?
My husband is similar to me in that he doesn’t use his life in India in our applications, but after reading Paul Graham’s story, he had to reply:
“Qasar’s story is amazing and inspirational. Was he able to convey his story in his application to YC and is that the reason you selected him in? Or did someone at YC already know him to be able to truly appreciate his achievement?
I have always found the YC application strange in that sense. So much emphasis is given to the question of the “most impressive achievement”, but in order to convey any achievement with context, one needs to be quite verbose with their replies. Given that an application only has few seconds to impress, conveying anything is a challenge. Has YC given much thought to an essay type application?
I am proud of where I am today. I grew up in Mumbai, India (not quite a village). We weren’t rich. I still have scars on my right foot from an abscess caused from a piece of glass that had pierced my foot while playing soccer bare feet on concrete. We couldn’t afford shoes. Luckily my father’s business started picking up around the time I entered engineering school. The plan was for me to graduate with a bachelor’s in structural engineering and then we could work together to grow the business further. At 20, I earned my bachelor’s in structural engineering. Unfortunately my father had died in an accident at work when I was in my penultimate year of engineering. I managed to get enough resources together to be able to attend grad school in the US. I met my wife there. BTW, she has an amazing story too. We now have a startup (https://magtag.me) that received angel investment recently. We feel like outsiders in the tech scene but our spirits are high and when we look back at our lives we feel nothing but pride.
My life is an ongoing achievement. Would you have time to hear me out?”
That picture above? I had to cross 2 bridges similar to this one after Mount Pinatubo erupted to get to school—3 hours each way.by