How Applicant Tracking Systems Are Changing Resumes

applicant tracking systems

True or false?

Companies instantly discard resumes for failing to include certain keywords.

Most of us have heard this at least once. But is it true? In the age of increasingly sophisticated applicant tracking systems (ATS) that scan resumes for keywords, it’s easy to wonder if anyone is actually reading your resume. But should you really be penning your resume for machines as opposed to humans? And if you need to get through both, how do you stand out from the pile of resumes with hiring managers but blend in enough to make it past the tracking systems?

We looked at some common assumptions about resumes to see which ones are true — and which aren’t — and what you can do to make yours stand out in all the right ways.

Stand Out for the Right Reasons

Stand Out for the Right Reasons

True or false?

Companies instantly discard resumes for failing to include certain keywords.

Most of us have heard this at least once. But is it true? In the age of increasingly sophisticated applicant tracking systems (ATS) that scan resumes for keywords, it’s easy to wonder if anyone is actually reading your resume. But should you really be penning your resume for machines as opposed to humans? And if you need to get through both, how do you stand out from the pile of resumes with hiring managers but blend in enough to make it past the tracking systems?

We looked at some common assumptions about resumes to see which ones are true — and which aren’t — and what you can do to make yours stand out in all the right ways.

Fiction: You Should Write Your Resume for a Computer Not a Person

Fiction: You Should Write Your Resume for a Computer Not a Person

“The truth is — and it’s both good news and bad news for job seekers — that’s it’s no longer about just looking for keywords, though it’s how a lot of systems used to work,” explains Matt Sigelman, CEO at Burning Glass in Boston, which offers technologies to help match job seekers with jobs that use “contextualized” rather than “semantic” search.

Still, an eye-tracking study by TheLadders found that the average recruiter spends six seconds scanning a resume before deciding if it’s worth a more detailed inspection. So eyeballing job descriptions for important keywords to include in your resume can help. Just don’t do it indiscriminately, tech experts warn.

“It’s less about simply mentioning some magic word,” in your resume, Sigelman says. “Keywords are useful, yes, but what [also] matters is the context in which they’re used,” he explains. “Instead of appending to your resume a heap of buzzwords, it’s important to let prospective employers know how and where you accrued each skill and experience.”

This way employers don’t just see that you claim knowledge of Adobe Photoshop, say, but rather they know that you have been using it every day in the job you have held for the last three years and here’s the kind of projects you have been using it to undertake.

The “bad news” here for job seekers, says Sigelman, is that making resumes relevant requires customizing your resume for each job you apply for to emphasize the specific skills and experiences called for in the job description. That’s not so bad, really, if you can find a happy medium between employing — rather than indiscriminately popping — employer-friendly keywords in your resume and explaining what makes you truly unique.

Read on to see how TagCrowd can help job seekers with the first task.

Fiction: Employer screening software is replacing humans.

Fiction: Employer screening software is replacing humans.

Robots — or search technology programs — aren’t replacing humans. But many companies continue to employ more traditional screening software as well as keyword-focused Cloud technology.

Daniel Steinbock, creator of TagCrowd, a web application for visualizing word frequencies in any sort of text (resumes included), creates what is popularly known as a word cloud or “tag” cloud. You’ve seen these on personal blogs. Word clouds allow you to analyze a document and immediately create a visual that emphasizes words that appear more frequently in a block of text.

“Kids do it with their essays to see if the emphasis is on the things they want to put emphasis on,” Steinbock observes. And whereas employers also increasingly use word cloud technology to decide what should be most prominent in their job postings these days, job seekers can do the same when it comes to resume writing.

The TagCrowd software is free. Be sure to also check out this step-by-step guide on how TagCrowd can improve your resume.

Fiction: Embed keywords from the job description in a tiny, white font at the bottom your resume for scans.

Fiction: Embed keywords from the job description in a tiny, white font at the bottom your resume for scans.

Manipulating ATS with “white font” gimmicks — essentially, embedding key words in small, white font on your resume so your employers’ ATS will be able to read them — isn’t anything new. Moreover, if you’re relying on this measure alone to catch the eye of a recruiter, it could cost you.

Steinbock recommends giving some real thought to crafting your resume for human beings as well as technological audiences. Consider what may speak most convincingly to hiring managers who will inevitably review favored resumes if and when a computer scans them. ATS systems will, in fact, read materials more the way humans do, observes Sigelman.

It can be useful too, to add a “keyword” section at the bottom of the first page of your resume, or higher up if you like. However, use the same type you do in the body of your resume.

“I don’t think keywords need to be hidden at the bottom of the page as if their only purpose is to be detected in computer algorithms,” said Steinbock, who is currently a design and education professor at Keio University in Tokyo, as well as a design professor at Stanford University.

Fiction: Companies instantly discard most resumes for failing to include certain keywords.

Fiction: Companies instantly discard most resumes for failing to include certain keywords.

Some jobs experts have suggested that 60 percent of resumes end up being discarded because of formatting problems. Sigelman says that statement is highly misleading.

“Is it true that the majority of job candidates are not properly articulating who they are and what skills they bring to the position in question? Yes.” However, Sigelman says, “The vast majority of resumes do make it into data bases,” where they will remain so that recruiters can find them if they need to.

Just because you aren’t the right fit for the position you applied for doesn’t mean a recruiter won’t need to dig up your resume for another — perhaps even one for which you’re better qualified.

Fact: Ditch graphics on your resume — or all your hard work will land on the trash heap.

Fact: Ditch graphics on your resume — or all your hard work will land on the trash heap.

Finally, there’s something to say for the idea that it’s best not to clog up your resume with graphics that some companies will not be able to download.

What often happens is that “people do a very fancy resume that will look beautiful printed, but when it’s emailed and uploaded into an employer’s system the formatting comes out garbled on the other side,” said says Kathy Downs, a Robert Half Finance & Accounting recruiting manager in Orlando, Florida.

However, it’s probably not terribly important to use one specific font over another, said Steinbock. He uses Adobe Caslon (which is similar to Garamond), but the rule of thumb with typography is that for smaller font sizes simply “use serif as opposed to sans serif” type, and spend the bulk of your time on content, rather than type format.

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