Getting Past the ATS: A Job Seeker’s Guide

The current recruiting process isn’t perfect, and I have heard frustration on both the job hunters’ and recruiters’ side. One could spend hours applying to jobs online, only to receive automated emails as response that their application was received, and then radio silence after that. A recruiter could receive thousands of applications for a given position, and there aren’t enough hours in the day to screen that many candidates.  As a means to answer that problem, ATS or Applicant Tracking Systems are commonplace in the job search. They act as an automated first step when a candidate applies for a position; screening a candidate’s resume, cover letter, and other application materials for key words, skills, titles, and experiences that the employer selects for a given position.  While this process aides the initial problem of volume that recruiters face, it can be difficult for a candidate to ensure that their resume makes it into human hands for consideration. To avoid becoming one of those discouraged candidates, consider the following tips when beginning a job search:

1). Quality over Quantity: A big red flag that a job seeker is about to experience application burnout and feeling discouraged is when I hear that they have applied to hundreds of positions in a short amount of time. While it might seem like the more positions you apply to, the better, it is most often not the case. By taking advantage of “one step apply” features on sites like LinkedIn or CareerBuilder, the candidate often is spending little to no time deciding if this position is a good fit for them, or reflecting on what experiences and skills they have that prepared them well for it. By skipping the step of taking the time to personalize your application materials, and to evaluate if this is even an opportunity you are interested in anyways, you are ending up in a quantity over quality situation. It might initially feel productive to apply to that many positions, but the return on investment isn’t high in this scenario. Instead, developing a target list of employers and job searching strategically will be a better use of your time, and will likely result in a much better job fit.

2). Keywords: Although there is no way for you as the job seeker to know exactly what each keyword an ATS uses, one can still pay attention to clues. Do you see a certain skill mentioned a few times in the position? How about looking at the LinkedIn profile for someone who is currently in that role…what sorts of skills and experiences do they have? Are the skills and experiences you see through doing that research as well as on the posting mentioned in your resume? Taking the time to customize your resume for emphasizing certain skills and experiences you have as relevant to a certain position will definitely help you get past the initial ATS screen. One important word of caution: Make sure you are always authentic in your portrayal of skills. It won’t do you any good to include “Advanced skills in Excel” when you’ve never used a pivot table in your life. Instead, emphasize and showcase the skills you feel are strengths that are also relevant to the positon at hand. Make sure you are including examples of when you demonstrated skills, rather than only listing the skills without context. Additionally, if your resume uses abbreviations, it may be a good idea to also include what the abbreviation stands for incase the ATS uses abbreviations or full phrases.

3). Keep your formatting simple: While you may think fancy formatting and design will help your resume stand out, it will likely just trip up the ATS. Make sure to use standard fonts like Calibri, Arial, Times New Roman, etc. Additionally, using traditional black and white formatting, without symbols or pictures, will help ensure the ATS picks up on your great content. Formatting elements such as tables, and a two-column alignment can also sometimes cause an ATS difficulty.


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