Long gone are the days of “pounding the pavement” with paper copies of your resume when on the hunt for a job — sorry, Boomers! Now with the majority of job postings existing online, chances are your resume is being seen by robots first and probably being trashed before even making it to the desk of an actual human. Don’t let that thought discourage you; there are ways to evade the immediate rejection from the bots.
First, you have to know and understand your enemy. These “resume reading robots” are often referred to as an ATS; ATS stands for Applicant Tracking System. An ATS is computer software sometimes involving artificial intelligence that employers can use as a filter for all incoming applications they receive via the web.
“These bots were initially created with large organizations in mind, which needed help sifting through the thousands of incoming applications they received on a weekly basis. An estimated 95% of Fortune 500 companies currently use an ATS to manage their applicant tracking process. Today, this software has become popular with employers and recruiting firms of all shapes and sizes.” — Amanda Augustine, TopResume
An ATS doesn’t examine information on a resume the same way a human hiring manager would. Instead of looking at the overall picture of a candidate, the ATS combs your digital file for keywords and phrases and uses an algorithm to determine a “relevance” score. As Mark Slack and Erik Bowitz from The Muse put it, “[ATS software is] the 21st century version of the troll under the bridge.”
There are websites out there that offer paid services to help you battle these bots (such as TopResume or Jobscan), but making just a few simple changes on your own can be enough to beat the odds and get your resume through this screener and in front of an actual human. Here are five of the best tips for preparing your resume to tangle with the ATS bots:
1. Go back to basics.
A straightforward, chronological layout with common fonts and section titles may make it seem like your resume will get lost in the sea of candidates, but these factors will actually stand out to the ATS in a good way.
An ATS isn’t the strongest reader; remove elements like graphics, headers/footers, and intricate bullet point systems. These are all complex and can trip up a bot, causing it to miss important pieces of your resume and tank your relevancy score.
To further avoid confusing the bots, don’t rely on abbreviations. You should absolutely still include them, but after the long-form in parenthesis: i.e. writing “UX Designer” as “User Experience (UX) Designer”.
This should go without saying, but use spellcheck. Always. Use. Spellcheck. Most word processors automatically check spelling but consider using a tool like Grammarly to take a fine-tooth comb to your resume. Not only will mistakes risk confusing the ATS software, but it will make you look unprofessional to any actual human that catches a spelling error.
2. The keywords to success
Keywords and action words are important, and you should sprinkle them in where they make sense. These are the breadcrumbs both bots and humans skimming your resume will be searching out, so be sure to do your research on what they’re really looking for and tailor your words to speak to them.
We know by now that keywords are important, but what’s more important is using the right keywords. Some resume experts recommend using a word cloud generator to help you pull the words used most often within a job description; these are the top keywords, the ones you want to feature in high priority sections of your resume.
With this new keyword knowledge comes great responsibility. The most important keywords should only be used 2–3 times at most. Any more is considered overstuffing, and your resume shouldn’t look like an item description on Wish.
3. In general, specifics stand out.
It’s very easy to spend hours crafting one resume that seems universal enough that you can deploy the “spray and pray” method, but bots and employers alike can see right through that tactic. The ATS wants to see the specific keywords and phrases from the job description. The hiring manager wants to see specifically how you would be an asset to their company.
If you want your resume to be looked at for more than 6 seconds, consider putting more than 60 seconds into each resume you send out into the world. You don’t need to start from scratch every time, but you should tailor your resume for the (singular) job you’re applying for in that moment. Trying to create the impossible one-size-fits-all resume only leaves you looking less than genuine.
4. One Word Doc to rule them all.
With my background in design, it’s ingrained to always export as a .pdf file so everything is packaged nicely on the page and there’s no risk that formating will be altered. That’s not always the best practice with ATS; unless an application specifically lists .pdf as an accepted file type, don’t bother.
If a .pdf won’t satisfy the bots, what will? Believe it or not, the safest file format for your resume is a Word Doc (.doc or .docx). Word Docs are compatible with all ATS software, and offer a good balance between an over-formatted .pdf and an unformatted plain text file.
5. Robots haven’t taken over! (yet)
Though ATS software is used with most larger companies, not all employers chose to go this route. While you’re reworking your resume to appease the job bot overlords, don’t forget about humans. When your resume successfully passes the ATS gatekeeper, it will find its way into the hands of a human that will need to be able to read it.
If you have solid connections at a company, you may be able to bypass the online application altogether. Consider reaching out to those connections about helping you get your resume to the right people, taking the ATS out of the equation.
Chances are, most if not all modern job seekers will deal with an ATS at some point in their career. If you take the time to review your resume using these tips before each application submission, you increase your chances of advancing to the next stage and decrease the likelihood of finding yourself stuck at square one.
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