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Your dream job, say as a Google programmer or a globe-trotting wine taster, appears in a posting online. You submit a resume and a week goes by—no response. After two or three more, still nothing. The simmering distress boils over as you realize that a response will never come, and you’ll never know why.
“Don’t take it personally,” a friend tells you over drinks. The advice sounds canned but is quite literally correct: A robot likely read and rejected your application.
The robot is actually software known as an applicant tracking system (ATS) and it’s used by about 95% of Fortune 500 companies and many online job boards, says John Sullivan, a management professor at San Francisco State University. Since applying for a job is just a click away, companies and staffing firms need to sift through hundreds, sometimes thousands of resumes. The top ones reach human eyes; the rest don’t.
But don’t fret: The algorithms “are quite beatable,” Sullivan says. “It’s easy to follow the rules, but the applicant tracking systems will never find you if you don’t.”
Here’s what experts say are the best ways to play the applicant tracking game.
Keywords Are (Nearly) Everything
The first step in beating the job-search algorithms is understanding how they work — and it’s not as complicated as you might think.
The system searches resumes for keywords mentioned in a job posting, then tallies up those keywords and determines which applicants have the most relevant skills and experience. But applicants cannot simply regurgitate important terms over and over again.
“Keyword bingo doesn’t exist anymore because products have gotten more intelligent,” says Scott Gordon, national director of recruiting at the staffing firm Vaco, which has used the software since its founding in 2002. The algorithms not only value quantity but quality, he says.
Applicants should use keywords that appear in the job posting as well as acronyms or synonyms that communicate the skillset. For example, if you’re applying for a job as a computer programmer, you should mention computer programmer as well as related terms like coder and developer. Furthermore, you should refer to coding languages such as Cascading Style Sheets by both its full name and its acronym, CSS.
Another tip: use the words precisely. The algorithms “can read phrases, sentences, and paragraphs,” Gordon says. But again, don’t repeat them. “Our rule of thumb is three times,” says Kathy Spearing, managing director of management resources at the hiring firm Brilliant.
Keep It Simple
The algorithm isn’t perfect and more so, is a fussy reader. It can’t take in resumes in PDFs, nor headers and footers. Other flourishes to avoid: playful fonts, photos, logos, colored paper, and text boxes. All hey can all prevent the ATS from properly scanning an application.
“Candidates must resist the urge to make their resumes ‘beautiful,” says Ken Hamada, a product manager at the hiring firm Korn Ferry, which works with client companies that use applicant tracking systems. “Keep it simple.”
The best way to do that? Just use good ol’ fashion Microsoft Word.
These keyword and formatting tricks can obscure the ultimate goal: getting an application in front of a real-life human. “Once you enter the information into the system and it selects candidates, a human being on the other end won’t just take the applicant tracking system for its word,” Vaco’s Gordon says. “The human factor will be the deciding factor every time.”
In other words, if you say you have a skill set for the sake of keywords, you better mean it. In addition to technical skills, the soft skills of communication and cultural fit inevitably come into play, Brilliant’s Spearing says. Those skills can shine in a well-written cover letter, as well as the interview likely to come if your application makes it to the top of the heap.
Pick Up a Phone – Seriously
Algorithm hacks such as these can help an application outperform the others. But a well-placed phone call to a hiring manager or human resources representative helps an applicant stand above the digital fray.
“The phone is extremely important,” Vaco’s Gordon says. “It’s definitely important to establish some sort of rapport.”
Amid an expanding economy with low unemployment, a persuasive phone call could even allow an applicant to circumvent the dog-eat-dog online gauntlet altogether, says Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at the Wharton School.
“The bargaining power is shifting,” Cappelli says. “You’re more likely to call somebody and say I don’t want to fill out an application on ATS. They may say, ‘OK, fine.’”