Thiel Fellowship Application Advice
The Thiel Fellowship application is due on December 31st at midnight. If you’re under 20 years old and think you could learn more outside of school, the Fellowship is the best program in the world for it. I would highly recommend applying even if you aren’t ready to take it, i.e. haven’t finished high school, because it is a good exercise in planning your future and setting goals. It also gets you on the Thiel Foundation’s radar for when you are actually ready.
My name is Delian Asparouhov and I was accepted to the Thiel Fellowship in May 2013 with my data-driven healthcare company, Nightingale. The Thiel Fellowship has been critical to my team’s success and development as entrepreneurs. This is the advice I give others about applying.
I’ll start with some general advice and description of what the Thiel Fellowship is looking for, and then I’ll go through the application question by question further down.
As you read this, remember that these are all my opinions and don’t necessarily reflect the official policy or selection process of the Thiel Foundation. Just observations I have made on the sidelines and through conversations.
First, some background on the fellowship. The program was conceived of on the ride to TC Disrupt in 2010 and was announced the following day. The gist of the program is that you receive 4.166k once a month for 24 months as long as you work on a project and don’t take classes. The definition of project is very wide, and can importantly even include working at someone else’s startup that is in a sector you are interested in.
When the Fellowship first started, the applications they were looking for were those with absurdly grandiose plans. For example, take a look at Laura Deming’s introduction video.
The first year came in with some really great and grand ideas, but as it turns out, 2 years and $100K isn’t enough to go mine asteroids. Since then, it has appeared that the Fellowship has had a bit of a backlash to this and now focuses largely on execution ability and initial traction, when before it focused on presentation skills and grand ideas. Showing a previous or current project that has solid traction is by far the most valuable component to successful application.
Long story short, what you really need to prove is that you have some grand ideas ticking in the back of your head, but you understand your limitations as a teenager yet have already started building real things.
Remember, the Thiel Fellowship is an investment in you, not necessarily your current project. You need to prove that you have a history of success, but more importantly have gained skills necessary for future success. Two years is a long time when you’re a teenager. Few of the Thiel Fellows are working on the same idea they pitched when they applied.
Ok, so let’s go through the application question by question, ignoring the ones asking for standard personal information.
In an essay below, tell us how you would like to change the world, how you would personally make this change happen in a project, and how you would like to use the Thiel Fellowship to pursue this vision. Please address all three parts.
The biggest mistake I’ve seen in answering this question is people spending far too much time on the first part of this question. It can be easy and fun to talk about potential changes in the world, i.e. “I want to make it so no one is ever hungry, poor, or sad”, however, it can be easy to rant for paragraphs about how you’d like the world to work.
Answering the first part is just a litmus test to make sure you don’t want to promote nuclear warfare or religious extremism. You don’t have to spend that long on describing your ideal world. For example, my essay only had one sentence describing the change I wanted to make: “I want to make healthcare easy and ubiquitous”. The first sentence of this essay is the most important sentence in your entire application. You need to get the application readers hooked to pay attention to the rest of your app.
For examples on great first-sentence hooks on crazy ideas, take a look at this Paul Graham essay.
The next two parts of the question need to be extremely concrete. You need to describe some sort of “project”. This can be everything from a research paper to a mobile app. You need to very clearly tie together this first project to your grand idea and explain how this is your first baby-step towards accomplishing that vision. “Making this app is my first step towards making healthcare easy.”
The next mistake people make is in how they say they will utilize the Thiel Fellowship to pursue their vision. $100k distributed over two years, especially if you’re living in San Francisco, doesn’t take you too far. You definitely won’t be able to hire anyone with that money. Make sure to show that you are relentlessly resourceful and will take advantage of other resources outside of the fellowship. The worst thing you could say is “I’ll use the $100k and the two years to pay my rent and work from home”. Talk about other programs or resources you’ll be taking advantage of. Though the Thiel Fellowship has been absolutely amazing for personal development, my “project”, Nightingale has had huge benefits from going through StartX Med. Use the Thiel Fellowship as a stepping stone and door opener to even greater opportunities. It also shows that you’ve thought about future steps for your project. The Thiel Fellowship will have difficulty helping you with your Synthetic Biology project, but if you’ve shown this specific lab at Berkeley, or collaborative wet-lab, you’d like to work out of, that shows a level of seriousness lacking from most applicants.
What do you want to accomplish in the next 10 years?
This is now where you can expand a lot more on your future vision. Again, make sure to tie back to your original project somehow. Throughout this application, you are trying to craft a story of your past that shows you have the ability to execute and a story of your future that shows clearly your path to success. You should 100% still be in the same industry that you pitched above. Make sure your focus is narrow and concrete. Don’t say “I will make a $100 million company.”. Say instead “I will be leading an organization helping improve the quality of transportation for millions of people.”
What do you want to accomplish in the next 2 years?
This is where you expand on your current project. This obviously better be very similar to what you pitched above. Something along the lines of how you will be iterating your product, applying to accelerators, and growing your team. This is where I first said that I’d be dropping out regardless of the Fellowship as one of my accomplishments.
What do you plan to accomplish in the next 3 months?
I cannot over emphasize the importance of this question. The application for the Thiel Fellowship stretches from December to May. The answer to this question needs to be incredibly concrete. Not only that, but it can be a major flag if March comes around and it’s clear that you haven’t accomplished anything you list in this question. Good answers to this question resemble “We will launch the first version of our product in several tech publications and grow to 500 users”
(Optional) What did you do in the last year to advance your cause?
My ass this is optional. You need to prove that in the last year, you’ve either been gaining domain expertise or the necessary skills to execute on your idea. I spun my internship at Square as giving me product design skills necessary to work in healthcare.
Which categories best describes your project? Choose up to 3 categories.
Choose the right categories and choose as few as possible. That way your application gets into the hands of people who actually understand what you are making.
Link to additional documents, business plans, visuals, project websites, or video for your fellowship project:
Here the content is so varied it’s hard for me to give great advice. Previous products you’ve built are the best things to show off. Don’t put press coverage here, there is a question later on about it. Maybe a YC application video too?
What experience and expertise do you have to execute on the project that you want to do?
This answer needs to be very direct and concrete. I basically listed off classes and projects and the skills they gave me. List programming languages you know, connections you’ve made, and business experience you’ve gained. Showing that the idea you’re applying with isn’t just a passing fad, rather something you’ve been preparing to work on for years is crucial. I wove a story that started with taking care of my grandmother, to studying CS at MIT, to taking a Healthcare Ventures class. Remember, they want to see that you are relentlessly resourceful. See Paul Graham’s essay on this . You should show that you’ve been constantly learning.
Don’t bother putting effort into your LinkedIn profile. It will probably only very briefly be glanced at. I’m pretty sure mine is still blank.
Link to GitHub, or other account where your work is displayed online
Coder or Designer? Your portfolio matters a ton. Make sure it is neatly organized with your best projects on top.
If you code, how long have you been writing code and what are you most experienced in (front end, back end, full stack, mobile, other)?
Hah. This is a new question which I obviously love. They are focusing far more on execution ability than before. As it turns out, it is easiest to iterate and create products with software than with any other tool. I would be surprised if any 2014 Thiel Fellow doesn’t at least have a basic grasp of at least one programming language. Most will have been coding for years probably. Brag as much as you can in this question. Talk about every single hackathon you’ve gone to and every library you’ve played around with.
Publications about you or your past or current project(s)
Strong indicator of traction is that someone was willing to cover your project.
Publications written by you
As it turns out they love good writers. Dale Stephens has published a book and John Marbach’s blog post was the front page of the news this last week.
Having some well-written blog posts are always a plus. Write up a wrap-up of 2013 and publish it in the next couple of days if need be.
Please name and describe each person working with you on this project (including co-applicants as well as any other team members who are not applying for the Thiel Fellowship). What role does each member play? How long have you worked together? Describe how your team is suited to this project and to each other.
They want to see that you can work on a team and can choose good team members. This question obviously mostly applies to those further along in their project, but this question can be a very strong positive indicator if you’ve managed to convince other human beings that your ideas are good enough that they should also work on them. Don’t worry, your team members don’t need to be under 20, and you won’t lose the Fellowship if you end up changing this team. It can be a major red flag however if you have been unable to get anyone to work with you for an extended period of time. I would even take advantage of this question and talk about a previous team you were a part of if you don’t have a team currently.
What percentage of intellectual property do you own for the project that you are presenting? If any cofounders, universities, employers, or other entities could plausibly claim total or partial ownership of the IP, please explain the situation and list the amounts.
Pretty cut and dry question. They don’t want any crazy situations where a prince in Nigeria owns all of your future work.
Please describe significant projects, companies, or activities and clubs to which you were a major contributor. Please describe your role, the length of the engagement, the outcomes, and the lessons learned.
They want to see that you can be a leader and can work well with a team. The more you can emphasize that the better. Be very open about talking about previous failures and lessons learned. You don’t want them to have to dig up what made your previous startup fail, talk about it openly and explain what you learned in the process and how you’re avoiding those errors in your current project. Do not list more than like 5 projects here. We don’t want to hear about every single club you were involved in as treasurer in high school. Remember you want to craft a story that shows how these previous experiences have you set you up perfectly for success in your current project.
Please list or describe any achievements and prizes
This is basically an extension of the previous question. Talk about the outcomes. Brag about yourself and your ability to execute.
Did you apply for a Thiel Fellowship in a previous year? Are you working on the same project?
Standard question. They love seeing people reapply year after year to see how they develop.
If you applied previously, how have you grown? If you are applying with the same project, give us an update on it. If it is a new project, what prompted you to change direction?
Talk about what you’ve learned and how you’ve changed as a person. A year is a long time when you’re under 20 years old. Hopefully you have changed a lot. They like to see that even if you have changed projects, you are still in the same general industry working towards the same vision.
Have you interned or worked at a startup or nonprofit?
Having a previous internship, especially in Silicon Valley, is a very strong indicator that you understand what real execution is like. You can’t really change your answer to this question, but if you can apply again next year, I would highly recommend investing a lot of effort into working at an up and coming startup or nonprofit in the Valley.
If yes, what was the organization and what was your role?
Try and show how this internship fits into your story and why it gave you the necessary skills for your current project.
Have you participated in our Under 20 Summit?
The Under 20 Summits are a really great way to get on the Foundation’s radar. If you still have more years to apply, I would highly recommend coming to the next summit. You’ll get to meet an inspirational group of your peers and get to know some of the current Thiel Fellows.
Have you participated in any accelerator/incubator programs? This does not include the Under 20 Summit.
You should also be applying to other programs in the Valley with your project. Even if you don’t get the fellowship this year, you might be a shoo-in next year after doing something like YCombinator or StartX.
If yes, please name and link to each program and tell us what you gained from the experience?
They want to see that you can learn outside of school. Focus on lessons learned and whatever you do, don’t name-drop.
I’ve always found this section to be hilarious. I took the ACT in 10th grade and did well enough that I never took another standardized test. I had to call them and get my scores out of the archives because I had no clue what I had scored. It’s funny that an organization that tries to go against the grain of the standard education system asks for standardized test scores. Anyways, don’t worry too much about your scores, I doubt much weight is put on them beyond passing a minimum score of like the 10th percentile.
If you have taken other tests or advanced courses you would like us to consider, such as AP tests, an AMC test, the AIME, A-levels, or another countryʼs test, please list the test, the score, the maximum possible score, and the date you took the test or tests in the below area:
My favorite question since I went through the math competition circuit in the U.S. We have a couple of USAMO qualifiers as fellows. Again, I would list your top 5 favorite scores. Don’t give me the score for all 100 tests you took in the last 5 years.
Tell us one thing about the world that you strongly believe is true, but that most people think is false. If this belief shapes the way you live, tell us how.
This question is a mandate of Peter Thiel. One of his fundamental philosophies is that the only startups that succeed are monopolies. For example, Facebook monopolized the Harvard Social network. They did something completely different by focusing on an insanely small market but capturing it very quickly. If you can tie back this belief to how you executing on your project, then your application can be stellar. This philosophy is partially covered in his 4th class at Stanford. By believing something different than most others, you are probably tackling a different market/problem that they don’t even know exists.
The worst mistake you can make here is to give some fluffy answer like “All people are created equal” or something like that. Rather, say something bold that shows your vision and what direction you want to world to go. Something like “Doctors will not exist in 10 years”
Tell us about a risk you have taken or a challenge you have faced. Tell us whether you failed or succeeded, how you behaved, and how you think this reflects your character.
Dropping out of school is a huge risk in today’s society. They want to make sure you are someone who takes calculated risks and learns along the way. A good essay you can give here is about a time you failed miserably after taking a large risk. The worst essay you could give is about how you had a minor success after taking a minor risk.
Tell us about a time when you created an opportunity or connection for yourself that did not previously exist. Share about your experience and the outcome of creating this opportunity or connection.
Again, they want to see how you are relentlessly resourceful. Try to give a good story about how you got a mentor you wanted. I talked about how I waited outside of an event that Kevin Rose spoke at because I knew he was going to take a taxi at some point. Managed to grab 30 seconds of his time and convince him to come to an event I was hosting.
Anyways, hope that’s helpful. I’m happy to read through and give advice to any applications. Feel free to find me on Twitter @MITDelian