“Help! Robots are reading my resume!”

It sounds like a line from a cheesy horror film, but it’s the new reality facing millions of job seekers, thanks to the proliferation of Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS). These systems are upending traditional resume submission rules and job application best practices– and job seekers need to get up to speed quickly.

A few years ago, these systems were primarily used to pre-screen applicants for entry-level jobs at large organizations. That’s all changing. Many mid and senior-level positions now require submission via a company’s ATS. If a company requires you to fill out an online application and upload your resume, it’s using an ATS. All your information including experience, skills and education will be entered into a candidate profile for hiring managers to view.

Depending on the company, an ATS may auto-populate information directly from your LinkedIn profile or require you to upload a resume. The system then scans your resume for keywords related to required job skills and experience. Even if you’re qualified for the position, missing keywords or simple formatting errors could cause the system to reject your application. For example, popular systems like Bullhorn and Taleo require an exact keyword match. If you “project managed a team of 15” in your last position but the system searches for “project management” or “project manage” you won’t pop up in search results. Unfortunately, this means that unless you have an inside referral, your resume may never get read by a human.

Online Resume Submission Best Practices

Getting your resume past the computer screeners and in front of a human has become a challenge for applicants at every level. The following best practices can help:

  1. Use the right formatting. Still submitting PDF versions of your resume? While this may have been a best practice several years ago, many online application systems struggle to parse PDFs correctly and may miss important content. If you’re submitting a resume through an applicant tracking system rather than emailing someone directly, use a Word Doc or Rich Text format. Simplify wherever possible, eliminating all graphics, unusual fonts, and special formatting, which screeners may be unable to read.
  2. Choose the right contextual keywords. ATS software scans resumes for contextual keywords, verbs, and phrases, scoring the resumes for relevancy. Only resumes with the highest scores make it through to the hiring manager. So, how do you know which phrases are most relevant to your position? Start by analyzing the job description and then surveying the skill sets required by competitors at a similar job level. Identify your five to ten strongest matches and relate these to the job description. Essential keyword phrases listed in the requirements or skills section of the applications may apply if the skills are contextually matched.
  3. Integrate keywords correctly. Next, consider how to naturally integrate the most important keyword phrases into the qualifications summary at the top of your resume. Cover your bases and include both the full title of the position you seek and acronym when listing positions. For example, if you’re a CPA, list your job title as Certified Public Accountant (CPA) as the software may search for one keyword string and not the other. Tense matters; copy the exact keyword (e.g., “project manage” not “project managed”) from the job description.
  4. Customize your resume for the position and company. You don’t need to completely redo your resume for every application but a few tweaks can help your resume get through the computer scanners and into the hiring manager’s inbox. Always ensure your resume shows a clear match between your skills, experience and the position. Add a custom headline that integrates relevant keywords for the position. Include any recent industry certifications and reorder bullets to highlight achievements most relevant to this position.



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