How to turn an Applicant Tracking System from barrier to gateway

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Applicant Tracking Systems, also known as ATS, resume screening software, and "contextual parsers" among other things, programs are used by an increasing number of employers and recruiters to manage the often overwhelming volume of online job applications.

An Applicant Tracking System accomplishes this task by screening resumes in order to weed out those that do not meet the specific requirements of the job. Because more organizations require the job applicant to submit his or her cover letter, resume and other information online, HR professionals are less likely to be the "first responder" when you apply for a job. In fact, if your resume does not pass the ATS hurdle, no human being is ever likely to lay eyes on it. Not a soul.

The concept of the Applicant Tracking System can be explained as follows:

  • When you submit a job application and resume online, the ATS will read your resume.
  • It will score your qualifications according to how well your resume matches the metric developed by the employer for the specific job description.
  • Because of the intense competition for so many jobs, most HR professionals (recruiters included) do not have the bandwidth to review every resume that comes in the door. An ATS relieves such individuals from doing this time-consuming (and often very tedious) work. After all, if you have seen one resume, you have seen them all.

As it turns out, however, although streamlining the resume review process greatly benefits employers, the ATS has the potential to be detrimental to your job search. An Applicant Tracking System screens your resume by filtering your submission for keywords and word sequences in order to extract information most relevant to the hiring decision (i.e. the job). As a result, it acts as a barrier to entry, so to speak.

If your resume does not meet the minimum standards established by the employer regarding background, training, education and other qualifications, the filter will eliminate your submission from further consideration. The extent of the problem an ATS can create for your job search is illustrated by the fact that at least 75 percent of all resumes are discarded by an Applicant Tracking System for failing to meet the system's requirements.

So, how do you get your resume read? What things do you need to do in order to ensure that it scores high enough to pass the screening test and make it to the desk of a decision maker? Here are several factors to keep in mind:

Style, then substance

Carefully review the ATS instructions. Look for specific requirements regarding formatting, number of pages, whether the employer prefers a narrative style resume or one in bullet point form, etc. Keep formatting as simple as possible. Does the employer want Rich Text Format (RTF) or a Word document, for example?

"Can" your canned resume

You are probably confident your resume looks professional. You have had professionals review and critique it. It is a work of art! Unfortunately, an Applicant Tracking System does not care. At all. The only "appearance" factor an ATS considers is that it be formatted correctly.

Your focus should be on resume content. Remember, you want your resume to trigger the ATS algorithm for the specific job you are seeking. The best and, as it turns out, simplest way to ensure that this happens is to carefully review the job description, paying particular attention to the duties and responsibilities that you will be expected to carry out. For additional guidance, review other ads for similar positions in the same industry.

Look for words and word structures that apply specifically to the industry, be they in the form of jargon or technical language. If you do not understand a word or term, research it. You will be expected to know the meaning eventually, perhaps even as soon as the interview. If you do not understand the meaning by that time, your quest for the job will probably end right there and then, perhaps embarrassingly so.

Employer first

In other words, when you list your employment history, put the name of each employer before the dates you worked for them. Otherwise, you will confuse the ATS and your information for that employer may not be read.

Words matter

We have stressed the fact that the ATS will scan your resume for certain words and, if it does not find them, your resume will be discarded. There was even a time when these systems required you to use the exact word, not some variation of it. For example, if the job description spoke to "project development," the words "developed projects" would not be read. If the job involved "research," calling yourself a "researcher" in the resume would not have helped you, nor would a description of the subjects you "researched."

Fortunately, these systems have become more advanced. You now have the opportunity to include a few more keywords because you can vary them according to the context in which they are used and they will still be read by the Applicant Tracking System.

Not surprisingly, this means that you also have to be specific. Fluffing up your resume using general words such as "leader," "professional," or "organized" and phrases such as "highly skilled," "problem solver," or "forward-thinking" are not likely to have any impact on the ATS unless the position for which you are applying specifically lists them as being requirements or preferred characteristics/skills for the job.

The most important thing to remember is this: Use words that are directly related to the skills and abilities the position requires. Including a paragraph at the top titled "Core Competencies" or "Professional Strengths" allows you to summarize not only your skills set and expertise but your intangibles as well (for example, that you have "management experience" or "line item budget responsibility").

Be sure that the content of the paragraph matches the job description as closely as possible. If necessary, cut and paste the actual description into your resume and then edit it so that the ATS "thinks" you and the job were made for each other.

As well, as you try to ascertain which words are truly key, do not forget industry lingo. Say, for example, you are applying for a workers' compensation claims adjuster position and you have industry experience. Use both "Workers Compensation Board" and "WCB." But be careful, because that agency is sometimes referred to as the "Workers' Compensation Board". This is one of those situations where you need to sweat the small stuff.

Let us look at another example. If claims processing is one of your skills, say so. If that was your job, then "claims processor" and "processing claims" are two other ways you can match the job description without sounding too repetitive.

No visuals

An Applicant Tracking System will not be looking for pictures, graphs, charts or any other graphic images. Some systems are confused by it; others will simply reject the resume out of hand. And yes, Emoticons are an absolute non-starter. Trust us. You are applying for a job, not texting or chatting in snaps. An ATS does not care if you are clever.

Simplify the formatting

Do not use headers, footers, templates, borders, boxes, special fonts, etc. Avoid special characters. You should also not list your degrees or certification anywhere but in the body of the resume or the "Strengths/Competencies" paragraph referred to above. If you put them at the top along with your name and contact information but not anywhere else in the document, those accomplishments that you are so proud of will be invisible to the ATS.

Always check your spelling

If permitted by the particular Applicant Tracking System, write your resume as a Word Document and then cut and paste it where requested in employer's online application page. Chances are the Word spell checking program is better than the one integrated into the ATS (and that is assuming there is one). Regardless, be sure to look for spelling errors (again) and read everything over one more time (again) to catch any grammatical errors you may have made.

Designed to streamline the work flow of Recruiters and HR departments, Applicant Tracking Systems restrict access of job applicants to only those the systems deem most suitable. If you do not optimize your resume to navigate the ATS of a recruiter or employer, it will likely not even make it to someone's desk for review. And that is, of course, doom for any job search.

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