Robot-Proof Your Resume

If you’ve managed to make it two years into a global pandemic without losing your job, quitting your job, or going through a massive work from home vs. work from work debacle…congratulations.

If, however, you’re one of the 47+ million Americans who experienced a career change during the calamitous 2021 Great Resignation, there may be something holding you back from your dream job. And it’s your resume.

I’m a career consultant who has reviewed, rewritten, and doctored on hundreds of resumes in the past few years, and I’ve seen some dooseys. A resume so long it had a table of contents. A completely blank resume with just the word “Bachelor’s” written ominously in bold. Resumes where people poured their hearts out. Resumes of the recently widowed, the previously incarcerated, the unexpectedly unemployed.

Each person and resume is unique, which makes guiding people through the process of crafting a resume equal parts science and art. Because there is a winning formula (more on that in a minute) but there are also situations and experiences that defy being put into neat boxes on a piece of paper.

One of the most daunting parts of the twenty-first century hiring experience is knowing that your resume isn’t only reviewed by a person who may be sympathetic to your history and circumstances: it’s reviewed first by a robot. A robot called an Applicant Tracking System (ATS for short) that gatekeeps whether or not your resume is ever seen by an actual human.

And the robot doesn’t care that you took time off work to care for your ailing father (it cares only about WORK GAP).

It doesn’t see that you took relevant college courses (it sees only NO DEGREE).

And it has no understanding of the fact that you’re a new grad eager to work hard and prove yourself (it reports back LACKS EXPERIENCE).

So how do you overcome these obstacles? How do you get your resume through the robotic ATS clutches and into the hands of an actual person? While there are no 100% effective rules (unfortunately ATS has too many settings and incarnations for there to be a one-size-fits-all solution) what I can give you is a list of solid best practices born from years of experience and a lot of time looking at resumes torn to shreds by an overzealous (but well-intentioned) ATS.

  1. Boring is Best.

This rule only applies to formatting, not content. Pick the most basic format with absolutely no pictures, graphics, or large headings. ATS is entirely text-based and CANNOT process these things. What happens is the ATS “parses” out the extra stuff, and more often than not gets carried away and takes your valuable information with it.

2. No Columns

I know you think that if you use columns you can cram more information on to one page, but ATS reads left to right across a page and does not understand that the spacing between columns is intentional. It blends the columns together into a bowl of alphabet soup.

3. Keyword Implementation

For the love of God do not copy and paste the job description in white ink at the bottom of your resume. The ATS will make that text visible and you will look foolish. What you should do is utilize your summary statement at the top of the resume to easily insert keywords from the job description of the job you’re applying for. A good formula is 2 describing words + 3 skills + 1 positive outcome.

Example: Goal-oriented and innovative sales associate seeking to utilize a commitment to customer service, outstanding interpersonal skills, and experience with intense negotiation to be an asset in increasing sales and boosting revenue.

4. Say More With Less

Your resume is a highlight reel, not a list of day-to-day duties. Each bullet point should be an accomplishment. Instead of “answered incoming phone calls” say something like “Communicated with upwards of 15 clients per day, answering questions and resolving problems to increase satisfaction ratings.” List no more than 8 bullet points per job. Keep all bullet points 2 lines or less. I promise nobody wants to read more than that.

5. Selective Skills

Only list relevant skills. The ATS doesn’t care if you can type 65 words per minute if you’re applying for a life guard job. You’re not listing all the skills you have, you’re showing that you have the skills they need. Update the skills section between applications to list only 5–10 of your most valuable and transferrable skills that position you as the ideal candidate.

6. Cover Your Gaps

ATS wants a clean line of employment with no breaks. Many hiring managers set their ATS to filter out all resumes with a work gap of six months or more. Now listen carefully to this part, because I’m not encouraging you to lie. I’m encouraging you to treat nontraditional work with the same value as traditional work.

Let’s say you took a year to be a full time parent. List that as work experience… because it is. What you were doing with your time is valuable and you don’t owe anybody an explanation for it. But by listing that as work experience you’ve covered the gap. What was your job title? Full-time Parent. Where were you working? Self-employed. What were your accomplishments? Budgeting, household management, and developing educational activities. Any hiring manager worth her salt will understand the value of stepping away from a career for a bit, you just have to convince the robot first.

7. One Last Thing…

This isn’t really a rule so much as it’s me telling you a badly-kept secret. Don’t list your street address. Hiring managers absolutely will Google Earth it, and that is a massive invasion of your privacy. List your city and state and leave it at that.

Still feeling daunted by the dreaded ATS? Use a template. Indeed.com has great ATS-compatible templates that will prompt you to put your fill in your information to avoid blank page syndrome. The robots are scary, but now you’re armed with the knowledge of how to beat them at their own game.

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Laura Leigh Todd

Laura Leigh Todd

Laura Leigh is a career consultant, author, and traveler. She writes about too many things to develop a proper “niche,” but she’s working on it.