There is a specter haunting the modern job search. It is a hollow and unfeeling thing, and it seeks only to separate us from our best work. It absorbs. It destroys. It breaks us down into data. It’s called an Applicant Tracking System, and if you’re not hearing back from online applications, it’s probably the reason.
An Applicant Tracking Systems, or ATS as they’re commonly known in the industry, can be found in nearly every major company and recruiting shop out there. An ATS is a piece of software that takes job applicants’ data and renders it as searchable bits for the sake of making a recruiter’s job easier. It sounds like a great idea, right? It certainly would be, if it actually worked.
How It’s Supposed to Work
Have you ever clicked that big shiny “Upload a Resume” button, only to see the resume you labored over turned into an unintelligible mess? Sure you have. That’s because the website on which you’re applying is attempting to parse your resume so it can be entered into the company’s ATS. Fortunately, most sites allow you to review, edit, and correct an uploaded resume before you proceed, but not always.
In theory, the ATS will take your resume, turn it into searchable keywords and break your job descriptions down into digestible chunks for a recruiter’s at-a-glance convenience. Even when you email a resume to a recruiter, they put your information into an ATS themselves. Either way, what the recruiter sees on the back end is something like this:
To accomplish this, the ATS looks for certain triggers in a resume. In a perfect world, the ATS would scan your resume, find it neatly laid out with clearly named sections with clearly delineated dates of employment. Then the ATS would read those titles and dates as indicative of discrete positions and separate them as such. It would then present your application materials to the recruiter in a fashion very similar to the one on your resume.
However, recruiters can also enter pre-sorting criteria that the ATS can look for. This may be certain keywords — if, for example, the resume doesn’t contain the word “Java,” then the system may automatically screen the resume out. The recruiter will never see it, and it will be as though that particular applicant never applied.
How It Actually Works
In reality, the scenario I described above is rare. There are a number of reasons that resumes fail to parse correctly, but that’s only half the story. The grim reality is that ATS systems are a relatively young and still very flawed technology. But the real issue here is that ATS systems only work as well as the person using them. If the recruiter sets bad or unwise pre-sorting criteria, then great resumes won’t get through. Also, if the recruiter simply doesn’t know to search for terms relevant to the job in question, then solid candidates won’t be seen. Both of these things happen with alarming frequency.
The flaws aren’t just on the recruiters’ end. Job seekers may torpedo their own applications by failing to add relevant keywords to their resumes. Their resumes might not be clear about when each position began and ended, and what their titles were at each job. Or they might simply have a written a resume that’s too short on details.
What You Can Do About It
Don’t lose hope just yet. There are a few things you can do to make the online application process go more smoothly.
Make a .txt version of your resume. When faced with a website that parses your resume into those maddening little boxes, a resume in raw text is much more likely to parse correctly than one in a .doc or .docx. Even if it allows you edit your information after you upload it, a .txt version is likely to need a whole lot less surgery than one in another format.
Give each position a clear title and period of employment. This means that each position needs a “Vice President of Business Development” and “2006-2009.” You need this for every gig. Look back at the sample resume I provided for more examples of what I’m talking about. If you’ve held several positions within one company, be sure each one gets its own title and date range.
Avoid complex design elements. If you absolutely must have an image on your resume, make a second ATS-friendly version without it. Avoid tables and boxes if at all possible, as well. Most ATS systems don’t quite know what to do with these elements.
Use keywords. We’ve mentioned this numerous times by now, but it’s really, really important that you populate your resume with keywords, and this is why. A recruiter who’s swamped won’t be willing to massage the search terms they’re using. If they’re looking for “Agile” and you don’t have it on your resume, you’re sunk.
Follow up with an email. If possible, hop on LinkedIn and see if you can find the recruiter who posted the ad (it might be in the top right corner, depending on their privacy settings). If you can locate the poster, send them a polite and short email with your resume and cover letter attached. You won’t always be able to do this end-around with every application, but it’s great if you can. If possible, let them know that you’ve applied on the site, but that you wanted to send your materials along directly for their convenience. This part is important: you can follow up once — typically a week after — but once that’s done, leave them alone. If they were interested, you would have heard from them by then. There’s a fine line between bucking the system and becoming a pest.
ATS systems are not inherently bad. They can be a godsend for a swamped recruiter, but they’re also a classic case of Garbage In/Garbage Out, meaning they’re only as effective as the information that goes into them. If your resume isn’t ATS-optimized (and if you followed my directions way back on Day 4, it already is whether you knew it or not), then you need to take the appropriate steps to get it there ASAP. If you don’t, your chances of getting an interview through an online application will remain firmly in the single digits.
< In case you missed it Come Together: Choosing the Right Recruiter for Your Job Search
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