Are You Smarter Than a Machine? And Does Your Résumé Prove It?

outsmart a machine

If you’re fed up with sending in your résumé to bajillions of companies and never getting any responses, you’re not alone. Whenever we ask students and recent grads about the job search, not hearing back from companies after applying is one of the most common complaints.

You poured your heart and soul into an application (NBD). So why isn’t anyone bothering to respond? One of the big reasons is that you might have made the rookie mistake of writing a résumé for a human instead of a machine.

It’s become increasingly common for companies to use some sort of résumé-reading software to initially screen applicants (and automatically rule people out this way). Guest writer Abby Perkins offers some tips on how you can make sure your résumé is machine-proof.

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In the old days, recent college grads only had to impress human resources staffers and hiring managers in order to move on to the next level of interviewing. Now, though, they need to navigate the tricky world of applicant tracking software and computerized résumé screening systems, too.

These systems are often used by companies, especially large ones, to weed through thousands of applications and eliminate the ones that won’t make it to the next round. But if your résumé isn’t optimized to be read by applicant screening programs, it could end up getting thrown out—even if you’re a perfect fit for the job.

How do you know if your résumé will get put through a screening program? These days, there’s a pretty good chance that it will. Most large and mid-sized companies have some kind of applicant tracking or résumé-screening software to help them manage applications—experts estimate that around 90% of large companies use them. And with many affordable software programs entering the market, smaller businesses are getting in on the game, too.

A good way to tell? If you upload your résumé or apply for a position through an online portal, the company you’re applying to probably uses some sort of applicant tracking software.

To help you out, we put together a list of tips to ensure that your résumé passes today’s high-tech standards and gets you through to the next step of the hiring process.

1. Write in Word

Though some career services offices prefer to see résumés as PDFs, Microsoft Word is the old standby for document creation, and it’s the software that most applicant tracking software systems are designed to recognize. Avoid submitting PDFs, which are often completely unreadable once imported into the systems. Similarly, avoid using open-source word processing systems, as they too might translate your résumé into an unreadable format.

2. Format contact information correctly

Including your contact information at the top of your résumé is a must. But did you know that how you format it matters, too? Never write your name, phone number, email address, and mailing address on the same line. Résumé-scanning software can be easily confused by line breaks and commas, causing your résumé to be tossed out. Instead, enter each piece of information on a separate line.

3. Use the right keywords

Applicant tracking software often filters résumés by keywords and phrases specific to individual positions. To determine the right keywords, closely read the job description and highlight specific titles, department names, skills, and technology. Look for words that indicate the type of candidate that they are looking for, such as flexible or entry-level. Then, use as many of those words and phrases as possible in your own résumé. The image below shows a résumé that has been scanned for the keyword “sales” by CATS Applicant Tracking, a common applicant tracking software system.

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4. Use categories and subheadings

Creating a dual category called “Education and Training” may save space on a paper résumé, but it doesn’t translate well when it comes to applicant tracking systems. Software systems try to categorize the entries of a résumé individually, but are often confused about where to place them. Job-seekers are better off by creating as many separate categories and subheadings as needed, even if it makes the résumé a little longer.

5. Keep it simple

Even the most advanced applicant tracking systems aren’t equipped to handle fancy fonts, dividers, borders, and other embellishments. Stick to basic fonts and bullet points to ensure that your résumé doesn’t end up a garbled, unreadable mess. Another potential problem? Inserting lines, headers, or tables to differentiate sections. Stick to simple white space instead. It also goes without saying that you should avoid including graphics or images in your résumé.

6. Don’t combine jobs

Traditional résumé wisdom says that if you’ve held multiple positions at the same company, you can list those positions under a single company heading. However, doing this can confuse résumé tracking systems. Although it may seem redundant, it’s much better to treat each position as a separate job. Enter the company name and the dates of employment for each job title that you held at each company.

7. Dates (and locations) are important

Some résumé scanning software will automatically skip over job titles that don’t include dates and locations. For this reason, it’s extremely important to include both a start date and an end date, as well as a company location, for each and every job that you list.

8. Don’t try to game the system

As long as there have been systems, people have been trying to game them. But when it comes to résumé screening software, don’t bother. Don’t implement tricky workarounds, like including all the keywords at the bottom in white font. Systems are designed to pick up on this type of deceptive strategy, and smart hiring managers will actually penalize candidates for it.

The bottom line? You want a résumé that will win with machines—but you want it to be a hit with the humans that read it, too. Assume that your résumé will be “read” by both applicant screening software and real-life recruiters. Include the right keywords and formatting to beat the system, but don’t forget your unique character and voice, either.

Creating a résumé that’s a hit with hiring managers and software system is easy—if you know what you have to do.

Homework time! Next time you’re applying for a job, pay attention to whether it’s likely to be fed into some sort of software. If it is, make sure to follow Abby’s steps so you can pass that first hurdle in the application process!

Abby Perkins is Managing Editor at Talent Tribune, a data-driven HR blog powered by Software Providers.


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