How to Ensure Your Job Application Actually Gets Looked At

You've heard robots are taking over the world, but the truth is, they've already taken over the world—at least, the world of job seekers. Recruiters rely on applicant tracking systems (ATS) to sift through the hundreds of resumes they receive for each job posting. That might sound depressing, but hope is not lost. Once you understand how an ATS works, it becomes possible to outsmart the robots and ensure your job application is reviewed by a person.

application looked at

How an ATS Works

Just as it's gotten easier for you to apply for jobs online, it's also become easier for hiring managers to ignore your resume. According to the Association for Talent Development, 75 percent of resumes never make it out of an ATS to be seen by the human eye. That means you have a one in four chance of surviving the first cut.

So what differentiates 25 percent of resumes from the rest? They've been formatted for the ATS algorithm, which—thankfully—isn't as mystical as the Facebook algorithm. An ATS scans your resume looking for keywords and continuity in your work history. If it finds the right words and no gaping holes, your application will pass muster to receive human review. The trick is to ensure your resume is easy to scan and hits the right points.

The larger the company to which you are applying, the more likely it is you'll encounter an ATS. You'll find clues throughout the application process, from a "powered by" logo at the bottom of the job posting to a system name in the application URL.

Simplify your resume to stand out

After you've spent hours perfecting your infographic resume and selecting the right font and color scheme, it might be disheartening to hear the best resume format to survive an ATS is an uncomplicated one. In fact, the more uncomplicated, the better. Software will have a harder time scanning multiple columns and tables than a simple one-column format—and even a standard-issue serif font such as Times New Roman has enough flourishes to confuse an older ATS. Better to choose a straightforward sans serif (just not Comic Sans). You can always bring your more creative resume in print to the interview.

It's also wise to use simple titles ("Work History" instead of "Proven Track Record in Marketing") on your resume. A machine is less likely to pick up on jargon.

Personalize and pay attention to keywords

Remember: A machine will be the first one to read your resume—and, if you’re not careful, the only one to read your resume. To outsmart the ATS, personalize your resume to the job posting. A recruiter generally assigns keywords to each job posting, and the software scans each resume for those words. Only those applicants whose resumes meet a certain threshold for keyword density will move on.

The job posting offers clues as to what those keywords might be:

  • Look at the way different job roles and responsibilities are phrased. For instance, if you're applying for a fundraising position, pay attention to whether the employer uses the term "development" or "advancement," and phrase accordingly.
  • Similarly, if the job posting calls for required or preferred experience in a specific software or knowledge area you happen to possess, be sure to mention that software or knowledge area by name.
  • Again, simplicity rules the day. Speak in plain language, and use only industry jargon, not cheesy business buzzwords.

One last bit of advice that should go without saying: Proofread your work—and have a friend or two proofread it, too. A human eye will find a typo unprofessional (or possibly not even notice it). An ATS robot, on the other hand, might not even be able to decipher it.

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