Getting your resume noticed by ATS and human screeners


For the last 2 weeks Doris and I have been exploring job boards – their use, advantages, disadvantages, and limitations. As part of the research I did on What are job boards, and do they work? I uncovered the fact that applicant tracking systems, or ATS, make the determination of which resumes to pass along to employers, and which to reject based on keywords and other searchable elements. Job board ATS reject 70 – 90% of applicant resumes. Large employers also now use ATS to sift through the piles of applications before a human takes over the hiring process. Up to 90% of Fortune 500 companies use ATS.

Doris pointed out last week in her blog Boomers looking online for work: some things to consider, the Jobvite index shows that employee referrals are the best way to get hired. I wondered, between most resumes being weeded out by ATS and most hires being from employee referrals, are job boards worth the effort?

I decided to research how ATS works, and if there are strategies that maximize getting through the ATS screening. The good news? There are reliable resources out there to help craft your resume to get through the ATS gate.

How do Applicant Tracking Systems work?

Like many processes these days, ATS works on algorithms (see Doris’s blog posts Algorithms part 1 and part 2 to explore what algorithms are, how they work, and how
mathematics-989125_640pervasive they are in our lives now). The ATS searches resumes for key words and phrases related to the job skills employers are requesting.

Newer, cloud-based ATS programs are getting more sophisticated, allowing employers to add search criteria such as degrees, dates, specific skills, and/or geography. Job seekers figured out that the more relevant keywords a resume has, the better chances ATS will not reject it. However, the newer versions of ATS programs recognize this, and can “read” the context of the keywords. The new algorithms understand that certain keywords will have phrases of other words associated with it, and looks for those words. If just the keyword is found, and is found many times throughout the resume, the system will reject the resume. Stuffing a resume full of keywords no longer works.

Employers can also weight criteria. For example, if the job is geographically dependent, the ATS can first sort according to where a person is, then sort for the rest of the desired criteria. Employers can also request the ATS to bundle criteria together to more quickly weed out inappropriate candidates.

ATS platforms “read” the resume and extract the keywords, phrases, dates, skills, and other criteria set by the employer (or the job board), and ranks the resume based on what it finds. In this resource, Applicant Tracking Systems 101 for Job-Seekers from QuintCareers, the author, Randall S. Hansen, describes the process this way:

Applicant tracking systems “parse” the information in the resumes submitted pulling them apart and placing information in specific fields within the ATS database such as work experience education and contact data. The system then analyzes the extracted information for criteria relevant to the position being filled — such as number of years of experience or particular skills. Then it assigns each resume a score giving the candidate a ranking compared to other applicants so recruiters and hiring managers can identify candidates who are the “best fit” for the job.

He illustrates how ATS can now parse resumes for very specific skill criteria and your experience:

Instead the system looks for relevance of the keyword to your work history and/or education. Those keywords are analyzed and weighed in the context of the entire resume. Also considered in context is how recently the desired skill has been used and the depth of knowledge the candidate possesses of the topic (by assessing whether relevant and related terms are also present in the resume in relation to the keyword or phrase).

As the ATS field evolves, expect even more specificity. Remember, ATS is an applicant weeder for employers, so the more specific it can be the better the fit of candidates to the job will be.headhunt-311354_640

At least that is the theory.

What are some of the pitfalls of ATS?

Mark Slack and Eric Bowitz in Beat the Robots: How to get your resume past the system and into human hands from the Muse, have this to say about the downside of ATS:

…. your application could slip through the cracks if you don’t format your resume just right or include the exact keywords the hiring manager is searching for.

This includes the font, structure, and formatting of your resume. ATS cannot read graphics, fancy fonts, unusual formats, headers, footers, and many other popular resume designs. Dates must be to the right of the description to be read. Headings need to be clean with no added sentences in the same line. Fonts need to be simple and clear. Most importantly, although keywords are paramount, if  you don’t use more than the ordinary “job term” ones your resume will be rejected.

In How to get the applicant tracking system to pick your resume by Elizabeth McGill in Big Interview states:

For job seekers in today’s era, it’s imperative to learn how to move past the algorithms. This means that job seekers must become more creative in order to make the right impression on both the robots that initially scan your resumes AND the people who will ultimately read them and need to be impressed enough to invite you to interview.

She raises the challenge of creating a resume that gets past the ATS and is enticing and informative to the human person who will be interviewing you. Writing a resume that is too geared toward the ATS and not a human being won’t get you in the door.

How do you do both?

What resume strategies work with ATS? 

There are two categories of strategies:

ATS are not sensitive to the length of your resume, and the two-page maximum length one is giving way to more explicit descriptions of work experience and skills. The more specific you are, the better. QuintCareers, in Understanding applicant tracking systems, suggests the following for including relevant and varied keywords in your descriptions and sprinkled throughout your resume:

  1. Find 6-8 job postings for the type of position you want. Copy the text from the ad into a Microsoft Word document.
  2. Select all the text and copy it to your clipboard.
  3. Go to ToCloud or Wordle to create a tag cloud.
  4. Paste your selected text into the “text” box and generate the word cloud.

The word cloud will reveal keywords and phrases that are relevant for the type of job you’re seeking. The larger the word appears the more relevant it is for that type of position.

QuintCareers has several free tools to help you craft your resume for ATS and human review in Applicant Tracking System Tools for Job Seekers. It also lists a site, Jobscan, where you can have your resume evaluated for ATS success. It is free or low cost.

So, is it worth all this to use a job board? As more and more mid-size and large employers are using ATS to screen candidates, optimizing your resume for ATS screening makes a lot of sense. Since this is the case, uploading your optimized resume to a job board is not much extra work. The advice from the experts is: make sure all of your information in all of your job applications and resumes in any job board or employer system match – once in the system always in the system so your various job applications and resumes can and will be compared. Honesty is the best policy!

The experts also agree: don’t forget to network and have a great LinkedIn profile. Remember, most job hires are through employee referrals or networks.

What is your experience with ATS? What concerns do you have? Questions?

Resources used to write this blog:

CBS MoneyWatch: Be Specific: Why It’s the Key to Job Search Success


Big Interview: How to Get the Applicant Tracking System to Pick Your Resume

The Muse: Beat the Robots: How to Get Your Resume Past the System & Into Human Hands

LinkedIn: The Easy How-To Guide to Formatting Resumes for Applicant Tracking Systems

All photos from the talented artists at Pixabay.

1 reply

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] so job boards will not be effective for you unless you optimize your resume for these systems. See our blog on ATS to learn more about them and how to tailor your resume to pass this electronic […]

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply