two job seekers submit job applications via a laptop computerAre you getting job-blocked by a robot?

When you have the right skills, relevant work experience, and a strong educational background, there is no reason you shouldn’t get the interview. Unfortunately, many qualified candidates never hear back about jobs that they are qualified for, and this is often because their résumés were automatically filtered out before even getting in front of human eyes. Learn about what “applicant tracking systems” are, and how you can optimize your résumé to avoid getting filtered out.

When it comes to the job search, there’s a generally accepted process: Look up a company you want to work for. Research that company. Find an open position that you qualify for. Fill out the application. Upload your résumé. And lastly, hope and pray that the hiring managers see it.

These days, the thing that’s standing between you and your dream company is called an applicant tracking system. And “hoping and praying” isn’t enough to get your résumé past it.

The Guardian at the Gate: Applicant Tracking Systems

An applicant tracking system (ATS) doesn’t actually “track” applications, as the name would imply. This type of software is a tool that many larger companies use to simplify and automate parts of the hiring process. It’s also a way for companies, even small to midsize businesses, to improve their online candidate experience. About 75% of companies use an ATS for their hiring process. An ATS accepts and stores information that job candidates enter into an application form. Using one of these systems, a recruiter can easily view a candidate’s information and determine if they meet the basic qualifications for the role. In your own job search, you may have come across an ATS through application platforms such as Taleo, iCims, Lever or Greenhouse. Generally, an ATS will score the application and résumé for a candidate on a scale of 0 to 100 based on the information provided.

Companies may choose to use an ATS for their hiring needs to identify qualified candidates more efficiently, ultimately saving time for both the employer and the candidate. Sounds convenient, right?

A Potentially Flawed Process

While these systems save a lot of time and money, there are some major shortcomings in using this type of software.

As with any technology, there’s a human element missing from the job application process when it is done using an ATS. It is difficult to deny the importance of that human element when 62% of employers who use ATS software admit that some qualified candidates are likely being filtered out by mistake.

Optimizing Your Résumé for an ATS

If you are a qualified candidate who meets all of the requirements for a position, then it would be incredibly frustrating to find out that your résumé might not even make it to a human. However, it’s unlikely that employers – especially those who receive thousands of applications a week for just one job posting – will ever start reviewing each and every résumé by hand. Here are a few tips you can use to optimize your résumé for an ATS and help employers find your application:

1. Format Your Résumé

It’s not you. It’s not me. It’s your font.
Things like font choice, design choices and résumé structure can affect how the ATS reads your résumé. Some practical tips for formatting include choosing a font that can be read easily. Avoid using serif fonts, like Times New Roman, that have little markings added to its letters. Instead, opt for sans serif fonts such as Calibri or Arial, which are safer bets for your résumé.

2. Use an Optimal File Type and Eliminate Graphics

While many recruiters and career advisors will recommend that you submit your résumé in PDF format, some professionals are now suggesting that the optimal file type to get your résumé through an applicant tracking system is a Word document. Some have argued that a plain text (TXT) file is even easier for an ATS to understand, but this file type does not allow for basic formatting – which may make it difficult for a human to read.

Most importantly, your résumé should not be an image file. And while using images or graphics on your résumé might make it more aesthetically appealing for human eyes, most ATS software can’t understand images and graphics. For that reason, it is best to remove them.
While it might not always be possible, consider submitting two different versions of your résumé – a plain text file or Word document for the robot, and a more aesthetic PDF for the human. Doing this might even help you stand out as someone who is cognizant of the conflicts with technology.

3. Use the Right Keywords

This may be the most important element to getting through an ATS, since the software typically searches résumés for keywords that are related to the job posting. Including those relevant keywords, and writing keywords that are an exact match to those used in the job description, is a good practice for optimizing your résumé.

It can be difficult to write a grammatically correct sentence with an exact-match keyword under the “work experience” section of your résumé, but a simple solution would be to create a “skills” section where you list out those keywords in bullet points. For roles that require more advanced technical skills, you could also address some of the keywords that the ATS might be looking for by creating a summary section that specifies the hardware, software, application and programming languages that you are skilled at.

Be sure to spellcheck your résumé and have multiple people review it for errors, since spelling issues can prevent your résumé and any relevant keywords from being understood by the system.

4. Optimize Your Cover Letter, Too

If your résumé is going through an ATS, it’s likely that your cover letter will too. When writing your cover letter, take that opportunity to “respond to” all of the requirements that are listed on the job posting. Optimize your cover letter by using the right keywords on it, just as you would on the résumé.

Lastly, it can be tempting to overdo it on inserting keywords. But if the goal is to eventually get a human to read your résumé, then you must exercise restraint and only insert keywords that accurately describe you. Which brings us to our next point:

5. Be Honest
Don’t attempt to get through the door by lying on your résumé. Deceptive practices – such as “keyword stuffing” or listing skills that you do not possess – will not get you the job. As a general rule, you should not mention something in your résumé that you would not be able to speak to in an interview.

Finding an open position for a great job at an amazing company is enough to get anyone fantasizing about their future. But when the first major obstacle that’s standing between you and your dream job is an ATS robot, then you have to do what you can to make it easier for that robot to understand that you are a qualified candidate by optimizing your résumé.

Job seekers can take solace in knowing this: Not all employers use ATS software in a way that automatically filters out applications. Many recruiters are deeply committed to finding the right candidate for their company and do not utilize the “knock-out” functionalities out of concern that they will miss some great candidates.

As a final tip, one sure-fire way to get your résumé past the ATS robots is by avoiding them altogether. Get your résumé straight to the hiring manager by emailing them directly after filling out the application. If you aren’t able to find out who the hiring manager is, leverage your network. By reaching out to your own contacts, connecting with recruiters and talking to current employees, you can find ways to get your résumé directly to the human who wants to see it.

For more information about applicant tracking systems and other résumé best practices, stop by Mihaylo Career Services for an advising appointment. Kevin Williams, a lecturer in the ISDS Department at Mihaylo, is a contributor to this article.