Straight From The Horse's Mouth, Or The Unofficial Hackbright Admissions FAQ

Hint -- The final interview will be conducted by a talking horse.

Q: Lolwut?

I figure we're about due for some clarification. I've been head of instruction for Hackbright Academy for just about one year now, and unfortunately, our admissions process remains completely opaque. Part of this is due to the simple fact that admissions is a difficult thing, the remainder is due to my own incompetence and absent-mindedness. This has resulted in more than a few broken hearts, and more than one person's application getting 'lost in the system'. (I would like to comment that it goes both ways: if we email you and you don't respond, that makes us equally sad.) For all that, I apologize. It is a hard thing to do. Consider this: as agonizing as it is for you to receive a rejection letter, amplify that by the hundreds of times that we have to tell someone that we didn't think they were a good fit, no matter how eager and excited they were. We're not so large and faceless yet that each rejection doesn't affect us personally.

Think of this FAQ as both a clarification of our process, so that when we slip up, you might find it in your heart to forgive us our failings, and a pre-emptive public apology.

Q: What exactly is the process?

The general process is three steps:
  • Submit an application
  • First round interview
  • Second round interview

After the second round, we give our final decision. Generally, we do not deviate from this process, and already my heart goes out to everyone who's reading this sentence and feeling disappointment.

Q: What exactly are my chances?

First, if you're a dude, I commend your tenacity in applying despite the fact that we do not allow men in the course. So while you may have an impressive resume and be a compelling applicant, your chances are still zero and that will not change in the near future.

For the rest of you, our actual demographic, statistically, your chances aren't much better than that dude. That's not to say you shouldn't apply, because you absolutely should. The issue at hand is that we run a physical facility, which limits our ability to accept applicants. Currently, we're capped at 26 students per session. We potentially have the ability to accept a few more, with a hard stop at 32, but we haven't yet solved the problem of noise levels, and adding more would just make a bad problem worse. That said, you'd think, hey, 26 is a decent size, and it is. Only, we never anticipated how important our work would be, and how much it would mean to people.

Our first class was 12 students, and we got 40 applications. Our second class grew a little, to 16, and so did our applicant pool, about 90 applied. The third and current class (as of this post) is 26-strong, with roughly 200 applications. At the rate we're receiving applications for the 2014 Summer Session, we should top out between 400 to 500, putting us at the same acceptance rate as Harvard. Dang.

Q: How do I improve my chances?

Our application page is simple, but that does not mean it's easy. We have to filter out the vast majority of applicants just from the contents of the application, so make yourself stand out. There are only a few fields, so fill them out thoroughly. Where we ask you to teach us something new, the key word here is teach, not new. Explain any concept of your choice so completely that we could not possibly have any further questions.

Do the optional coding challenge! It's optional, yes, and that's slightly misleading. We understand that you don't already know how to code, and that's why you're applying. But you should know, before you apply, that this is what you want to do for 8 hours a day for three months, and then, the rest of your life. Spend a few hours, a week, maybe, learning just enough to complete the challenge. There are great resources out there, Codecademy, Ruby Monk, Treehouse, etc., and any one of these can get you just enough coding know-how to do so. Think of it like a puzzle: taking time to solve it shows great initiative that can set you apart from the casually-interested. I'm especially fond of answers that aren't written in code, but instead in mathematical notation or enumerated, logical steps. More than once, that has guaranteed a second interview.

Be personable and entertaining in your answers. We don't have a stodgy admissions department looking to mark checkboxes. David and I read each application personally, and if your writing resonates with either of us, that can be the difference between an interview and being passed over.

Q: I solved your challenge but I really don't know anything about programming at all, should I apply?

Yes, please, absolutely. Rather than make it easy on ourselves, we've chosen to explicitly teach people with little to no experience at all in programming. You are our target demographic, and we've had great success with people whose only experience was the 3 hours on Codecademy needed to solve our coding challenge. We actively turn away people who know too much because they don't need our help.

Q: Why is this interview so important anyway?

The word 'academy' is in our name, but we're not even remotely close to being a normal school. When it comes to instruction, I don't just lecture for an hour and walk away. I spend the entire day interacting with students and answering questions. The interview serves as a filter. You may be a more-than-qualified applicant, but if you can't stand me for an hour, I probably won't end up growing on you. That's problematic if we're spending 8 hours in a room together.

Because our program is so short and so intense, we can't rely on the traditional model of presenting information and waiting for students to absorb knowledge through osmosis. You will be asked to bring all your mental faculties to bear down on a rigorous discipline, solving difficult problems, and where your skills fall short, you are buoyed by the instruction staff. Working this closely means it's imperative that we discern early on if we have a constructive rapport. Naturally, this means we will turn away perfectly great people. This is not an indictment of your character, but a failing of our methodology. 

Q: I didn't get an interview, and now I'm sadfaced. :(

That's not a question, but I'll speak to it anyway. If you didn't get an interview, do not despair. Again, Hackbright has become so competitive that we simply cannot accept or even interview everyone who applies. We get a lot of false negatives, and more than once have we discovered that an applicant has gone on to greater things than we can provide. We definitely aren't perfect and have gotten it wrong before, so please try not to take it personally. Please do apply again! This time, change your application up. We ask that applicants, after having received notice that they have not been selected for the quarter, to wait at least one quarter before applying again. This gives you time to work on improving your application. We love nothing better than to see improvement in an applicant.

There are many ways you can improve in the interim, but materially, you could just work your way through the two textbooks we use for the course:

We ask every incoming student to work through these books before arriving on the first day, so it's as good a start as any.

Q: I read those books and, I think I uhh... accidentally became too smart for Hackbright.

That's okay, too. Please apply anyway. As mentioned before, it honestly gives me great satisfaction to tell someone that they're more than qualified to go out and be awesome without my help. I'm looking at you, @sharonw and @reneighbor. We're not in the business of giving our services to someone who doesn't need them, this is not the foundation of commerce. We trade for currency only when the services rendered will be worthwhile.

Sometimes though, you're in that weird place where you're too advanced to be a Hackbright student but not yet ready to strike it out on your own. For those people, we have the Hackbright Apprentice program, which is a combination of self-paced study through the Hackbright curriculum and TAing for first half of the quarter, then joining the students for the final projects. Going forward, we're going to formalize the apprenticeship and make it a more structured program to run parallel to the coding fellowship. Trust me, it's super fun and you want to be a part of it.

Epilogue

I really hope that clarified things. Again, we're human, running something that's grown beyond our capabilities to handle, and we're desperately trying rectify that, but we haven't solved it yet and it's going to be a bumpy process for some time coming. We've been accused of being unprofessional because of it, and to that I have no rebuttal. Only, we're trying to make admissions smoother and fair, and I hope you'll be forgiving while we hammer that out.

P.S. The horse mentioned above is me: I conduct the final interview.

You can follow me on twitter at @chriszf, but I pretty much never tweet ever so it's not worth it.
9 responses
I wish I'd found this post a couple weeks ago. I didn't do the optional coding since I don't really know enough to do a good job and it didn't occur to me to just explain how I thought it should work. I considered delaying applying until I could do it but I've been talking myself in and out of applying to a program like this for a year now and didn't want to chance talking myself out of it again. Oh, well.
Hi Chris! Thanks for this post! It does really help to know the kinds of numbers you guys are sorting through. I'm really excited about Hackbright, and made it through the second interview, with the interviewer ending with, "Yep, you're definitely in...please wait for an email in a few hours, and we'll offer you Winter, but if you don't want that session, you can defer to Spring/Summer." Nothing happened for a week or so, and then I got a rejection letter that seemed to say, "No, and please don't re-apply." I was really crushed; I'd done everything I could to offer a really strong application and it seemed like things were going well. Is it possible or appropriate to request future consideration in Summer or Fall sessions?
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