You polish up your resume. Edit for grammar. Check it for type-os.
Next you find some great-looking jobs. Jobs for which you think you’re a perfect candidate.
You apply and share your resume, and then you wait.
Nothing. No calls. No emails. No job interview.
Not a nibble.
What went wrong?
There’s a good chance prospective bosses and human resources personnel – the decision-makers – never saw your resume.
That’s because these days, bots are weeding through resumes before any human gets to review them. Based on keywords and other items baked into algorithms, applicants are selected and moved to the next level.
If your resume doesn’t get past these robot screeners, it will never land on the right desk.
So how can you get through the software? How does it work? Do you need a professional resume writer to help?
Applicant tracking system software
Applicant tracking system software, commonly called ATS, helps employers narrow down prospective employees.
“ATS software has been a game-changer for employers with open positions,” said Jeramy Kaiman, vice president of Accounting Principals, a finance and accounting staffing firm with four locations in New Jersey. “An ATS incorporates keyword search to create candidate shortlists for busy recruiters and hiring managers.”
Kaiman said firms that use an ATS report a 15 percent decrease in time to fill open positions and a 75 percent drop in unproductive activity.
That’s pretty attractive for employers.
The first systems used basic keyword search software, where the system scanned resumes and compared them to the posted job description, said Bill Castellano, a former human resources executive who chairs the Department of Human Resource Management at Rutgers University.
“Today, the most advanced systems use sophisticated algorithms and predictive analytics to scan and match candidates to jobs,” he said.
It used to be that only larger companies used these kinds of systems, Castellano said, but today, even smaller and mid-sized companies have less costly options to purchase cloud-based recruiting software that offers similar capabilities.
That means wherever you’re applying for a job, you may be judged by ATS software.
How it works
Kaiman said ATS software has changed over time. The programs formerly scanned for job-specific keywords typically chosen by an HR team. Today’s systems can parse resumes to put pre-selected words in context, he said.
Castellano said there’s no one kind of system, but many share similar traits.
Many systems prescreen applicants by having them answer questions before submitting a resume, he said. The software ranks applicants based on the information they provide.
Bonus points are awarded for keywords that match the job description, said Christine Dykeman, chairperson of the Jersey Shore Association for Human Resources’ Workforce Readiness Committee.
Then there’s an automatic scoring process using boolean searches and percentages.
Dykeman said you should keep your resume format crisp and clean, placing dates at the right margin and using bullets when you can.
“No formatting, headers, footers, tables, graphs, charts,” she said. “Keep it simple, lots of white space, font size 11 points.”
Also, she said, be sure to send your resume as a Word document to make sure it goes through. Don’t use a .pdf or Google Doc unless the posting specifically tells you to.
Lastly, know that all resumes submitted are kept in a database that can be searched for future openings.
The challenge for job hunters
The challenge is that there’s no longer an opportunity to make a great first impression.
“In the past, applicants went directly to companies to apply for job openings and often were interviewed the same day,” Castellano said. “Today, most companies require all candidates to first submit their resume online. This is a much less personal process. A computer program is determining who are the best matches to be interviewed.”
Castellano said companies may receive hundreds of resumes for each job opening, plus they can search their databases of thousands of stored resumes for possible matches.
The tremendous number of resumes creates a much more competitive process for job applicants, he said.
When you have to get past a computerized screening system, the numbers are against you.
The average job posting gets more than 200 applicants, Dykeman said, citing several industry studies.
She said the first application is usually submitted within 200 seconds of the job being posted. Then, she said, the ATS automatically eliminates at least half of those applicants because they don’t meet basic match requirements set by the employer.
“Of the 100 remaining, 80 will be eliminated via a refined matching process. Of the 20 remaining applicants, recruiters will review and chose two to six candidates to pass along to the hiring manager,” she said. “That means you have less than a 3 percent chance of getting an interview.”
If an applicant isn’t aware of how prospective employees are screened, they could miss an opportunity.
“It’s possible an ATS could overlook qualified or unconventional candidates who don’t include the correct keywords,” Kaiman said. “Job hunters have to balance including enough keywords to pass the system but also sound natural and human.”
Can a professional resume writer help?
Whether or not you’re a good writer, you might wonder if a pro can help you get through the system.
Castellano said most professional resume writers can help job seekers best describe their job experience and skills and properly format their resume.
“A good writer should also help customize the resume for the different positions to which the job seeker is applying,” he said. “Getting past the software requires a thorough review of the specific job description for each position.”
Dykeman said professional resume writers do serve a purpose for those who are not good writers, but no one knows you, your experiences or your abilities better than you.
Kaiman said he wouldn’t recommend using a professional resume writer to get past ATS software.
There are a number of free resources available to guide a prospective candidate through the resume writing process, he said.
Instead of hiring someone for the resume, he said, job seekers should pay close attention to the key words on their resumes to make sure they target a specific job posting.
Keep reading. We’ve got some tips from the pros.
Tips and tricks to beat the system
Your application should start with a careful read of the job posting.
The key is to find important words and terms that the company uses to describe the position, Castellano said. Then, use those same words and terms in your resume.
“Job seekers should also visit the company website and note the words and terms used to describe the company’s identity, strategy and culture,” he said. “Use them when describing your own experience, accomplishments, and skills.”
But if you go overboard with keywords, you could disqualify yourself anyway.
Kaiman said job seekers should avoid “stuffing” resumes – a tactic where candidates simply replicate job description keywords and place them throughout their resume.
Avoid creating lists or groupings of keywords that don’t fit naturally on your resume, he said. The tactic may help match with keywords in line with ATS searches, he said, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get the interview.
“Be aware that resumes will also be screened by an internal recruiter and a hiring manager – both of whom know how to detect and disqualify ‘keyword stuffers,'” he said.
But you should still selectively use keywords listed in the job description, he said, and consider mimicking some of the language and punctuation that’s in the job description.
Just choose wisely.
Kaiman said it’s better to omit highly specific keywords that don’t align with your experience than to “stretch” for a fit. Even if you make it past the ATS, you’ll still have to explain your career aspirations to a human interviewer, he said.
“Make an honest assessment of your career story, jot down the skills that consistently shine through, and weave them into your resume where applicable,” he said.
In extreme cases, candidates have embedded job keywords in small, white-colored type at the bottom of their resume to make the “stuffing” imperceptible to human eyes. The ATS will typically instantaneously identify and reject the resume, Kaiman said.
Don’t rely on one strategy
While posting your resume online is an important strategy, you shouldn’t rely on it exclusively.
You need to take action and not count on your resume getting past the bots.
Castellano recommends you try to identify the company’s decision makers, including recruiters and managers.
Use LinkedIn, Google searches and careful reads of company websites.
But the best strategy is to ask for help from people you already know.
“Research shows that the best way to get a job is to use your network of family, friends and coworkers to help identify these people,” he said. “If one of your contacts can refer you to the decision maker, that is ideal.”
Alternatively, he said, if you just have a name you should reach out to them to express your interest in the open position, Castellano said.
You can reach out by sending an email, letter, finding them on LinkedIn, or directly calling, he said.
Dykeman said networking is the key, and that’s how 85 percent of people find jobs.
Plus, she said, the job search landscape changes weekly.
“If people take advice from someone who used to be in a job search and what they did, or how they got a job the last time they were unemployed, it most likely will not work today because it is different now,” she said.
She noted we have five generations in the workplace today. The median age of a recruiter is 30, and the median age of a hiring manager is 37, she said.
“With those statistics, many job seekers have to change the way they have had to search for a job to reflect this psychology,” she said.
That’s where social media comes into play, she said, noting one in six job seekers credit social media with helping them land their current job.
Dykeman said long and detailed resumes don’t cut it in the Twitter generation, and she expects to see resumes become even more condensed as “bite-sized written communication” becomes mainstream.
Along with your keyword strategy, keep your resume focused, relevant and accomplishment-based, Dykeman said.
Tell the truth
As much as you may want that job, falsely representing yourself will probably backfire.
Kaiman said many candidates think that fluffing a resume with skills is enough to catch the attention of an employer. But, he said, the truth is that the employer won’t be interested in your skills if you aren’t able to directly apply them to the position they’re trying to fill.
“In the end, resumes should authentically represent your work experience,” Kaiman said. “It’s much more likely to rise to the top when supported by organic copy that includes legitimate industry- and job specific terminology, rather than appearing as an ‘overstuffed’ attempt at ATS appeasement.”
In the end, if you have the opportunity for an interview – whether in person or by telephone – you should send a thank you note.
Dykeman recommends you send an email anywhere from three to 12 hours after the interview to thank everyone who took time to meet with you, and you should mention “a tidbit or two that was discussed and why you are a good fit for that position.”
Immediately after, she said, follow up with a handwritten letter.
“The thank you should reiterate why you are a good candidate and put your name on the front of their brain again,” she said. It is old-school and old-fashioned, but your goal is to keep reinforcing your name/personal brand/market value you are offering.”
Make each note different from the others – no cookie cutter ones, she said.