You know what your resume looks like. You’ve written, edited and read it enough times to be able to almost recite it from memory But do you know what it looks like after you upload it for a job application and it has been parsed by an Applicant Tracking System? ATS isn’t just about keyword searching. Heck, we could all accomplish that by using a keyword search in Word. ATS reads your resume and makes judgments about you based on the document you share with it.
So what does it look like? One of my clients recently uploaded his resume to a service that provided him with an insider’s view of his resume after ATS parsing. Here are the lessons from this experience:
Your Name: This might sound strange, but just list your name. Don’t add any degrees, honorifics, or other credentials/titles here. You won’t get credit for them and the ATS just thinks that your name is Xxxx Yyyyy PhD or whatever you enter there. It defeats the purpose, and enters your name incorrectly in the system (last name is listed as PhD rather than your actual name).
Job Titles Matter: This is a bit of a touchy subject. There has been a lot of talk about job title inflation, creative job titles, and giving employees title changes in lieu of salary bumps. While it used to be a straightforward linear progression (e.g. Asst. Manager, Manager, Regional Manager, Director…) job titles can range from the obvious to the absurd. Unfortunately, if you are applying for management positions, ATS looks to your job titles to calculate your “management score” rather than the content related to the position.
How can you address this? Consider enhancing your job title with some descriptors:
Original: Research Assistant
While you might have had some management experience here, the title clearly does not indicate that at all, and it will be lost when considering you for a management position unless you can find an alternate way to get your resume in front of one of the decision makers.
Revised version: Research Assistant (Lab & Equipment Management | Researcher Training & Supervision)
You’ve now emphasized your research and management skills, which will help you to score higher for management positions.
The ATS determines whether or not you are qualified for the role you applied for, so you need to include relevant information where it is looking, without overstating or overcomplicating your resume for human readers.
File Format: The vast majority (over 60%) of applicant files are submitted in .doc or .docx format. While pdf files might provide consistent viewing for your readers, older ATS cannot properly understand them. For best results, upload a .doc file.
Key Skills & Competencies: Here’s where it gets really difficult. On its own, the ATS doesn’t know anything, so its programmers created wordlists and assigned categories so that the ATS could decide where you fit best as an applicant. It reads through the content in your entire resume, and then provides a percentage score of your categories. While you can’t change your previous experience, you’ll want to make sure that you are emphasizing the skills, actions and results that relate to your current search. Reading job postings can help you to gain a sense of which words appear most frequently for similar roles. Make sure that you include those words in your resume as appropriate.
Word Choice Matters: In addition to the categories, an ATS scans through your experience section and picks out frequently used words or phrases that it might be searching for, and then weights these according to its custom algorithm. In my client’s case, it listed numerous things as skills that weren’t skills at all (nouns). Think of your resume as court testimony – the more filler and words you put out there, the more diluted your core message. Use your profession’s language/lingo, while still making sure that a layperson can read it. Verbs should be strong (action verbs) and written in active voice rather than passive. Passive voice is weak, and requires you to write more to get to the point.
Like them or hate them, Applicant Tracking Systems are here to stay. The best strategy for dealing with them? Play by their rules and beat them at their own game. Need help with your resume? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.