When you visualize yourself in the job application process, you think about ways you can impress the right people to get a headstart in your career or your new position. You focus on making a good impression on the recruiter, connecting with the boss, and even charming members of the panel who will likely have a say in whether or not you get the job or move forward in the consideration process.
Today, however, this line of thinking may be a little outdated. Most likely, the first “person” to impress in your job application journey is not a person, but an algorithm and an automated system known as an applicant tracking system.
Organizations, companies, and human resource departments worldwide are increasingly making use of digital systems and algorithms to sift through applicants to screen them before an actual face-to-face interview.
The Applicant Tracking System, or more popularly known as ATS, is the automated system that is used to parse and review resumes and routinely assists humans in matching the right people for the right positions.
How Do Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) Work?
Applicant Tracking Systems work by scanning the data on your submitted resume or CV, and matching these with the configured needs of every position, as set by the recruiting party or organization. Each resume is given a score and ranked. Usually, only those in the top ranks will go on to the next step into an actual human’s hands where a recruiter or hiring manager will actually spend time reviewing the resume and evaluate whether or not the candidate should move onto the next interview stage.
According to research, over 90% of Fortune 500 Companies use an Applicant Tracking System. A sizable number of medium and small scale enterprises are also starting to adopt these digitized recruitment systems as more companies develop applicant tracking systems that are tailored for smaller organizations with more affordable pricing.
Whether you’re applying for a big company or a small start-up, knowing how to optimize your resume for applicant tracking systems is essential.
Think of it this way, the ATS is the interviewer, and your resume represents you in the first step of the recruitment process. So how do you make your alter ego stand out? Here are 5 solid ways you can improve and optimize your resume to stand out with applicant tracking systems:
1.) Make a Good First Impression
You know you’re always told to “dress well,” “look presentable”, and “keep your composure” for a job interview. Well, it turns out, the same principles apply to optimize your resume for applicant tracking systems. For these algorithms and automated programs, appearances and formatting also matter.
Heavily-designed resumes are not usually read well by the applicant tracking system algorithm, especially if the formatting comes in cut-out text boxes. Yes, they may look good aesthetically, but running these types of resumes in the ATS will mess up the content of your job seeker profile and decrease your shot at landing a face-to-face, phone, or text interview.
When it comes to building the perfect resume, you should stick with the free resume builder from ResumeCompass that has been built and perfected from the ground up to ensure that your resume helps you stand out as the leading candidate with unique and properly formatted templates and resume designs that will help elevate your career.
Remember to avoid using — tables, text boxes, graphs, images, columns, headers and footers, and symbols. It is also ideal to stick to commonly-accepted fonts such as Calibri, Times New Roman, Arial, or Cambria to reduce the chances of ATS mistranslation. You can also use other tried and tested resume building-apps to help format your resume.
When it comes to the format of the actual document, unless the application calls for a PDF format, experts recommend submitting your resume in a DOCX format as all ATS algorithms universally read this.
While some applicant tracking systems can read PDF documents, nearly every single applicant tracking system can read a DOCX file. Don’t eliminate yourself from contention because you’re submitting a PDF file that an applicant tracking system can’t read or parse correctly.
Pro-tip — Do the “Plain Text Test”
Run this test to see if your resume format will be read well by the ATS algorithm.
Highlight and copy the content of your resume, then paste it into a plain-text document. Review the content and see if all texts are readable, correct, chronological, and organized.
If some of the text were jumbled around, your resume format needs editing. Repeat until you get the right content in the plain-text format.
To ensure that you’re using the free resume builder that will optimize your resume, format it correctly, and help you stand out as the leading candidate, use the ResumeCompass Free Resume Builder.
2.) Choose the Right Words
Keywords are essential to crafting an ATS-approved resume. Pay attention to how recruiters write job descriptions. One of the best ways to separate yourself from the other applicants is to use some of the common keywords in the job posting on your resume. One of the best ways to identify keywords you should use on your resume is by using the ResumeCompass Job Match Scanner, which highlights common keywords, phrases, and ways you can increase the chances your resume will be chosen by the applicant tracking system. This will boost your chance to get a high ranking in the applicant tracking system screening process. Make sure that the placing of these keywords flows naturally.
Check, double-check, and triple-check for typos. Misspelled words will not be understood by the system and will not be counted as relevant information to your job seeker profile.
Remember to put only relevant information on the job and don’t overcrowd your resume with too much content. It is tempting to put every milestone in your career on your resume, but the only ones that matter is the ones that are relevant to the job description.
Pro-tip — Spell out words
It is easy to assume that acronyms are easily understood, especially those who are including industry-specific terms or phrases, such as CPA, MBA, etc. However, some ATS algorithms are programmed to parse and rank spelled out words, not acronyms. So, whenever you use acronyms, remember to spell them out at all times to ensure that you’re not missing out on key details.
Instead of CPA, use Certified Public Account. Instead of MBA, use Masters of Business Administration. Also, remember to use full and traditional job titles instead of quirky moderns ones.
3.) Don’t Cheat
We all get and understand that it can be hard and sometimes frustrating to go through the job search process, especially when you know you are trying to impress a computer before actually getting the human recruiter’s attention. However, cheating digitally or face-to-face is always a bad option.
You won’t lie in an actual job exam or interview, so don’t cheat your way by trying to outplay the applicant tracking system. There are a bunch of “hacks” out there designed to allegedly “cheat” the system and give your resume a better score by copying the recruiters’ keywords and job description and pasting them somewhere in your resume. Experts have debunked these methods and said it does not work and will be discovered on your job seeker profile by the applicant tracking system.
Also, even if you get past the ATS, once a human recruiter discovers your “hack,” you will completely lose your chance of getting the job because it does not reflect well on your character and it calls into question whether or not the applicant tracking system ranked you as a leading candidate because you deserved it, or simply because you tried to cheat the ATS.
Pro tip — Just don’t cheat.
Nothing worth having comes easy. Trust the process, put your best foot forward and believe in yourself, not in some hack or glitch you managed to find.
4.) Do Your Research
Know what you’re getting into and thoroughly research the job posting before applying for any job vacancy.
First, look into the job description. Don’t do an application-spree and apply for all the jobs available at your disposal. You’re setting yourself up for failure and disappointment. Not to mention, you’re just wasting your time. Review each job posting intently and evaluate whether you’re fit for the job or not. Only apply to those you think you are capable of doing or roles in which you’d be a good fit. If you know you’re an excellent match to the position, use this as your leverage and explain in your resume and application what skills you have that will add value to the open job in their company.
Next, do your research on the company. Try to identify what kind of people they want, what type of work environment they foster, what type of work performance they expect. Then, present what you can offer, or how well you’ll fit in the company based on this research.
Third, read up on as many resume building tips as you can. When you have time, listen to various sources, personal experiences, and expert advice on building a resume to upgrade your skills. To save time, you can use the free resume builder on ResumeCompass which will help guide you to craft the best resume you can build with professional insights along the way.
Pro tip — Customize the keywords you use on every company you apply to.
Know what the company needs and what the company values. Besides using the words in the recruiter’s job call description, you may also throw in some words from the company’s corporate core values or vision.
5.) Make Your Pitch
While the applicant tracking system algorithm aims to standardize all the qualified applicants for the position, your goal is to stand out from the crowd. Don’t forget that after pleasing the algorithm, you still have to impress the humans involved in the recruiting process.
Don’t go overboard with the keywords. Balance is key. Focus on highlighting the value you can provide the organization.
A good exercise is to read your resume out loud and see if the information flows naturally. Take the time to confirm that everything is readable and there is no information overload in the document.
Pro-tip — Write a short but strong cover letter.
Some companies also use ATS in screening cover letters, so do not overlook this part. This is your chance to have a more personal approach, pitch what you bring to the table, and let your personality and story shine. To build and effective cover letter, make sure that you check out the ResumeCompass Cover Letter Builder.
Preparing your resume for job interviews and face-to-face panel discussions is something you need to prepare extensively. However, it is not the only thing that will determine whether or not you get the job. A big part of your career seeking journey is to build and have a resume that will help you unlock your potential and elevate your career.
Follow these five unique ways to optimize your resume for applicant tracking systems to pave the way for your climb up the corporate ladder.
About the Author
Nissar Ahamed is the Founder & CEO of CareerMetis.com, a publication dedicated to helping job seekers and freelancers with actionable advice and resources. He is also the host of The Career Insider Podcast.
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