Outsmarting the robots

Did you know that when you submit a job application online, it’s probably read and filtered by a robot before a human ever sees it? No, this isn’t Star Wars. It’s just the 21st century job market. And that “robot” is something called an applicant tracking system (ATS). There’s no way around it, but there are a few things you can do to help your application pass through the system and make it to a real, live human being.

What is an ATS?

An applicant tracking system is a type of software that helps filter and sort online job applications, so recruiters can find the people who are the best fit for their company. Since most companies get hundreds—if not thousands—of applications, an ATS is a time-saving tool because it can filter out spam and applicants who aren’t a good match. It can also store resumés for future job openings, check references, and do other things that help with the hiring process.

The downside is sometimes a perfectly good application can slip through the cracks, because it doesn’t meet all the criteria the ATS is looking for.

How Does an ATS Work?

Every ATS is different, but when you apply online through an ATS you’ll usually be asked to answer some “knockout questions.” These can be short answer, yes/no, or other simple questions that are used to screen candidates and quickly filter out the ones that are a definite no. For example, if the company really needs someone who’ll work weekends, but there’s no way you can or want to, then you’re obviously not a good fit for the job. The ATS will then reject your application.

If knockout questions aren’t part of the company’s ATS, or if your answers are compatible with what they’re looking for, your resumé, cover letter, background info, and contact info are uploaded into the system and can be used to keep narrowing down the candidate pool and help recruiters continue the search.

Beating the ATS

Even if your application does get uploaded into the database, there are still things that can stop your resumé from making it to an actual recruiter. Here are five tips to help your resumé beat the ATS:

Follow instructions – Whatever instructions are given throughout the application process, follow them to the letter! If they’re asking for your documents to be in a specific format, use that format. If they tell you they want a cover letter, give them a cover letter. The more closely you follow instructions, the more likely you are to get through the ATS to the next stage in the hiring process.

Use the keywords from the job description – In this situation, keywords are the hard and soft skills that the recruiters are looking for in a candidate. For example, a job description might list experience with Excel or fluent in Spanish as requirements. Those are keywords you want to make sure you include on your resumé, because recruiters usually search for candidates based on those exact terms.

Edit your resumé to fit the job you’re applying for – Because you’ll be tailoring your resumé based on the keywords, you won’t want to keep submitting the same document over and over to multiple companies. Not only will it be harder to beat the ATS because you might not have the exact right keywords from the job description, but any recruiter who sees your resumé will be able to tell if it’s just a generic one that you send to everyone.

Don’t apply for too many roles in the same company – It’s okay to apply for multiple roles if the positions are similar, but don’t apply to be a marketer, copy editor, customer service representative, and developer at the same organization—even if you have the skill set for all of them. This makes it look like you’re not sure what you want to do, and that will definitely raise some red flags.

See if Your Resumé Would Pass an ATS

Because every ATS is different, there’s no surefire way to see if your resumé would pass the test. But there are a few ways to check for problems.

One way you can do this is to go into Microsoft Word and copy and paste the content from your resumé into a plain text document. Or you can convert your current resumé document into a plain text document by clicking Save As and then changing the format to .txt instead of .docx. If the new version is missing any important details from the original or the characters look different or disorganized, then your original formatting is probably not compatible with an ATS, and you’ll need to format it differently.

You can also try uploading your resumé into an online ATS scanner. There are plenty of free ones out there. Just be cautious, and make sure it’s a reputable site before giving away any personal info. It might take some trial and error before getting your resumé format just right, but it will be worth it when you beat the ATS so an actual human being can see your resumé.

And that will move you one step closer to landing your dream job!