The use of automated resume scanning with Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) has skyrocketed, with nearly 99% of large companies and half of mid-size firms using these technologies to screen applicants. While the practice certainly makes it more efficient for HR to find the right candidates, it can be a minefield for applicants when it comes to getting their resume “past the bots” and into the hands of an actual human. In fact, some 75% of resumes are automatically deleted or rejected by ATS platforms, eliminating candidates regardless of their qualifications.
Do’s and Don’ts for optimizing your resume to make the first cut.
1. DO keep formatting simple. Software scans for keywords and other relevant data, but they cannot detect relevancy if the document is incompatible. Don’t let yours be one of the nearly 45% rejected due to incompatibility. Send only Word files (never a PDF) and keep it simple. Some colored text might be ok, and bold, italic and underline fonts, and bullets are fine, but use a standard typeface and a consistent font size. Leave the header/footer blank, don’t use tables or columns, and avoid using templates, all of which result in outright rejection or a jumbled mess the ATS cannot read.
2. DO include detailed work history. Include the month/year of all positions and full company name (including “Inc.” or “LLC”) for each one, even when listing multiple roles within the same company. Use keyword appropriate titles, which means you may need to slightly modify your title (but honestly, of course). For example, instead of “Level 2 Tech,” use “Senior IT Technician” or “Cybersecurity Technician” as appropriate. Include keyword tasks performed in each role and spell out abbreviations (Chief Executive Officer, Executive Director, Chief Marketing Officer, Search Engine Optimization etc.) because the ATS may not be programmed to spot the shorthand.
3. DO use key words appropriately. Include keywords and phrases from both the job description you are applying for and previous positions throughout and placed as high up in recent history as possible. The right words in the right context and format (e.g., “project manager” vs. “project management”) can make all the difference. Include specific skills and work results achieved with quantifiable metrics if possible — stats like fundraising growth, program impact, productivity improvements, money or time saved, etc.
4. DON’T try to game the system. Avoid keyword “stuffing” techniques like using repetitive keywords or the full job description in white (invisible) text. While it might get your resume past the ATS, it will flag you as potentially dishonest when it reaches a human reviewer.
5. DON’T get too creative. At one time, an eye-catching resume was essential for standing out amid a sea of boring look-a-likes. But today, those creative elements can confuse ATS scans, rendering your work of art an incoherent disaster, or worse, causing immediate rejection. We understand this approach could be uncomfortable for the creatives among us, so remember it’s perfectly okay and even recommended to add this statement, “Resume optimized for ATS. A more detailed version is available upon request.”
Sites like Resume Worded, Skillsyncer and Jobscan offer free or low cost pre-screening services to help make sure your resume will pass scanning and flag any areas you may need to address. Working with a professional recruiter who can provide insight is always a good idea, and he/she can most likely tell you which file format is used by the employer’s specific application system.
Personal still matters. Referrals are still the preferred method of recruiting, and a personal recommendation can double your chances of getting an interview and increase the likelihood you will get hired. Bottom line, submit online but don’t forget the human element of a job search.