What’s that? Your online job applications aren’t yielding positive results? More than likely, it’s because you’re up against an inhuman force. Meaning — an Applicant Tracking System or ATS. And your resume isn’t up to the task of beating it.
If you’re not up to date with modern job search lingo, an ATS is an automated filtering algorithm designed to assess resumes for fit at scale.
If you want to ensure your resume doesn’t disappear into the abyss of the internet and actually makes its way into the hands of a human recruiter, you need to know how to outsmart an ATS software system.
These systems have been around for years, and research shows that upwards of 95% of Fortune 500 companies are using them.
They’re not going anywhere and you’d be wise to learn the main reasons they reject resumes.
Robots Are Getting Smarter.
Artificial Intelligence (AI—and specifically Machine Learning, or ML) is the technology that’s powering these ATSs – and it is advancing by the day. This means the robots that stand between you and your next job are smarter than ever.
Gone are the days when an ATS was a simple keyword scanner acting as a gate-keeper for recruiters.
Enter an age in which the bots have female names – Olivia, Mya, Vera, for example. Check out this chat between a robot and a candidate:
Sure, part of their role is to improve candidate experience versus going through a lengthy online application process), but make no mistake.
Like Luke Skywalker’s R2D2, they’re all about serving their master. And their main objective is to deliver the top 20% of applicants for any open requisition to their human recruiters.
The screening criteria they use are the clincher.
If you happen to land in the 80% of applicants that didn’t make the cut, and you’re truly a stellar candidate, both sides clearly lose.
How, then, to make it into the top 20%?
However, if you prefer to write your resume, read on – my tips below will help you craft a resume that passes the ATS.
But first, let’s review some helpful background on the most current ATS technology.
We’re Not In Kansas Anymore, Toto.
Until recently, most ATS used a technology known as semantic search.
They were programmed to look for specific keywords while screening resumes, they tallied up the totals, and the resumes with the most keywords were passed along.
This created an unfortunate phenomenon known as “keyword stuffing”, which resulted in the creation of many resumes which were littered with scads of repetitive keywords and very little professional narrative.
In 2023, however, the robot that reads your resume looks for context.
Sort of like a human would. It scans to see how your skills (those keywords) perform in the context of your work experience.
The resumes with the most relevant context are the ones passed along. So in a way, your keywords are more important than ever – as is avoiding the practice of “stuffing.”
And while the technology remains far from perfect, it’s a major improvement indeed.
Here’s how to beat the bots at what they do best.
1. Use Standard Resume Sections.
The ATS robot will scan your resume and look for expected sections. For example, it’s likely to be programmed to search for information on:
- Work experience.
- Qualifications & schooling.
- Contact information.
- Social media profiles.
It’s easy to imagine that a quirky designer with extensive experience at Apple might call ‘former employers’ something like ‘previous gigs’ as a way to convey their ‘personal brand’ to a recruiter.
However, an ATS will ignore that section completely – because it doesn’t know what ‘previous gigs’ means.
So instead of the designer being flagged as working at arguably one of the most prestigious design departments in the world, they’d never even get an interview.
Don’t let this happen to you.
2. Explore Additional Ways To Amplify Keyword Context.
Craft a title at the start of your resume that succinctly states the position you’re seeking. Follow it up with a description which succinctly captures your unique selling proposition.
Resist adding a traditional “Objective” section. Instead, write a compelling profile that articulates your career narrative in a way that’s designed to engage the human recruiter.
(Related: Here’s What You Must Include On Your Resume.)
Then, build a separate keywords section where you list out the major keywords that connect your skills with the position you’re after. For example:
List the most important ones first, followed by secondary keywords. NEVER list keyword skills that you don’t actually possess.
3. Use Different Resumes For Different Jobs.
By now you get that keywords are a critical component of beating the ATS and making contact with a human recruiter.
This means, unfortunately, that you need a different resume for different jobs. There is no one-size-fits-all resume that will outsmart a robot.
The logical place to begin choosing your keywords is the job description.
Let’s look at an example of a job description extract:
“…the successful applicant will have advanced knowledge of the accounting software Xero, including skills in credit control, automated bank reconciliation and forecasting & budgeting.”
The keywords than an ATS is likely to be scanning your resume for are:
- Accounting software.
- Credit control.
- Automated reconciliation.
- Bank reconciliation.
However, imagine if the resume you submitted had these alternative terms instead:
- Accounts package.
- Online accounting platform.
- Late payments.
- Minimising bad debts.
- Credit risk analysis.
- Budgetary planning.
- Fiscal estimates.
- Financial planning.
A human would easily conclude that you’re the perfect candidate despite these subtle variations in terminology.
However, the algorithm wouldn’t find a single relevant keyword in your resume (which means you’d probably be rejected).
The lesson is clear: for each job you are applying for, you should ensure that your resume includes the exact terms found in the job description.
This means changing ‘fiscal estimates’ to ‘budgets’ and ensuring you explicitly mention any software or systems that the employer is looking for.
4. Review Your Online Presence.
Applicant Tracking Systems put your ‘social’ life under the microscope, too.
Some advanced systems can now automatically scan your social media profiles and use that information as part of the electronic decision-making process.
So, make sure you tidy up your profiles.
Ensure that your LinkedIn profile is relevant and up-to-date (rewrite it if necessary, paying particular attention to the Profile Summary section).
Consider, as we mentioned above for your resume, adding a paragraph that lists the important keywords mentioned in the job description. (More on this below).
Also, ensure that whenever you mention your job titles, you use terms that an ATS can understand (e.g. ‘credit control’, rather than just ‘Accounts clerk’ or – worse – ‘Number monkey’!)
While most ATS focus on LinkedIn, if you’re active on other social networks (Facebook, Twitter etc.), it’s a good idea to update those, too (or, if they’re for personal use only, lock them down with maximum privacy settings).
Furthermore, a lot of the newer systems automatically scan your social media accounts, which means that those shaky iPhone videos of you dancing on a table in Amsterdam are likely to get attached as ‘supplementary information’ to your employee profile.
As if that wasn’t enough, the Machine Learning we mentioned earlier can go beyond rejecting you. It can also write your “Dear John, thank you for applying, however…” letter, too.
5. Snoop Around LinkedIn Competitor Profiles.
Simply relying on the job description for your keywords is only half the battle, as they tend to be riddled with skills ranging from “must-have” to “nice to have” to “hiring manager ideal.”
So don’t stop there in identifying your keywords. Hop on LinkedIn and check out the profiles of people who may be competing for the same role as you.
For example, you’re going after a CFO position.
- Use LinkedIn’s search function to find your CFO colleagues / competitors.
- Narrow it down to 5-10.
- Next, check out the “Featured Skills & Endorsements” section of their profiles. Good news! These are keywords that have already been optimized by LinkedIn’s algorithm. Feel free to use them as-is.
- Create a list for yourself. Then choose the 5-7 in which you are an absolute expert. Use these in your resume and LinkedIn profile.
6. Do Not Use PDF.
Unless otherwise specified, most Applicant Tracking Systems don’t like resumes formatted in PDF format as it’s difficult for them to extract the information they need.
They just want text. No glitter or fancy formats – just text.
Get Your Resume Noticed By An ATS.
So, let’s summarise the best resume writing strategies you can employ to have the best chance of being passed by an ATS:
- Add the exact keywords to the job description of your resume.
- Don’t try to game the system – tactics like listing hundreds of semi-relevant keywords on your resume are easily spotted and will result in your resume being deleted.
- Never submit a PDF.
- Avoid images and graphs.
- Use standard sections on your resume.
- Be careful with social media; assume that unless it’s locked down, it will be used (possibly against you).
Bringing It All Together.
Remember not to put all your career aspiration eggs in the “I’ll beat that ATS yet!” basket.
Advancing in your career is an art and science that combines marketing, branding and networking to tell your story in a compelling, commercially relevant way to the right people.
Connect with other professionals in your field on LinkedIn. Post content that clearly displays your unique commercial value and passion.
Get a mentor. Seek advice. Shake hands. Kiss babies.
Reach out to the recruiter who’s managing the job posting you want.
Despite the increasing reliance on technology in the job search arena, people are still where it’s at. And people may be your best hope at beating R2D2 at his own game.
May the force be with you.