As a resume professional, I know first hand that with the burst of virtualization, almost everything about job searching has changed. Back in the “olden days” we didn’t need to worry about technology in job search. We would type up our resume, mail it in to the company who had an opening in the Sunday newspaper and wait for the phone to ring.

As technology evolved, we saw the emergence of applicant tracking software (ATS) systems which has simplified the hiring process for companies, but left job seekers out in the cold when it comes to how these systems work.  I’ve come across countless candidates who sit and scratch their head trying to figure out how to crack the ATS code.

Sadly, over the years, what was intended to create simplicity as caused confusion for eager applicants and these systems have build a bad rep among job seekers.

It’s no wonder.

Submitting your online application has become a daunting task with minimal reward. Most job seekers diligently submit their resumes online to job openings that seem to be describing their exact skill set and experience, but very few get a call back.

Well, the good news is ATS systems have evolved over the years in favor of the job seeker and it’s important to understand how they work so you can get your resume in front on human eyes.

I recently took a highly enlightening training on the topic from a thought-leading industry expert Pat Criscito, who has in-depth interactions with the engineers who actually design these systems and led countless presentations on the topic at the National Resume Writers’ Association, Harvard, Yale and other forums.

Pat’s presentation provided a wealth of information on this topic and as a career expert and resume professional, I got super excited about this new knowledge, so I wanted to share just a few of the main points I deem important to keep in mind when submitting your resume through an online application.

Keywords are key

I think the one thing that has remained true throughout the evolution of these systems is that keywords matter. This was probably the most important take away of all. I can’t stress enough how important it is to use the exact verbiage from the job posting at hand. This falls right in line with expert advice about tailoring your resume accordingly.

Each job you apply for has a specific set of parameters to parse out candidates and find the best fit, so take the time to read the job description and determine how well you measure up before you apply. If you aren’t quite sure if you’re using the right keywords, there are free online tools like Job Scan that allows you to upload your resume and a targeted job description to see how well you measure up.

As far as acronyms, common abbreviations are fine, so for example, Master’s of Business Administration can be MBA. These systems have a massive database of synonyms as well, so it recognizes titles like lawyer, attorney, legal counsel as interchangeable terms.

Although there is no specific rule of thumb for the number of keywords to incorporate or how many times to use a keyword, repetition is good – just don’t go overload or try to cheat the system with keyword stuffing. These are sophisticated systems that will penalize you for cheating.

Keyword usage is also important because once you apply to one position, you’re in the system. And if you don’t land the job you initially set out to get, there is still hope. Recruiters tend to search their existing database of candidates (the ATS) to fill new roles. So, if your keywords are strong, you can essentially, still be found in their database for future opportunities.

 The first page is vital

These systems assume that whatever is on page 1 is most recent and therefore defines it as most relevant. So, put the most relevant and recent information on the first page of the resume. This is particularly important for those in the midst of a career change or with minimal experience. A good strategy is to create a section called “Relevant Experience” and add anything you’ve done that is closely related to what the job entails here but don’t forget to use the right keywords.

Another point I want to make here that I have seen clients do (and I’ve done it myself when I was in the job market) is using your cover letter or introduction as your first page. This will throw everything off, you will score low and you definitely be eliminated.

Beware of Headers & Footers

This one is actually a topic that I’ve heard mixed reviews on. Pat pretty much said they are no-nos. I would have to agree because it’s a risk. In short – do not put pertinent information in a header or footer. There is still a risk of some systems missing this information to your detriment. If you must use a header or footer, put trivial info like the page number or the word “continued” on the bottom of the first page.

 Clearly define sections

The systems interprets spaces as an indication of new or different information, so avoid using the paragraph spacing feature in Microsoft Word. These settings disappear in the code and sections you intended to separate will be combined into one. Instead, use hard returns to space information out like different positions or new headings. It’s also advised to separate all sections versus combining them. For example, keep Education and Certifications separate instead of listing everything under Education & Certifications. And, if you’ve been at the same company for multiple positions, keep repeating the company name. Otherwise, the system will think you worked at different firms and the previous company name is missing.

 It’s OK to use graphs and images, but beware of textboxes and columns

In essence, it doesn’t matter if you have a graphic or chart in the resume. The ATS will simply omit them, but look at the bright side, the recruiter can (and likely will) go back and open your original Word file if they are interested enough. So, even if certain design elements get lost in translation (like a chart, graph or image), they can still see the original document that you took the time to make visually appealing. Just don’t make any pertinent information with relevant keywords into a graphic.

 Text boxes register to these systems as images, so they won’t show up. Thus, any information written in the text box will likely be lost. Columns are no good either, since most ATS systems read the page from left to right, if the entire page is in 2 columns for example, the ATS may get confused and translate the information incorrectly. I was definitely a culprit of using columns for the list of skills. Imagine my surprise when I learned that my clients’ skills were being mixed in with the professional summary. However, there are some very sophisticated systems that can read columns as is, but because you never know, I would err on the safe side and eliminate the use of columns altogether.

Write out URL links

The same thing actually rings true for live links. For instance, if you want to add your LinkedIn profile to the resume, I would recommend personalizing your URL  and adding the entire URL to your resume, so it reads something like “linkedin.com/in/melanieldenny” instead of creating a hyper link using text like “View My LinkedIn Profile”. If you don’t write out the URL, the link won’t come through on the other side and the recruiter would need to download the original file to get the URL. This is by far a deal breaker, but thought it was important for you to know.

The bottom line is, ATS systems are much smarter than they used to be. Many of them use a form of artificial intelligence to interpret content and gives your resume an overall score based on relevancy and match to the requirements as outlined in the job description. The key is to score high so the system in essence recommends you as a good fit for the position. Following the points I outlined above will certainly help your resume get further along in the process.

Now, if you’re overwhelmed with all this, it may be better to skip the online application altogether. I’m all about finding people, not jobs. So, your best bet is still to reach out to real people and send your resume directly to a hiring manager.

The reality is though, even if you email your resume to a recruiter, chances are at some point or another your resume will be uploaded into their applicant tracking software system. So, why not give them a keyword-rich, ATS-friendly document that is searchable so you are in the running for other opportunities?

Just food for thought…

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