Accelerator programs can be critical to the success of a start-up company, but entrepreneurs face steep competition even being accepted to a top accelerator.

At FoleyTECH Chicago 2016, the speakers on the “Exploring the Role of Accelerators in the Entrepreneurial Ecosystem” panel discussed how an entrepreneur can strategically optimize a start-up company’s chances of being accepted into a top program.

Applying and being accepted into an accelerator program is not unlike trying to gain entrance to a university or securing that first job out of school. It’s a detailed process requiring attention and follow-through that should include the following:

  1. Narrow the list to accelerators that align with the company’s goals First, an entrepreneur must narrow the long list of accelerators to those that fit the company’s goals. There must be an understanding of what a particular accelerator accelerates and how this fits into the company’s goals. Consideration should also be given to the accelerator’s location because most accelerators will require a temporary relocation of the company during the program. Assuming a fit exists, an entrepreneur should target enough accelerator programs to ensure that the company has options or does not come up empty handed.
  2. Figure out the best time to apply Once a list of potential accelerator partners is developed, they should be ranked along with creating a strategy of when to apply. Each accelerator will have its own application deadlines, acceptance deadlines, and program start dates. An entrepreneur may want to avoid having to decide whether to accept its fourth choice before even having an interview with its first choice.
  3. Write a good application Time should be invested into writing a good application. While many accelerators may prefer a founding team with previous start-up successes, many applicants will be first-time entrepreneurs. In these cases, focus can be on past employment with a start-up (even if not as a founder) or experience in a relevant industry. An accelerator may require disclosure of specific employment or revenue figures, but most accelerators have no exact application requirements.
  4. Develop a relationship that goes beyond the paper While the “paper” application is important, an entrepreneur should strive to be known by an accelerator beyond the application. Take time to study the accelerator’s program in-depth prior to any in-person interview, and be ready to ask appropriate questions and show a high level of interest. Additionally, effort should be made to make contacts with the accelerator outside of the formal application process, including attending events at the accelerator or providing periodic e-mail updates. This “hustling” mentality will demonstrate an interest and full-time commitment to the program.

Throughout the process, an entrepreneur should be honest and upfront with the accelerator. Top accelerator programs review hundreds or thousands of applications per year and will recognize start-up puffering. Respect will be gained by pitching the company’s vision while being down to earth and open to feedback.

Accelerators present a great opportunity to leverage a valuable resource. While competition to work with top accelerator programs is increasing, an entrepreneur can take calculated steps to improve a start-up company’s chances of acceptance into a top program.

This piece originally appeared in Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s OnRamp blog.