Searching for a job is not something that most of us enjoy. It can often feel like we’re sending applications into a digital abyss. In fact, that’s not just a feeling. An average of 250 people apply to every corporate job opening, and only four to six applicants will be contacted for an interview.
To sift through the waves of resumes that crash on their shores, HR departments are utilizing modern technology. Seventy-five percent of midsize companies and a staggering ninety-five percent of large companies use an applicant tracking system (ATS) to help them pre-screen the pool of candidates the human recruiter will see. That corporate portal you upload your resume and information to is most likely an ATS.
ATSs have not been known for providing a friendly candidate experience. Many of us have filled out dozens of applications and either never heard back or received a perfunctory rejection, an experience which can be frustrating and demoralizing.
In a world where seventy-five percent of applications are rejected before ever reaching a human, there are a few small but impactful hacks that can help ensure your resume gets through the software gatekeeper. Getting your resume seen by a human isn’t about applying a lot, it is about applying smart.
ATS software works by allowing recruiters to use keywords to sift through applications, pre-screening them so that they do not have to read 250 (on average) resumes per position themselves.
Knowing what keywords and phrases the ATS will flag in filtering applications is not purely a guessing game. It is smart to write a resume and application specifically tailored to the job you are applying for, using the relevant keywords and phrases. Recruiters often list many of the keywords they will use in the job posting itself, making a careful read (or two… or three) a valuable use of time. By identifying the key phrases in a job posting, you can tailor your resume to highlight those phrases for the ATS.
If you are not certain about using a specific keyword for an application, there are helpful resources like Wordle and TagCrowd that can help you ascertain commonly used keywords and phrases for specific industries and jobs. It is a good idea to cross check these with the specific job posting to see if you caught all the important keywords, and flagged the right phrases.
But don’t think that simply jam-packing your resume with keywords is a smart strategy. Most ATSs are smart enough to identify spray-and-pray keywording, much the same as human recruiters can identify a mass resume from one written specifically for that job. In both cases, the lack of effort immediately disqualifies you.
The top section of your resume should highlight the most relevant achievements you have in no more than six impact-based sentences or bullet points. By forefronting what you’ve achieved in the past—and including the right keywords in the description—you will not only beat the ATS, but the actual human who ultimately receives it can easily assess whether your past successes are indicative of success in the job they are looking to fill. Remember once your resume gets to a person, the first third of your resume determines if the latter two-thirds gets reviewed.
2. Style Matters
While ATSs are smart enough to tell when you are cramming keywords into your resume they are often not robust enough to read every font, formatting, or file type. Certain fancy fonts or complicated formatting structures can result in a computational error that simply removes you from the pool of candidates. Borders around your text should also be entirely avoided, as they are especially difficult for ATSs.
Similarly, you should always submit your resume as a Word document. While ATSs are getting better at reading PDFs, PDFs require a level of translation that can garble your words and formatting (even when simple), which creates a glitch in the system that takes you out of the race.
It is also important that you have not included any typos or spelling errors. While this common sense has always applied, a human in the past could overlook (if they wanted) such things, or at the least infer what you meant. ATSs are not that intelligent, and a trivial spelling mistake can cause the ATS to fail in reading your resume properly, resulting in rejection. Before submitting a resume, always triple-check for typos or spelling errors.
3. Clean Up Your Digital Footprint
While you should ATS-proof your resume, you should remember that the ATS does not exist in a vacuum. Most companies allow you to upload your LinkedIn profile alongside your resume. If there is congruence between your resume and your LinkedIn profile, it acts as a validation of your listed skills and experiences; conversely, presenting yourself as having business consulting experience on your resume when your LinkedIn only shows experience in sales is a sure way to get rejected.
If you choose not to upload your LinkedIn profile, it might still be seen. HR departments are increasingly using artificial intelligence (AI) software to scope out prospective recruits and asses applicants. For that reason, maintaining up-to-date social media, and engaging in industry-specific blogs, publications, or groups all help you stand out.
4. Focus on the Standard and Quantifiable
ATSs engage in resume parsing so that recruiters and HR staff can look for specific skills they want. While you should engineer your resume to be about the impact you can make at a company, it is always important to make your distinct skills and accomplishments clear.
However, miscellaneous pieces of information about you can also hurt if not communicated correctly. People often add notes about themselves that they hope will give them an edge or personalize them, such as claiming to be “a real go-getter” or any other soft skill descriptor. This can be wasted space, though. ATSs are usually programmed to look at hard, quantifiable skills. Soft skills are better established in a cover letter or interview.
In addition, don’t use irregular titles for subsections on the resumes like “Memberships” or “Hobbies.” The ATS simply isn’t designed to register atypical subsection titles. It is better to use a standard subsection title, such as “Accomplishments,” and then list each out in an impact-driven statement, similar to ones you should include specific to the job you are applying for.
5. Keep It Human
For all the HR tech that is being used and developed to help recruiters, the recruiters themselves are still human. Sending a message to a recruiter or hiring manager, connecting on LinkedIn, or sending a direct email with a brief, yet compelling, one paragraph cover letter are all connective strategies that can help to ensure the recruiter finds your resume in the ATS and moves it to the next stage.
Networking has always been a huge part of getting hired, and that hasn’t changed. Reaching out to a hiring manager through a connection to say hello, directly sending your custom cover letter, or asking thoughtful questions might cause a recruiter to notice your resume is absent from the ATS-filtered lot.
ATS is a software like any other, and it can ultimately remove talented people from the pool of applicants over trivial issues. With these hacks for simplicity, formatting, and language, you will be able to ATS-proof your resume, getting it into the hands of recruiters and HR staff. From there, the job is yours to get.