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How to Get the Applicant Tracking System to Pick Your Resume

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The entire process of reviewing and evaluating resumes is evolving fast. If you’re a job seeker today, you must adapt to the new reality of candidate screening if you hope to move past resume screening software and onto the interview. Here is a guide by our own Elizabeth Magill.

These software applications are called many things — applicant tracking systems (ATS), resume screening software, resume robots, soulless automated resume rejecters, etc.

But whatever you prefer to call them, it behooves you to learn to speak their “language” fluently in order to make your resume stand out enough to even be glimpsed by human eyes.

History of Applicant Tracking Systems

Old resume tracking systems weren’t nearly as sophisticated as modern versions. In the past, you could simply employ critical key words (and tons of articles were written with the goal of advising you on how to do this) at various points in your resume in order to attract attention and be recognized as a potential star hire worth interviewing.

Unfortunately, many people in the past went overboard with the resume keyword stuffing process and created resumes that were pure nonsense. Considering that human eyes will eventually view the resume (if you’re lucky), this is a bad idea and one that shouldn’t be considered in an effort to game the system.

This “Resume Writing for Robots: How to Get Past Resume Screening Software and Applicant Tracking Systems to Get That Interview” guide will help you understand why it’s so important to appease the resume screeners. You’ll also find valuable easy-to-implement tips and insights on what you can do to make the applicant tracking system zero in on your application.

It’s better to simply learn how to write resumes with both resume robots and human readers in mind. After all, your resume needs to move past both in order for you to land that all important big interview.

Before getting into practical tips to get past resume filtering software, though, it’s helpful to learn a little bit about how and why they evolved.

Why Applicant Screening Software Evolved

The prevalence of applicant tracking systems has grown substantially since the time of the great recession.

Companies advertising open positions often have hundreds, if not thousands, of applications to sift through in order to find a few “cream of the crop” candidates to interview for the job. Jobs continue to attract far more applicants than busy hiring departments have the time to interview.

It’s often too much for any one person — or even a small group of HR staff members — to deal with on their own. That’s how these resume robot programs came into existence for the most part — as an aid to overwhelmed hiring managers.

How Widespread are Resume Screening Programs Among Employers?

The Wall Street Journal reports that resume screening software use is widespread among larger companies to the tune of the “high 90 percent range.” It indicates that finding a Fortune 500 company that doesn’t employ application tracking systems would be exceptionally rare today.

How Great Candidates Are Missed by Resume Screening Robots

Did you know? Applicant tracking systems reject 75 percent of candidates.

Many highly-qualified candidates are rejected by ATS because they fail to write their resume for the resume screening software. This is a significant flaw in the design of applicant tracking systems, reports CIO. Businesses continue to use these tracking programs, despite the flaws, because they make hiring easier on hiring personnel and recruiters.

While this practice of electronically screening resumes saves time for busy HR executives, it also means that many highly qualified candidates are slipping through the cracks because they didn’t use specific language or, in some cases, formatting on their resumes. Don’t let this happen to you!

For job seekers in today’s era, it’s imperative to learn how to move past the algorithms. This means that job seekers must become more creative in order to make the right impression on both the robots that initially scan your resumes AND the people who will ultimately read them and need to be impressed enough to invite you to interview.

The bottom line is that applicants must learn how to optimize resumes to make it through the screening process so you can ultimately get the job you seek.

How Do the Resume Screening Robots Work?

Before you can figure out how to craft a resume that wows the robot, it’s helpful to first learn what the robot is looking for. Lifehacker explains that the system is actually quite simple, despite all the complexities involved.

First, the software removes all formatting from the resume and scans for specific recognized keywords and key phrases.

Next, it sorts the content of your resume into individual categories:

  1. Education
  2. Contact Information
  3. Skills
  4. Work Experience

Then, the employer’s list of desired skills and keywords are matched against the results of the resume to determine your potential value to the organization.

Resumes with the highest scores relevant to the employer’s specified keywords and phrases combined with your years of experience will be moved up for further review.

In the end, the software simply scores the resume in order to determine which candidates are most qualified to move up the ladder for an actual human within the organization to review.

Tips on Getting Your Resume Seen by Human Eyes

While the concept of getting past applicant tracking software sounds simple on paper, it can be a challenge to those who haven’t mastered the art of writing resumes with these applicant tracking systems in mind.

Implement the following practical checklist of tips to keep your resume out of the infamous online resume black hole.

Nix the headers in your resume. According to Time, headers and footers jam the algorithms.

Mirror wording from the actual job description in your resume. Yes, this means that you may need a custom resume for every job. While you do not want a word-for-word match of the job description, if a nurse job description calls for someone with triage experience or primary care experience, for example, be sure that your resume contains those keywords. Similarly, if the job description asks for specific software experience, include your experience with that software.

Nail your keywords. There is lingo in every profession. Whether it’s software, skills, certifications, licenses, responsibilities, or even procedures, there are words that matter in your profession that need to be included in your resume. Here are a few tips for getting the right combination of keywords and phrases into your resume.

Use acronyms and spelled out form of titles, professional organizations, certifications, and other industry lingo, etc. If you have experience in electronic medical records, include the acronym EMR as well, for example. You have no idea which keyword the robots are scanning for. Using both allows you to be covered either way.

Repeat important keywords related to your skills two or three times in the resume, or more depending on the length of your resume. Do not stuff keywords in your resume, however. Not only are the new scanners savvy to this tactic, but it’s a real turn-off to the people who actually read resumes if your resume does get past the scanner process.

Discuss keywords with an insider, Lifehacker suggests. Sometimes, going straight to the source helps. Look for an employer or HR manager in your field and ask them what skills or levels of experience they’re looking for in their candidates.

Give job-related keywords depth within your resume. You don’t want them listed in one single section of your resume if possible. Sprinkle them throughout your resume, instead.

Dive deeper into your keywords. For instance, when discussing skills you have, include the basic skills, but don’t forget to dive deeper to mention specific and advanced skills. Some programs are looking for both the basic and advanced skills so include them both. Go in depth and discuss all the relevant skills.

Use bullets rather than paragraphs to describe your work. Not only are bulleted lists easier for human eyes to read, but they are also easier for screeners to navigate than long paragraphs describing work history and responsibilities.

Take advantage of cloud services when writing your resume. IT World suggests you use services like Wordle and TagCrowd to help you determine the right keywords to use in your resume. These services are simple to use: Just copy and paste the job description into the generators and the software will tell you which keywords are important to include in your resume.

Avoid creative wording and descriptions. Screening robots are like Joe Friday. They only want the facts. More importantly, they only want specific facts, in this case, keywords and key phrases, and they aren’t interested in alternative phrasing.

Use the company website for keyword guidance. Employer websites offer a lot of information on company culture and what they value in their employees. Even lifestyle information can be important to include on your resume.

For instance, the Wall Street Journal suggests that if a firm has an obvious interest in the environment, it’s a good idea to include volunteer work you’ve done for the environment or organizational memberships you have that promote the environment as these keywords may have relevance in the screening process.

Include your address. Many programs will kick your resume to the curb without a postal address. Locations may even be included as keywords in the screening process. Just make sure you don’t only include it in the header or footer, which most algorithms ignore completely.

Replace the career objective section with a bulleted qualifications summary. It’s an easy way to work relevant keywords into the resume without appearing to be using “stuffing” tactics and it eliminates a section that is superfluous and unnecessary.

Don’t use graphics, logos, or tables in your resume. Essentially, resumes embedded with fancy graphics, images, tables, and logos confound and choke resume filtering software. Confounded robots reject resumes. Aside from the fact that graphics and logos on resumes aren’t entirely professional (unless perhaps you’re a graphics designer or similar), the likelihood of rejection should be sufficient deterrent to avoid them.

Choose your font wisely. Use sans-serif fonts — like Verdana or Tahoma — instead of serif fonts like Times New Roman or Cambria that some screening software will actually reject, as Lifehacker recommends. Avoid script fonts completely. Also pay attention to font size and avoid using anything smaller than 11 point font, according to Business Insider.

Use social media to your advantage. Go to the company’s LinkedIn page and check out their employees. Look at the descriptions of their jobs as well as the company’s description. If you have similar skills and qualifications, list them on your resume.

Submit resumes in text format rather than PDFs or MS Word. Word causes all manner of parsing errors and PDFs have caused problems in the past with application tracking systems. It’s wiser to stick with text, which has no known parsing problems with screening software.

Don’t place dates before work experience on your resume. While this may look better, it confounds the robots. Instead, begin with the name of the employer. Move on to your professional title and the date range. Don’t forget to include all titles you held at your employer and the dates you held the titles.

Dare to go long on your resume. Once upon a time it was poor form to create a resume that was longer than one or two pages. The new normal is to create longer resumes that allow you to include the keywords you need to get noticed.

To complicate things, while writing your resume to make it past the robots, it’s important to remember that the hope is that it gets read by a real flesh and blood person. For that person, you will first need to have crafted a resume that is entirely readable and coherent, that is free of resume errors (Read Big Interview’s post on 13 Resume Mistakes that Make Your Resume Look Dumb).

You will also need to back up all the claims you’ve made in your resume. In other words, you must not exaggerate your capabilities in order to appease the robot gatekeepers.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t mention a course you took at a high-profile university. Even if you didn’t get your degree from that school, the fact that you completed coursework at a school that may rank higher within the algorithm is still resume-worthy information that makes you a more interesting candidate to the software and the person who may someday sit in on your interview.

Caveat! Don’t attempt to game the system. Businesses invest a lot of money into their applicant tracking systems, sometimes to the tune of millions of dollars. Attempting to include “white words” to get in more keywords and keyword stuffing are maneuvers recognized by these systems consistently. Sneaky resume tactics can cause the resume-filtering software to move the resume that employs them to the bottom of the electronic search pile — or even worse, reject it!

Final Thoughts

In order to get hired, you’re going to want to get comfortable with the resume screening robots. As a job seeker, there is more competition for a single job than ever before – largely due to the technology that makes it so easy for companies to post their job openings to a mass audience. This means that you’re competing with a much larger field of candidates.

Considering, though, that only 25 percent make it through the initial electronic resume screening process, the good news is that your odds of standing out remain high — as long as you adopt resume writing tactics that will help you move past the resume screening process to make it into the hands of real people on the other side.

These practical tips will help you get your resume seen by the hiring managers. And once you do, be sure to consider interview coaching for the fastest way to turn your interview into a job. Big Interview provides video lessons, answer helpers, practice drills, and more to help you ace your interview.

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Written by

Pamela Skillings

Pamela Skillings is co-founder of Big Interview. As an interview coach, she has helped her clients land dream jobs at companies including Google, Microsoft, Goldman Sachs, and JP Morgan Chase. She also has more than 15 years of experience training and advising managers at organizations from American Express to the City of New York. She is an adjunct professor at New York University and an instructor at the American Management Association.

69 Comment to How to Get the Applicant Tracking System to Pick Your Resume

  • Kerry

    I absolutely agree with what you’ve said.
    I do my best with the resume and pray to God when I apply for a job. He is the One who wills that I get the job or not. He’s still got the whole world in His hands!

  • Tks !

  • Angie Y

    Very insightful! Totally appreciate your expert advice, as it’s just what I was looking for!! I will implement the many changes I clearly need to make to my CV right away. Fingers crossed…

  • kendallchris

    Headers and Footers are formatting which you can add to the top/bottom of every page. Adding page numbers in Word creates a footer….so I guess we should remove those!

  • You blog is really very good. It has cultivated a new sense of inspiration in me to start a setup of my own. I just love the way you described everything. After reading this blog I think anyone can achieve what they want.

  • Miki

    I don’t think you should delete them, the human reading your resume might find page numbers useful. But if you have say, your email and phone number the robot might not see it (so you need to have them on the main body of the text)

  • Felicia M. Buttaflii Everett

    This is a very informative article with great things to know about how to get your resume noticed through social media. I never knew that there were Resume Screening Robots to screen resumes. You learn something new everyday. I like to learn especially if it’s going to help me in the future. Once again, great article.

  • Theresa Pearson

    This is a great article and anyone looking for a job should read prior to sending out a resume.

  • Jim Mike

    what a shitty system corporates have invented. I am a fresh graduate with a degree in engineering, I can’t find a damn job because of this. On top of it, in now days big companies hire cheap ass indians with masters and experience rather than the kids of this country. It is really sad. Shame on the politician whom they do not improve the system!

  • Rajan Ananthan

    Great article. Good advice

  • Mark Sandberg

    how about getting a masters and some experience then??? “let the best man win” when Europeans pushed and killed these Indians somebody should have done something!

  • Greg Curtin

    One of the most inciteful articles I have read on beating the system honestly. I am a little bit wiser and much more confident! Thank you Pamela

  • Dev Maaza

    Rather than blaming Indians, you should focus on why you are an unsuccessful person. Don’t blame others for your failures.

  • Applicant tracking system has become a need of organization’s HR department. It will help you find best potential employees for your organization. I personally really like applicant tracking software, It helps my organization to full fill human or manpower needs. I have got really very good employees through this system.

  • teekay

    probably better than a dumb ass american who made trump his president.

  • Imogen Ruiz

    Not the same “indians”…. I believe he’s talking about indians from India, not Native Americas… no wonder you dont get hired with such poor culture !

  • Imogen Ruiz

    Some companies only accept applications online. I am applying to Via Rail Canada and you just have to send it in and pray they call you back.

  • “Many highly-qualified candidates are rejected by ATS because they fail to write their resume for the resume screening software.”

    …or the software is poorly written and not very good at assessing applicants
    skills, experience or potential fitness for an advertised job.

    I take the advice but I think it reflects poorly on business, HR departments and the recruitment industry.

  • Praveen Pal

    Great stuff ! Thanks &Thumbs up for posting this. You’ve got to see this too http://irecruit.ishoresoftw… for great experience of iRecruit applicant tracking system. and its free for one month.