Not long ago I did some extensive research into about dozen or so ATS software (Applicant Tracking Systems) that are presently on the market (there are about 30-35 out there, as near as I can tell). Typically managed by Human Resource offices, ATS systems are software that scan your resume for keywords that match you up with a job or jobs that you apply for. They are meant to save HR officers time when reviewing resumes.
So as part of my research I read up on their specifications, talked at length with several of their sales representatives, and even put some resumes I have created through them to see how they worked. Even though each has different features, they have been around long enough that you see a lot of commonalities between them. They have also improved dramatically over the years, but still have their pros and cons.
So below are a few things I learned to hopefully help you as a job seeker.
Stuffing a Resume with Keywords
It does help to optimize your resume with keywords, but only to a point. You still have to optimize it for human eyes. There’s a balance you need to strike when writing a resume between what we call “word stuffing” (putting as many key words into your resume as possible), and having the resume read and flow naturally for real people.
You can word stuff all day long on your resume, but once it gets past the ATS robot a human is going to review it. So your resume still needs a good flow in the writing. Overly-stuffed resumes may pass an ATS with flying colors, but it can come across as stilted or fake to the human eye. Humans are very good at recognizing stuffing as it messes with the cadence of good writing.
The Job of an ATS Scanner
Here’s the truth. ATS scanners are designed to perform a first pass through resumes to narrow an applicant field – that’s their sole mission. They take an applicant pool of 100 down to 20 or so – some more and some less, depending on what the HR office determines is manageable for decision makers.
Some jobs get hundreds of applicants because of how easy it is for job seekers to apply. Like anyone else, a job seeker is pressed for time and modern technology has made it simple to get your resume in mass through Indeed, LinkedIn, and other job search engines.
HR managers need to save time, too. And frankly, a good number of applicants are no where near qualified for jobs they apply for. Some job seekers take a “spray and pray” approach and hope something sticks.
The Most Important Take-Away About an ATS
If you are REASONABLY qualified, you should never fear an ATS or try to “game the system” by stuffing it with keywords. Why? Because Those keywords should organically appear in your resume due to you being qualified for the position. If a banker decides they want to be a dental assistant and list all of their banking credentials on their resume, they won’t have much luck with an ATS – even if they stuff it. But if that same banker was a dental assistant previously they are probably qualified and have a very good shot at getting through to the humans.
Another Reality About an ATS
Different companies use different ATS systems (remember there are dozens being used). On top of that, each HR or hiring manager will program them differently. In other words, the same resume going through two different ATS systems can get different results. Again, if you are qualified, let that speak for itself. And if you are still concerned, contact the HR office you are applying to and ask them about the job and your application. A lot of recruiters are happy to speak with you about how you will match up with certain jobs.
But also, review each job posting carefully to make sure your resume represents you best for that job. You can and should have multiple versions of your resume – even if the differences are subtle. The keywords and qualifications shouldn’t be hard to spot in a job listing. For example, if they prominently list experience using Microsoft Excel, then find a place in your resume for that to be included. Soft skills, such as “communication skills” or “dependability” can also be keywords.
Where to Start
As you write your resume focus on conveying your most important qualifications that broadly fit the category or type of job you are seeking. Then, as you expand your search, create additional variations of that baseline resume. Over time you will have several similar, yet different, resumes you can pull out for new jobs you encounter. Again, focus on qualifications and let your writing hit on those organically so that you don’t come across as a robot.
Also, don’t overlook your cover letter. This is a great way to explain your situation more clearly – especially if you are transitioning to a different field or type of job. I try to make that information apparent on the resume right near the top, but I think it helps to reiterate it in a cover letter, too.
Don’t sweat the ATS process too much. If you qualified, you can get past it. If you aren’t sure if you are qualified, think through your experience and write statements that translate your skills into language the employer will recognize. By doing that you will be aligning your background with that of the employer and they will see you as a good fit.