While applicant tracking systems (ATS) provide great value for HR professionals and hiring managers, particularly when faced with a large number of applicants for a wide range of positions, there is one big potential downfall—for both organizations and the individuals hoping to work for them. Because the systems are based on algorithms, rather than personal review, there’s no opportunity for “benefit of the doubt” when screening applications. They either fit the algorithm, or they don’t.
For applicants, understanding how these systems work and what it means in terms of submitting their information can mean the difference between ending up in a cyber-trash bin and landing an interview.
One very important step that applications should take is ensuring that they use the language the employer is using in their job posting. This language gives hints and clues into the type of words and phrases that the ATS is likely to be screening for. For instance, if a posting for an IT Project Manager says: “Strong knowledge of Agile (Scrum/Kanban) events such as walkthrough, demos, and retrospectives,” use that exact same language in your application. Repeating back to the company the language that they’re using (assuming that you hold these desired qualifications) will boost the odds that your resume will make it through.
Jessica Hernandez is president and CEO of Great Resumes Fast, an executive resume writing service, and previously an HR manager. “I work with clients every day helping them outsmart ATS,” she says. Hernandez offers several tips to help boost the odds of a resume making its way through the system:
- Avoid putting content in the header or footer of your resume. Some versions of ATS can’t scan content that appears here, says Hernandez. In addition, she says: “Avoid putting your name or contact information in the header to prevent ATS from dismissing your resume.”
- Be careful about including “post-nominal titles,” Hernandez advises—e.g. Ph.D., RN, CFP. Systems may read these abbreviations as part of the candidate’s name which can cause issues. Instead, she suggests, including these qualifications in the career summary and education sections.
- Use standard headers like “Professional Experience” and “Education,” and “label your certifications so they’ll scan into the correct section too.”
- Live links may also cause problems, says Hernandez. “While you always want to include contact information including your name, address, email address, phone number, and LinkedIn URL, you can cause problems by making your email address or LinkedIn link live. Some older ATS software will read a live link as a virus – and not every employer has the newest versions of ATS with all the most technologically up-to-date features.”
But, says Jeff Magnuson, an independent marketing and brand consultant, “I don’t believe anyone knows how to outsmart the electronic application systems.” His advice: don’t apply online! “If candidates want to get noticed, they need to take the innovative approach of mailing—not emailing—their resume, with a specific cover letter, to the hiring manager and not to HR.” Getting a job, he says, requires standing out from the masses, just as when marketing a product or service. “If a job seeker really wants a position, he or she needs to do what other people are not doing. Simply applying online with everyone else just diminishes a candidate’s likelihood of being spotted.”
LinkedIn is the go-to source for finding information on who the hiring manager for a particular position is, he says. From there, “a company’s mailing address is a keystroke away on Google.”
It is possible to stand out from the masses and make it through what can sometimes be cumbersome ATS processes. As with many things, these days, the right combination of digital and traditional approaches can do the trick.