How to Get Your Resume Past the Resume Filter

by Julie Rains on 30 December 2013 2 comments

Job seekers upload their resumes to online hiring systems in hopes of snagging interviews and landing jobs. Too often, though, nothing happens. Document submissions seem to enter a black hole, never emerging from the job-search abyss. (See also: Unique Ways to Score a Job Interview)

Widely used applicant tracking systems (ATSs) are largely responsible for this void. They were designed to track job seekers through the hiring process. But today, they seem to simply rank and reject applicants. Only those with the highest scores (as judged by the system, not a human) move on to the next phase.

Even qualified candidates often don't make the first cut. For example, an applicant for a bank-teller job may be filtered out if the resume doesn’t specifically mention cash-handling experience. In addition, a visually impactful resume may choke a system and get rejected because of unusual graphics.

Still, there's hope for job seekers. You can improve your chances of getting noticed. Here are resume writing tips and technical tactics to get past automatic screeners and through the system. (See also: New Year, New Resume)

1. Analyze Qualifications Desired by Employers

Carefully review job postings. Look at all aspects of the position description, responsibilities, and qualifications.

Don't just focus on the one or two requirements that closely mirror your background. Study the posting to learn as much as you can about the level of responsibility along with the complexity of decision making required by the potential employer.

If you anticipate applying for multiple openings with a particular employer, look at several of its job postings. Learn about various positions, their relationships to each other, and their hierarchy within the organization.

Gather information from sources beyond the online application portal. Visit the company's website, follow its social media presence, talk to friends who work there, and check out employer review sites such as Glassdoor.com to get a broad view of the organization and its needs. (See also: Things to Learn About a Company Before an Interview)

2. Identify Relevant Keywords and Unique Qualifications

Based on your research and analysis, identify keywords and keyword phrases that are relevant to your desired position and employer. For an easy and scientific way to determine dominant keywords, enter the job posting into an online word cloud maker like Wordle; results will give you a visual representation of most frequently used words.

Just as important, note rare keywords and unique capabilities that differentiate this particular job from other opportunities.

3. Make Sure Your Resume Includes All Relevant Information

Start by creating a summary section indicating your areas of expertise, competencies, and skills that match keywords.

Elaborate on qualifications within the context of your professional experience, using relevant keywords and keyword phrases. Newer systems evaluate the context of keywords, so you'll need to explain how you've demonstrated mastery in your work. (See also: Great Ways to Improve Your Resume)

For each position:

  • Give an overview that indicates its broader purpose. For example, a sales representative may promote the company's brand and support profitability in addition to day-to-day activities such as making sales presentations and managing account relationships.
     
  • Spell out your duties because a computer system doesn't automatically know what someone with your title does, unlike many humans with experience in your field. If you are an accountant, specify that you prepare financial reports such as balance sheets, income statements, and cash flow statements.
     
  • Explain how your performance is exceptional. For example, state the number of new accounts you landed compared to goal or discuss how a department's performance improved after you educated line managers on financial statistics.

Finally, be sure to include the basics, such as your name and contact information, educational credentials (degrees and outside training), and professional designations.

4. Keep Your Resume Simple and Easy-to-Read

What looks great on paper to a human can easily confuse an automated system.

So, be simple. List your name and contact information at the top of the resume, not embedded in a header or footer. (See also: Outdated Job-Search Techniques)

Use commonly recognized headings for various sections. For example, use "Experience" rather than "Work History" or "Career Achievements."

In the experience section, list the employer on one line, followed by the position title and relevant dates on separate lines. If you've held more than one position with an employer, list the employer's name each time.

Use standard font size of at least 11 points along with margins of at least one inch on all sides.

Avoid graphics, tables, unusual characters, tool lines, and even italicized words. These can fluster the computer and stymie the processing of your resume's data. (See this checklist from The Career Success Coach for formatting tips.)

5. Follow Directions

Applicant tracking systems share similar methodology, but they are not all alike. Plus, HR folks and hiring managers use features differently. So, there's not one way to enter information that's right for every situation.

When applying for a position, follow system prompts. Generally, this process involves uploading a computer-friendly file in a recognizable format such as .txt. In addition, fill in the blanks and respond to all questions (even ones labeled optional), which employers may use when conducting a candidate search.

6. Be Consistent

While tailoring your resume for a particular position is desirable, be careful about making dramatic changes when applying to more than one job at a certain company.

If your qualifications vary significantly from one version to another, recruiters and hiring managers may doubt the accuracy of your information. A better strategy is to develop a master resume suitable for all positions and make minor tweaks for each opening.

7. Give Yourself Bonus Points

Application tracking systems may record how you entered the system and assign points based on this information. Help your resume rise higher in the digital stack by taking a personalized approach.

If you were referred by an employee, check the box indicating this fact. Similarly, apply through niche job boards, employers' careers sections, or professional organizations' websites to get greater consideration.

Finally, remember you are writing for a computer. A computer doesn't get bored like a person does, so you can include more relevant information than usual. Your ATS resume can be a plain, five page document with lots of details whereas the version for human eyes may need to be expertly formatted in two pages or less.

When you go on a face-to-face interview, bring copies of both versions. Be prepared to discuss your qualifications for the position along with unique capabilities and career accomplishments that show you are an exceptional candidate.

How have you learned to get past employment hiring systems?

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209 Valley Jobs

I have found that writing very personal cover letters that are very specific to the company you are applying for really helps. Sometimes I will study a company and do a bunch of research online about them - then I write in my cover letter all the ways I think I can help them. I find that it can get you noticed, since the HR or hiring director will recognize that you took your time to look into the company.

Julie Rains's picture

Thanks for sharing your strategy. Many people have told me that they don't like to go to that much trouble for all the jobs they apply for. But if you choose a few companies to pursue, then your effort is more likely to be rewarded, especially with a small or mid-size organization and/or one in which you can contact the hiring authority directly.