5 techniques to get your resume past pesky applicant tracking systems

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Here’s a not so fun fact: many job applications are trashed before they’re ever even looked at by human eyes. But how can this be you ask? Well, the harsh reality is, most large organizations these days now use applicant tracking systems (ATS) to filter the resumes they receive. These tracking systems are designed to scan your resume for specific keywords that are set by the recruiter or hiring manager in charge. They then grade your resume based on how well the match is and discard all the resumes that didn’t score high enough – leaving only a handful for hiring managers to seriously review and consider.

From the employer’s perspective, this is undoubtedly a handy way to save time and money. After all, every job opening gets hundreds of applications, and if there’s an automated way to immediately screen out all the bad apples, then that’s great – at least for them. For you though, having these pesky systems robotically grade your resume and potentially toss it aside poses a real threat to your hiring chances. To combat this obstacle, here are 5 techniques to employ in order to get your resume past these applicant tracking slaughterhouses.


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Stick with simple formatting

Flexing your creativity or originality with an out-of-this-world resume design might impress some hiring managers, but not the cold-hearted ATS. In fact, it’s important to keep formatting as simplistic as possible when it comes to applicant tracking systems because they can only parse resumes that are saved under certain file types and formatted a certain way.

You should assume that an ATS can only fully understand resumes that are saved as a Word Doc or PDF. Creative touches such as using pictures, logos, and decorative designs on your resume won’t be picked up.

Additionally, any sort of infographic resume built from image editing software such as Photoshop will also be completely indecipherable.

Mimic the job description

Funny enough, the recruiter who writes the description for the job opening you apply to is often the same person who uses the ATS to set what the important keywords are. As a result, the keywords you’ll want to include on your resume are oftentimes the very words and phrases used in the job description. By reading through the job posting, identifying the important technical terms from there, and including them on your resume, you will have likely hit the mark on some of the keywords the ATS is ultimately looking for.

Write out acronyms

Don’t just assume that applicant tracking systems will recognize that CPA stands for Certified Public Accountant or that MD refers to Doctor of Medicine. To play things safe, always include both the fully spelled out version of what you’re referring to as well as the abbreviated version. For instance, if I were to list applicant tracking systems as one of my skills, I would write “Applicant tracking systems (ATS)” to ensure that some version will be recognized.

Lengthen your resume

It’s a cheeky strategy, but it can definitely pay off. An ATS scans for keywords – remember? Well, the more content you include, the more likely it is that you’ll just happen to include the important keywords on your resume – even if it’s just by chance! So, if you want to beat the bots, don’t be picky with what sorts of experiences or skills to include. Just mention them all because it won’t hurt.

Here’s what I mean: let’s say you’re applying for a computer programming job, and the job description emphasizes how important it is to know 5 different programming languages – C#, C++, JavaScript, PHP, and Python. You know all 5 of these languages so you’ve included them on your resume. However, there are other languages you know as well, such as HTML, CSS, Swift, and Ruby – and you’re debating whether it’s worth it to include these skills on your resume because you’re afraid they’ll take up too much space. If you want to give yourself the best possible chance of scoring well with the ATS, then the answer to this is always yes – because while these skills might not be mentioned in the job description, they may still be keywords that the ATS values.

Hire a professional resume writer

Hopefully, with the advice I’ve given, you’ve gained enough confidence in your ability to write a resume that will ace the ATS exam. However, if you still think you need more assistance, hiring a professional resume writer may be just the thing you need. Qualified resume writers typically have a background in recruiting and HR, so they should know all the techniques necessary in getting your resume past applicant tracking systems. After all, many of them likely have experience with utilizing these tools in the past.

Be careful though. Not every person who claims to be a “professional resume writer” is going to know what they’re doing, and I’ve written a CNBC article detailing what to be aware of before deciding on a resume writing service to go with. At the end of the day, you want to choose a writer who’s had direct experience using applicant tracking systems and working in your industry. While there’s no guarantee that the writer you pick will pan out, getting professional help can be just the right move necessary to beating the ATS.

Peter Yang is the CEO of ResumeGo, a national resume writing service dedicated to helping job seekers find their next job. He’s currently a contributor at CNBC and Glassdoor and hopes to share career advice with others.