Have you been submitting your resume to employers, only to never hear a word back—even when you know you’re an excellent candidate for the position you applied for? The problem may lie with the computer system that reads your resume before it gets to a human being.
Either way, you’ll have better luck making it to the short list for the interviewer if you’ll take some steps to ensure you stand out from the crowd of people also applying for that job. Here’s what to do.
Understand how applications are reviewed now.
You may have heard that companies are using software called applicant tracking systems (ATS) to help wade through the many resumes that are submitted to open job postings. But you may not realize exactly how that software works. So, here’s a quick primer:
First of all, it’s easier than ever for job seekers to send a resume online with the click of a button. And while that’s convenient, it also means companies are getting tons more resumes than they used to. The software helps sort these applications to create a short list of “good fits.”
Second, even when a candidate makes it to that short list, it doesn’t necessarily mean the hiring manager sees your full resume. They’re just as likely to see a computer-generated summary, which means some of your information may not make it to that summary.
The bottom line is, you have to do all you can to make yourself stand out—otherwise, you won’t.
So, what should you do?
1. Focus on jobs you’re qualified for.
When you’re eager to find a new job, it can be tempting to submit as many applications as you can, in the hope that you get called in for an interview. But that’s not necessarily the best strategy.
To land the position you want—one that you’re a good fit for—it’s actually better to be selective. Make sure you’re sending your resume to positions you’re qualified for, with the skills and experience to meet the core requirements of the job.
You don’t have to be a “perfect” candidate, but you have to be an acceptable fit, and your resume should prove that you’d be worth the interview because you’d do well in that open position. So, mention skills that relate to the position. Include dates that indicate your level of experience. Add statistics and achievements that prove you’re qualified.
2. Don’t take a scattershot approach. Instead, be selective.
You know that company you’re super excited to work for—the one with tons of open jobs in many different departments? Think about the position that’s the best fit, rather than just applying to everything.
ATS software and human resources professionals alike keep track of all the positions candidates submit for. So, if you’ve applied multiple times for all sorts of opportunities, it can appear as if you haven’t given much thought to where you’d be the best fit. That’s a red flag to HR managers.
Instead, be patient and focused, aiming at the career path that makes the most sense for you to move easily into, and apply only for the opportunities that will take you there.
3. Customize your resume with appropriate keywords.
Whether it’s going through an application scanner, or whether a human being will look at it, your resume needs to show clearly that you’re a match for the position. One of the easiest ways to do that is to mirror the language in the job description.
Look at the core skills you need to show and include them in your past job descriptions, as well as in a summary of qualifications section. Be exact with both long-form and short-form terms and abbreviations—for example, use both “human resources” and “HR” if that’s the type of job you’re applying for, so the software picks it up. If the job post uses a specific phrasing, match it exactly.
Use keywords naturally by making sure your phrasing is conversational and clear. Don’t try to “stuff” the keywords in too often or too awkwardly, because that can get flagged as suspicious, and cause your application to be rejected.
And do this customization for every position to apply for. Yes, it takes time, but it’s worth it because you’ll be increasing the likelihood your resume gets to the hiring manager.
4. Avoid complicated formatting.
There are so many fancy, colorful styles of resumes out there that you might think you have to get overly creative to be seen. But honestly, an attractive, classic resume that is simple to scan is beneficial for both ATS programs and human eyes.
Many designs simply can’t be properly scanned by ATS software, which means your information will get jumbled or lost in the shuffle. To prevent this problem, don’t use logos, tables, columns, graphics, text boxes, graphs, unusual fonts, uncommon special characters, or hyperlinks.
Instead, choose a traditional, simple document style for your resume’s layout. Use common fonts such as Arial, Times New Roman, or Garamond. Normal bullets are okay, but fancy characters such as arrows won’t be properly scanned.
Finally, plan to submit your resume as a traditional Word document (a .docx file). Do this, because not all ATS software can read a PDF. (Surprising? Yes, but still true.)
5. Think like a brand.
These days, so much of our lives is searchable online that successful job candidates must treat their career search like a marketing campaign. Just like your favorite brands, make sure the messages you’re sending are consistent everywhere you can be found online.
Your LinkedIn profile, portfolio, and online resume applications should all line up, because you can expect that many companies will review that to see if you’re legit.
Then, think beyond that to other places you’re online, and make sure your social media accounts match your resume and are appropriately professional. Expect that companies will search you and check all of these details out before they consider you for an interview.
6. Continue to network and connect with people.
While it’s easy to sit at your computer and hit “send” to apply to new positions, a large number of successful candidates for new jobs walked through an open door created by people they connected with. Who you know still matters.
Take time to network on LinkedIn, visit in-person networking events, set up informational interviews, and reach out to your existing connections to let people know when you’re searching for a job.
And don’t forget that printed resumes are still handy, especially for in-person contacts and applications at small, mom-and-pop companies. At some point, your actual resume is likely to be in the hands of an actual person. So, create a version that will appeal to human eyes:
- Keep it to 1-2 pages for ease of scanning.
- Create an attractive, clean design with a font that isn’t too small to read.
- Have copies to provide to anyone who asks for it.
- Have an online version so you can share a link to it when asked.
Summing It All Up
Today’s job application process is highly automated, with application tracking systems doing a lot of the initial vetting of applicants. But that doesn’t mean you have to sit back and hope for a hint of good luck. Instead, you can create your own luck by understanding how ATS software works, carefully targeting your applications, customizing your resume to get seen, and continuing to network to set yourself up for success.