Is your Resume Ready for Automated Screening?

A lot of job seekers seem to be brushing off automated resume screening as a novelty. Or they grossly underestimate its impact. These are big mistakes.

Unless you follow the guidelines explained below, your resume is quite likely to stumble, along with many others, through applicant tracking systems, never to be seen by the human eye.

I've illustrated how it all works (the software that screens your resume and what you can do about it) in an infographic. This article is made to complement my infographic.

But first, let me argue that this is quite real.

3 reasons to believe in automated resume screening

I started researching the topic of automated resume screening because I wasn't too sure how necessary was all this advice I was reading. I wasn't going to get bogged down in so many new rules if they only applied once in a while. But here's what I found.

1. “Today [in May 2013] we estimate that more than 60% of all companies have some type of ATS [applicant tracking system]…” (source). That’s the perspective of Josh Bersin, a leading analyst of the HR industry.

2. Even startups are doing it

Your resume gets crunched inside "applicant tracking systems". And startups with employees in the low hundreds are using them. I’m talking about companies like Evernote, Flipboard, Prezi, Snapchat, SurveyMonkey… It’s not just for the big guys.

3. Advice on beating resume screening software isn't that new

I've searched Google with custom date ranges. For queries like ‘beating resume screening software’ or ‘… applicant tracking systems’, we do find a few early articles in 2009, but it really became mainstream around 2012 (covered by Business Insider, Wall Street Journal, etc.). And this technology is still moving forward at a good pace. To quote Bersin again: “… the ATS has now become a core platform and it is available in almost every core HR system… a standard part of the HR infrastructure.”

We are beyond the tipping point. This technology is part of the online job search ecosystem. And you should learn to deal with it, even if a lot of resume or career advisors haven't caught up.

A look behind the scenes: applicant tracking systems and resume parsers

While you're copy-pasting your resume for the umpteenth time in a form, you're helping recruiters fill a database that helps them filter, search, manage and contact candidates. (Which is much better than a folder with 87 resumes.) That database is part of the applicant tracking system (ATS) and the resume screening is performed by a resume parsing software (the robot below).
Now, that robot might seem inoffensive, but it's pretty brutal if you don't play by its rules.
Applicant tracking systems and resume parsers
From the recruiter's perspective, using an ATS is quick and useful, and the drawbacks aren't that bad. You have to understand that, behind the resume parsing aspect, there are many features that make the recruiter's job much more efficient, because the ATS takes care of a lot of recruiting tasks, not just resume parsing. 
"Please give me the top 20 candidates according to the criteria entered." Click. Here's the list.
If you were a recruiter, you'd probably like it, too.
However, from the candidate's perspective, dealing with ATS isn't fun. All these forms you fill seem redundant and pointless. It feels like going backwards. If you're fascinated by self-driving cars and Mars settlements, prepare to be underwhelmed by resume screening technology. Because bad punctuation or putting your name in a header could be fatal.  

Understanding job fair interaction...

At the job fair, you might be wondering why companies seem so reluctant to take your paper resume. It's usually because of the ATS.
When you hear:
"We don't take paper resumes. It would be great if you applied through our career page... Here's a pen!"
What they really mean is:
"I don't want to get back to the office and have to scan your paper resume, and then make sure that the system has parsed it well. So I'll let you do the work... And we don't have the money for an iPad contest like this other booth."

Your challenge

Understanding text is incredibly troublesome for software. When resume parsers see "Duke" on your resume, is it a place where you worked or a place where you studied? Unless it's your title? That's where they have to choose which label to put on which block of information. That's called Statistical Natural Language Processing (SNLP) and it's a big part of resume parsing. SNLP is quite hard. And that's a good reason to make sure your resume doesn't create more obstacles with formatting issues.

Resume parsing gone wrong

Here's a little story that illustrates my point. In Silicon Valley, a company was using a software to scan resumes, in order to accelerate recruitment. In order to test the system, they used the resumes of their best engineers. They wanted to see how their stars would fare going through the ATS and its resume parser. 5 resumes were sent in, and only 3 lived to tell the tale. (I've learned about this story here.)
That ATS was obviously too severe. But many people have been the unfortunate actors in a similarly awful play. 

Avoid confusing resume parsers

While there are a lot of applicant tracking systems on the market (Taleo being the largest), they usually outsource the resume parsing aspect to a handful of companies you've never heard of: Daxtra, BurningGlass, Sovren, TextKernel, Trovix. And they all face the same complexity related to language processing. So they all work better with a very lean resume format.

Keep the format simple!

You're allowed to use bold and bullets. Keep everything aligned to the left. Dates are the exception (right or left). Fonts should be web-safe (Arial, Arial Black, Verdana, Tahoma, Trebuchet, Georgia, Garamond. And Times New Roman, but I hate this font.) And not too small (font size 10 and up).

Confusing elements

The following elements can confuse the resume parser. DO NOT use:
  1. Colors, images, graphics.
  2. Headers and footers (i.e. the Word function with dedicated header/footer areas).
  3. Columns or tables (note that the founder at told me that tables worked just fine in his tests).
  4. More than one font.
  5. Special characters, such as () / - but bullets are fine!
  6. Condensed or expanded text (font spacing).
  7. Bad spelling.
  8. Improper capitalization or punctuation (they're often used to mark the beginning/end of a block).
  9. Acronyms (use the long form also, not just CIO or CPA by themselves).
  10. Unorthodox section names (stick to "Work Experience" (or "Experience") and "Education", not "Career Achievements" and "Training".)
Yeah. There's a lot of stuff. And many of them look like pretty stupid issues. If your resume had any sort of design, it will have been sucked dry once you've made it ATS-friendly. Remember to make it clean and professional, since a human will read it at some point.

Another silly rule

In your Experience section, don't start with dates. Parsers look for job titles or company names and then assign the FOLLOWING dates to that block.

The screening software is trying to make sense of your resume. It's not just blindly looking for keywords or key phrases, but it's actually trying to answer some questions. What were your jobs? How long were you there? What's your education? What are your skills?

PDF or DOC or what?

Most resume parsers promise that they can scan the most recognized file types for text: doc, docx, pdf, txt, rtf and html. However, the jury is still out... The safest choices seem to be docx, doc and pdf.
To name the file, you should use your own name and include the date. A good file name is "Richard Poulin November 2015.docx". Please avoid  "Resume 1.docx".

Optimize your chances

Let's fight fire with fire. If they're going to recruit you with far-from-perfect tools, to speed up the process and make their lives easier, you should use that to your advantage!

1. Mirror the keywords

While I think lying is a terrible idea, you should focus on what they want to hear. Choose keywords from the job ad that look more important to them. Put these EXACT keywords on your resume. And by "exact", I mean that the parser might not equate "client" with "customer", for example. Being exact bridges these gaps. Your resume summary is a great place to use some keywords.
And you get bonus points if you use the exact job position they're looking for. For example, if they're looking for a supply chain analyst, in your summary, you could say "Perfectly suited for the supply chain analyst position, with 6 years of experience in logistics..." If you use a branding statement (like I recommend on recent graduate resumes), plug it in there!

2. Use keywords in context

Resume screening rewards keywords used in context. Which means that skills on a "grocery list" of skills aren't scored as high as the skills that appear within bullets of your Experience section. In other words, keyword stuffing doesn't do much. Keywords are weighed according to other nearby words.

3. Apply early

In certain organizations, the ATS is paid as a service, which may bill the company per applicant. So it's cheaper if they ask for 50 candidates, instead of taking everyone who applies. Late applicants are sometimes discarded.

4. Use tools to automate your end of the operation

There are tools to help you accelerate significantly the form-filling frenzy. Look for password managers or form fillers. RoboForm looks like the only password manager with a resume-filling feature. Such tools will cost you about $20 per year. They won't do all the work, but it will help quite a bit.
There's also that lets you test your keyword-matching abilities. Give Jobscan your resume and the job posting you want to reply to, and it will compare them to show you how good your resume fits that opening.

But aren't most jobs in the "hidden job market"?

You might have heard about the hidden job market. Supposedly, 80% of job openings aren't made public. Therefore, job boards are a terrible approach and you should really put most of your time in networking.
Well, that story isn't accurate these days.
45 percent of hires come from online channels
I've debunked the hidden job market myth here. But for now, the 45% figure above is critical. This figure comes from the SilkRoad report, Top Sources of Hire 2014. It confirms that applying through job boards, job search engines or career pages consistently yields many interviews and job offers. It's important to note that career pages yield better rates of hires than other online options.

That being said, referrals still trump other entry points. Which means you still need strong networking! It remains critical to your job search:

"... a job seeker who is referred is conservatively three to four times more likely to be hired (some studies have found that a job seeker who is referred is 14 times more likely to be hired) than someone who applies for a position without a referral." (CareerXroads, Source of Hire 2014)
When you're networking, you're being proactive and discovering spaces where competition is less brutal. And you're building trust through human interaction, which can hardly be done by applying online.

Does it mean that beautiful resumes are a thing of the past?

A lot of us like design or artistic touches. And this whole ATS thing feels like it's making the job search process even less human.

It doesn't mean that you can't have a nicely formatted resume anymore. It just narrows down where you can use it. Here a few good opportunities to hand out a nicely designed resume to real people: job fairs, informational interviews, industry events, smaller companies in general and job interviews.

If you want a nice looking resume, I've written about the trendy visual resumes (and their many issues).

Play by the rules to get interviews

Online opportunities are probably a significant part of your job search. Making sure your resume is ATS-friendly is a huge step. And you should definitely follow the 3 laws of resume writing (this is to convince real people). If you need help with this, check out my books!

Once you've done that, you're well equipped. Be proactive by searching through career pages on companies' websites. Create a job search routine around Indeed, LinkedIn and niche job boards. Find what works for you. Track everything you're doing. Follow up. With a healthy dose of networking, it's only a matter of time before the phone starts ringing.