TIPS: Fourteen Tips for Avoiding the Online Application Black Hole

By Frances ChavesATS-Resume-Black-Hole-300x239
Applicant-tracking systems (ATS) are getting more sophisticated. Front-loading your resume with keywords is no longer enough to get your resume to the top of the pile. Understanding how the new ATS systems can help.  
ATS systems were originally developed to scan paper resumes into a database, do basic screening, and track an applicant through the interview and hiring process.  Then, with the introduction of semantic search technology, they evolved to scan for keywords, former employers, years of experience and schools attended, tabulate the information and rank applicants.  Savvy job searchers evolved, too, wall-papering their resumes with keywords from the job descriptions.
The next-generation applicant-tracking systems rely on contextual search technology which searches for the data contained in the documents instead of file names or key fields.  Lisa Vaas  describes how the software examines your resume like a human: with an understanding of the subject matter, analyzing not just a keyword but its relation to elements, including relevant and related terms, the depth of the experience and how recent the experience was in a candidate’s career path.
Is it important to tailor your resume to fit the new search standards? According to a January 24, 2012 Wall Street Journal article, in 2011:

  • 7.6 million people applied to Starbucks for 65,000 corporate and retail job openings
  • Almost one million people applied to Procter & Gamble for 2,000 positions
  • Two million people applied to Google for 7,000 openings
  • Approximately 90 percent of big companies use applicant tracking systems to screen and rank job candidates

Tips for keeping your resume out of the black hole:

  1. Use keywords exactly as they appear in the job description; for example if the job description calls for a sales manager, use sales manager NOT “managed sales.”
  2. Frame the keyword with descriptive material that demonstrates experience and familiarity with the subject.
  3. When listing employers, always list the employer before the year(s) you worked there.
  4. Using words in your resume that the company uses on its website to describe its values may push your resume up in the rankings. For example, if they express an interest in environmental sustainability, include related volunteer work, memberships, publications, etc.
  5. Avoid “choking” or crashing the system by using embedded pictures, headers and footers, graphics and logos, which make it difficult for the software to read and sort the text into categories.
  6. Keep your format simple:  when listing your past positions, if it’s all on one line, the software gets confused about the company, the position, and the dates when you worked there. To hit all the categories, put them on separate lines.
  7. Some ATS ranking systems give higher scores to elite schools. Even if you don’t have a Harvard MBA, list anything you’ve done with a top tier school like a continuing ed course, conference, etc.
  8. Many of the new systems are programmed to give you a higher ranking if you have a contact with the company who is willing to recommend you. So be sure to include that person’s name either in the cover letter or somewhere on the online application system.
  9. Contextualization evaluates how dated a skill is and where you acquired that experience in your career path, so make sure to include key skills in your most recent jobs.
  10. The new software recognizes an employer’s name and then analyzes the job description to determine your role and its corresponding skills.
  11. Always upload your resume into an online job application rather than cutting and pasting text which can choke the system.
  12. Make sure your punctuation and capitalization are correct. ATS software uses mail-merge to send emails to the HR recruiters apprising them of good candidates. Punctuation and capitalization errors can confuse the software about where to begin and end a field. The information then has to be added manually and it’s unlikely anyone is going to take the time to do it.
  13. Monitor your spam folder because your email system may read follow-up emails generated by ATS as automatically generated and send them to your spam folder.
  14. Typing false qualifications in white font does not work.

Take heart if you feel that your resumes are going into a black hole. So many companies are receiving complaints that more and more are installing software that will notify applicants about the status of their applications. Still, the better tailored your resume is to the company’s needs and the more correctly it is formatted, the more likely you are to score that interview. So good luck!

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