5 Ways to Optimize Your Resume for an Applicant Tracking System
Published on: January 28, 2020
In an attempt to better deal with the mass of job applications that come their way on a daily basis, many recruiters now use applicant tracking systems (ATS) — software that automates aspects of the hiring process and uses filtering technology to scan resumes based on specific search criteria.
While talent professionals find them particularly useful, you'd be hard-pressed to find a job seeker who has positive things to say about an ATS. John O'Connor, president of career services firm CareerPro Inc., points out, "Although ATS are technically employed to screen people in, most people feel they rather unfairly screen them out." In fact, research shows that 75 percent of resumes are rejected by ATS based on factors unrelated to candidate qualifications.
Regardless, applicant tracking systems are, as O'Connor says, "the reality of today." There are over 200 systems out there, and as many as 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies make use of them, with many smaller businesses following suit.
That means, if you want to get your application into human hands so you can secure employment, you need to first figure out how to get past the bots. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to optimize your resume for this purpose.
Craft a compelling (customized) story using language from the job posting
As ATS programs screen resumes for particular phrases, keywords are the key to getting your application through the system. Study the job description carefully, take note of the most prominent terms used there, and work them into your resume wherever you can, using the exact language employed in the ad.
That said, O'Connor stresses that simply dumping a heap of keywords into your document doesn't necessarily work. "ATSs are getting smart and they're searching in more depth now," he explains. "I think they can tell when you're just listing things and when you've succinctly wrapped the relevant language in a compelling story."
The answer, then, is to build a powerful argument first, and to then attach relevant keywords to the specifics you've already laid down. "That's why getting past bots is an art, not a science sometimes," says O'Connor. "I suggest you weave phrases into the achievements that you've enumerated. You need to use their language to add context to what you've written — that's tough, but it's important to do.
Yolanda M. Owens, founder of CareerSensei Consulting and author of "How to Score a Date With Your Potential Employer," recommends building keywords into a skills section on your resume. "This will allow you to illustrate the key competencies you possess that align with the job you're applying to," she says, adding, "It's much easier to capture keywords in a skills section than to try embedding them in your work experience bullet points."
Honesty is obviously key, but sometimes you need to think outside the box to get the job posting's terminology into your document. "You need to dig further and try to really understand what the listed requirements mean," O'Connor advises. "Don't just glance at them and think, 'Well I don't have three years of project management experience' and that's it. Ask yourself, 'Can I describe what I did in project management terms and phrases, and can I back that up?' Just because what you did wasn't called something, doesn't mean it wasn't that thing."
Consider the company culture and values
While it's important to list your technical skills, education and job-specific experience, these are not the only things the bots might be searching for. It's possible they've also been programmed to scan for criteria that reflects a cultural and value fit.
"Anyone being hired in America today is most likely being screened by millennials, who are often cause-committed people," says O'Connor. It's therefore important that you scan the job posting for clues about what they're looking for in a candidate, beyond the right competencies. "Look out for language that might not often appear in the typical job description — this may be about community commitment or a culture of giving back," adds O'Connor. "In these cases, if you show no volunteerism, no heart, no passion — nothing but job, job, job — you're probably not going to hit the mark."
Choose font and formatting wisely
As far as fonts are concerned, Owens suggests that job seekers "use standard options like Calibri, Cambria, Segoe and Open Sans so that content doesn't get quite literally lost in translation when transcribed by bots." O'Connor agrees, adding, "Arial, Helvetica and Tahoma are also good options. Stay away from anything too fancy — you're just making it more difficult for the ATS to read."
It's equally important to upload your resume in a file format that's compatible with an ATS. Follow the specific job posting's directions in terms of formats and submissions. O'Connor also suggests that if there's an option to both attach a beautifully crafted document and cut and paste to fill out online fields, you should absolutely do both. "Don't just pick the easiest path," he warns.
Tables, charts and graphics of any sort are also not recommended, as bots struggle to process these elements. "They're not easily interpreted," explains O'Connor, "and someone on the other side might then need to convert and fix your graphics to add the information to their database — they might not be willing to put in that kind of effort."
Don't focus solely on what to include; consider what to eliminate, too
While an ATS will screen your resume to see if you meet criteria for inclusion, it might also be looking for details that would automatically exclude you.
For this reason, Owens suggests you think carefully about the kind of information you list in your application. "Leave residential information off your resume so that the focus is on your skills and not your ZIP code," she advises. "This is especially important if you're relocating for your job search and want to avoid ZIP code bias over local candidates."
Similarly, you might not want to include any unnecessary details that would dilute keyword density — work experience from 15 years ago that's no longer relevant, for instance, or skills and interests that don't apply in this context.
Seek out insider information
The truth is, even if you study the job posting and company website intensely, you might still not have a grasp on what it is the ATS algorithms are hunting for. As O'Connor points out, "The accuracy of job descriptions, when compared to the reality of the job at hand, is probably, at most, 70 percent."
So, how then, do you find out how to get the nod from the bots? The answer is, you network. "If you can find a way to have a conversation with someone on the inside, you're in good shape," says O'Connor. "That person might be able to tell you that, for instance, hiring managers are looking for someone who's willing to travel at least 25 percent of the time. Then you know to go through your resume and add travel information to all your past positions that included travel, along with percentages."
In summary, to beat the bots, sometimes you need human intervention — in part so you can gather information, and in part because it might be easier to impress a person than an algorithm. So, if you really need to land a job now and you're having little luck with ATS programs, try securing a meeting with an actual human. "If there's no way to impart the information needed through the ATS, you need to get in front of someone at the company," O'Connor recommends. "If you have that 'whatever it takes' attitude, that's probably going to work best."
At the end of the day, if you're still not confident in your ability to craft an ATS-friendly resume, you can always rely on the solutions provided by Resume-Now. Our tried-and-tested Resume Templates take a lot of the guesswork out of resume writing and will help you craft a document that impresses both bots and human beings.