How to ace a hackathon application

Hack the North
Jun 7, 2016 · 6 min read

Hack the North is Canada’s biggest hackathon and among the largest in the world. Last year we hosted 1000 hackers from 23 countries. We have been fortunate enough to have companies like Facebook, Google, Shopify, and many more sponsor us. Our judges have been influential industry leaders: Sam Altman and Kat Mañalac from Y Combinator; Eric Migicovsky from Pebble; Vitalik Buterin from Ethereum; Tiffani Bell, Founder of the Detroit Water Project; and more. Companies tackling healthcare have been started at Hack the North and many projects have continued after the event.

We have 26 organizers with cross-functional roles handling travel, sponsorship, attendee experience, mobile, back-end, front-end, product design, finance, and marketing. We work every day from March until September to make the event a reality. Our team is distributed across the world in anywhere from 3–8 different timezones. There are thousands of issues and commits in our Github planning repo and we send tens of thousands of messages on Slack every week. Our team has an equal gender distribution and consists of Waterloo students in various programs including Computer Science, English, Management, Systems Design, Global Business & Digital Arts, and Physics.

Last year, Hack the North received nearly 5000 applications. Our venue only supports 1000 hackers. For this reason, we think very carefully about our application review process. What matters in your application is showcasing your passion and technical abilities (coding, design, & hardware). Let’s go over some key things that we’ve noticed in successful hackathon applications.

Note: If you already applied for Hack the North 2016, you will soon have the ability to edit your application. Like us on Facebook for updates.

Passion and excitement

These are key. They tell people that you’re enthusiastic, excited to attend the event, and ready to spend your weekend building something cool. It’s on you to bring ideas and execute on them. Hackathons would be nothing without your passion and excitement.

This question is an opportunity to show your passion & excitement.

That being said, “passion” and “excitement” can be ambiguous. Here are some good rules of thumb:

  • Don’t be afraid to express enthusiasm. If you’re really interested in something you’re writing about in your application, show your excitement. Do you like to make things look good? Do you like mobile apps? JavaScript? Solving hard UX problems? VR? Whatever your passion is, tell us what it is and what you want to do with it.
  • Give clear reasons for why Hack the North would be better with you there. What do you bring to the table? What do you expect to learn at Hack the North? How will you excel here?
  • Show how dedicated you are. It takes some serious dedication to build something great at a hackathon. Did you spend a weekend learning something like HTML/CSS, Backbone, or mobile development? Do you maintain any open source projects? Tell us about it! Dedication is what creates amazing hacks like Cosmos, the internet-over-SMS app; GreenCan, the garbage bin that sorts garbage from recycling; and MooCast, the Twitch for Android app that streams your phone’s screen to the web.

Technical ability

Hackathons are about bringing ideas to life. This takes some technical know-how: programming, product design, hardware design. Our application will ask for your portfolio. This can be your personal website, resume, LinkedIn, GitHub or Behance profile. This is how we learn about what you can do. If there are projects you’ve worked on (or are currently working on), put it somewhere for us to see.

Be sure to include any other accomplishments as well. These could be winning another hackathon, giving a talk somewhere, or organizing an event. Ultimately, we want to see that you can bring your ideas into reality.

New hackers

If you’re new to this, you might not have a portfolio yet. Don’t let this intimidate you. Last year, 30% of the hackers at Hack the North were first timers! Rather than talking about projects you’ve worked on, talk about what you’re learning. Lots of people learn how to code, design, or build hardware via online tutorials. If this is you, then the fact that you’ve been teaching yourself is great! Don’t be afraid to put the tutorial project on your portfolio, even if the tutorial told you step-by-step what to do.

Your portfolio doesn’t have to be anything fancy; some pictures and a short description on a Tumblr or WordPress blog would be great. If you want to learn some new tools, you can create an account on a portfolio website to talk about your learning: if you’re learning to code, you might want to learn how to use Github (the Hello World guide is a good starting point); if you’ve just started with design, you can put your mocks and workflows in a Behance portfolio.

Hardware showcase

Hack the North loves hardware hackers and we want to see what you’ve built. You might talk about your projects on a blog, Github, YouTube, DevPost, or somewhere else. Pictures and video really help us see what your project is about, and a short description can give us more insight on how you built it and what you had to learn to finish it.

Silicon Man, a Hack the North finalist in 2014. This demo talks about all the features, and has clues for how some are implemented (i.e. Witman the AI is implemented with Wit.AI).

Design work

If you’re a designer, we’d love to see your work! You can show us hackathon projects on DevPost, or some of your projects on your Behance profile, Dribbble profile, or personal website. We want to hear how you execute the design process: defining the problem, brainstorming, and walking through the steps and user journeys. Show that you can think through a product from a user’s perspective, and not just make mockups. If you’ve designed any products that are shipped and live (website, App Store), definitely highlight those.

A screenshot / mock from Lend, Hack the North 2014 finalist. This image highlights all the thought that went into this hack’s UX: good search bar hint text, clear “rent from, to” fields, requesting, watchlist, and chat with owner.

Github profile

If you code, we’d love to see your projects. But you need to make it very easy to tell what your projects are about, what they look like, and what skills you needed to make them. If you use Github, a good way to do this is to have an up to date in your repositories. Your README will appear automatically on the page when we view a repository, making it an ideal location to include these important details. If the project is live on the internet or in the App Store, include a link so we can check it out.

Readme from The screenshot and description makes it very clear what this project does. Check out the awesome-readme repo for more examples.

Final tips

Do your research. By looking into the hackathon’s values and mission, you not only make sure that this is a hackathon that you want to invest a weekend at, but also learn valuable information that could potentially be incorporated into your application. This can usually be found on the hackathon’s website.

Hack the North values mentorship and learning. We accept lots of new hackers and we’ve built a system to pair mentors with hackers in real-time. We also value people who hack out of passion, rather than for prizes. That’s why there’s no notion of 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place.

Read the questions carefully. It’s easy to misread or misinterpret questions if you’re not paying attention, so make sure to carefully consider what each question is asking. At Hack the North, we put a lot of thought into the questions we ask, and we hope you’ll put thought into your responses too.

Good luck writing your applications. We hope to see you at Hack the North this fall!

Hack the North

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