Ready to put your best foot forward, you loop back to the job posting in search of the recruiter’s email address, only to find a blue “apply now” button in its place. You take the bait—you’ve come this far, after all—and realize you’ve run full speed into job hunter purgatory: the applicant tracking system.
This is actually a pretty common scenario: For most of us, the applicant tracking system doesn’t cross our mind until it’s staring us right in the face. But here’s the scary part: In the scenario above, what you do next has the chance to make or break your chances of getting a job interview.
That’s right: career progression, chances of landing your dream job, that potentially huge salary boost… they all depend on your ATS resume strategy.
So what do you do?
You have three choices:
- Throw caution to the wind and move ahead with your application, as-is.
- Spend a few minutes or hours perfecting any required application questions, and then submit the same resume to the application tracking system.
- Hit the pause button and think about how to beat applicant tracking systems; cross-reference your resume with the original job description using Jobscan; and re-work the details just to be safe.
If we’re honest, most of us will probably choose Option 1 or 2. Heck, I’m a former recruiter, and I’ve done it before!
The problem? Option 1 and 2 negatively impact your chances of getting an interview. It’s like spending your entire life training for the Olympics, finally qualifying, and then getting denied at the airport check-in counter because you forgot to book a plane ticket.
Have I got your attention? Good.
Here are all the things you need to know about writing your resume for an applicant tracking system. As in, triple your chances of getting an interview massive.
Writing an ATS-friendly Resume Takes Planning
Remember back in the day—think Don Draper and Mad Men—when you had to get past the secretary if you wanted a meeting with the executive? Well, in 2015, you have to get past the applicant tracking system if you want an interview with the recruiter. And sadly, applicant tracking systems can’t be bought with martinis and flowers.
Brushing off the importance of applicant tracking puts your job search at a massive disadvantage.
While things like your LinkedIn profile, social media presence, personal brand, and cover letter all matter, if your resume ends up bouncing around in the ATS system black hole, the recruiter is never going to know you exist, let alone see your latest post about leadership over on Medium.
So what does planning mean, exactly?
Applicant Tracking System Keywords and Resume SEO Matter
As a former recruiter, I get a “friends and family” resume question at least once a week, and my #1 tip is always the same: Before you start writing your resume, make a list of the keywords that are important to your industry and function.
Beyond that, keywords are critical to writing an ATS resume.This is good advice if you’re writing for an actual human being. After all, recruitment is a time-crunch industry, and recruiters rarely read resumes in detail.
You may have heard of search engine optimization (SEO). It’s the careful mix of keywords that writers, marketers, and website designers use to tell search engines what their website is all about.
In 2015, resumes need SEO, too.
The keywords you use throughout your resume are what the applicant tracking system uses to assess whether your experience matches the job.
Not all ATS Resume Keywords are Created Equal
When you’re writing a resume for ATS recognition, any old keyword won’t do. You need to use the exact same keywords listed in the job description.
ATS systems are smart, but at the end of the day, they only find what they’ve been told to look for, and that’s a list of keywords from the hiring manager.
Consider these three examples of how an ATS can get tripped up:
- Some ATS can’t distinguish between front-end and front end.
- Many ATS can’t distinguish between Master of Business Administration,Masters of Business Administration, Master’s of Business Administrationand MBA.
- Some companies use different titles and keywords to mean something similar. For example, Project Manager vs. Program Manager.
The only way to get around this is to use the exact same language and punctuation as in the job description.
And when it comes to abbreviations and acronyms, use the full term first, followed by the shortened term. For example: “Master of Business Administration (MBA).”
Resume Keyword Stuffing is a Huge No-no
As with many things in life, when it comes to writing an applicant tracking system (ats) optimized resume, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.
Let me be clear: If you “keyword stuff” your resume, the ATS will red flag it, sending your resume to the black hole of failure.
Having keywords appear more frequently in your resume does translate into a higher ATS ranking—up until a point.
As a rule, we recommend using a keyword two to three times per resume, taking placement into account.
Your Job Title Matters for Applicant Tracking Systems
This one can be difficult for candidates to get their heads around, because it feels…wrong. But I promise you professional resume writers do it all the time: tweak job titles to fit the role applied for. Small changes to your job titles can make a big difference with an ATS.
Let’s consider Jenn again.
- Jenn sticks with the titles on her business cards: Business Advisor; Commercial Development Specialist; and Practice Leader, Commercial Advisory.
- Jenn streamlines her titles to fit the McKinsey & Co. Consultant role: Business Advisory Consultant; Commercial Development Consultant; and Consulting Practice Leader, Commercial Advisory
Can you see how those simple changes could make all the difference when it comes to applicant tracking systems that are looking for keywords?
Keep it Simple
While ATS are intelligent, and becoming more so every year, they still have significant limitations.
When it comes to formatting, font, and document type, “keep it simple” is the best rule to follow.
- Many applicant tracking systems can’t read tables. As such, they’re best avoided.
- Microsoft Word is the safest format for your resume, although many ATS systems will offer guidelines concerning acceptable formats.
- An applicant tracking system might struggle with non-standard section headers, so it’s best to stick with classics, such as “Work Experience” or “Professional Experience,” and avoid creative titles, such as “What I’ve Done.”
Keep it Human
I’d be remiss to end this post without mentioning something that—while obvious—is easy to forget when you’re focused on beating an ATS system: If you do everything right, your resume will be reviewed by a real person.
Writing your resume exclusively for an ATS system is like baking a cake just for its looks.
I don’t know about you, but I want a cake that looks good and tastes good! And when it comes to your resume, you need it to do double duty—to both get you past an applicant tracking system, and appeal to human readers.
While optimizing your resume for an applicant tracking system isn’t rocket science, it does require careful planning… and practice.
If you’re concerned about your resume, or simply want to see how it will perform in an applicant tracking system, be sure to test our resume scanning tool here!
For this post, YouTern thanks our friends at Job Scan Blog!