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Can Your Resume Beat The Bots? How to Make It ATS-friendly

Posted by Amy Elisa Jackson

Last Updated May 8, 2018
|6 min read

From resume screening tools to Robot Vera, an AI-based software technology that helps recruit and hire humans, it’s safe to say that the robots have become a necessary evil that job seekers need to contend with. Automation and machine learning have become a recruiter’s best friends, helping to sift through hundreds or thousands of applications. However, for an applicant the influx of tech can be overwhelming, conjuring up images of a robot apocalypse.

But before you panic or head for a nuclear bunker, there are a few things you can do to optimize your resume to get beyond the wall of bots and into the hands of a human recruiter. We spoke to Amanda Augustine, career advice expert for TopResume, a resume writing service that helps you craft a winning CV.

Here are her top tips for crafting a bot-beating resume:

1. Know Your Opponent

While it’s not likely that you’ll know who else is vying for an open position, recognizing what you’re up against is key. In the job application process, you are up against the ATS. “ATS stands for applicant tracking system. In short, an ATS is a piece of software used by employers to scan and rank the online job applications they receive for their open positions,” says Augustine. “These bots were initially created with large organizations in mind, which needed help sifting through the thousands of incoming applications they received on a weekly basis. An estimated 95% of Fortune 500 companies currently use an ATS to manage their applicant tracking process. Today, this software has become popular with employers and recruiting firms of all shapes and sizes."

Think of ATSs as the gatekeepers to your dream job. You’ve got to get past them first in order to succeed.

2. Word Choice & Keywords Matter

Using action verbs like "outperformed," "solved," "led," and "delivered," are essential when crafting a resume. These compelling action verbs powerfully show off what you did in each of your roles. However, when it comes to the bots, you've got to kick things up a notch.

"The most important element — beyond formatting your resume so it can be accurately ‘read’ and parsed by the ATS — is keyword optimization," says Augustine. "This is how the applicant tracking system determines if you possess the necessary qualifications to be considered for the position. In addition to listing out a specific term, be sure to also include any common abbreviations to cover your bases."

However, Augustine warns against keyword stuffing or packing your resume and cover letter with buzzwords. "If the ATS can’t sift through the B.S., I guarantee the recruiter or hiring manager will — and then promptly dismiss your application." Instead use keywords sparingly and intelligently.

"To make sure your resume is compatible with [any ATS] system, incorporate the best keywords throughout your resume 2-3 times, with at least one of those references falling within your Work Experience or Education section. It’s one thing to state that “SEO (search engine optimization)” is among your core competencies, but it’s another thing entirely to show where in your employment history you leveraged that knowledge to add value to an organization."

3. Keep It Simple

While beautiful resume templates, custom cover letters, and charts may wow a human recruiter, chances are that the ATS bots won't appreciate the extra effort. Here are Augustine's fast few tips for keeping it simple:

  • Use a simple, clean design. Embedded charts and other images, custom font styles, and intricate bullet styles will get scrambled or simply skipped over when the ATS scans your application.
  • Avoid submitting your resume as a PDF unless the system specifically lists PDF files among the acceptable options. Some ATS software scans a PDF as though it were one big image, essentially missing all the information contained in your resume. Stick to a Word document that is compatible with all ATS systems.
  • Don’t include important details like your contact information in the header or footer. Again, not every ATS is able to read the information placed in these sections of a Word document.
  • Most importantly, customize your resume with keywords that represent the required soft and hard skills found in the job listings. Incorporate these terms throughout the resume, particularly in the “Key Skills” and “Work Experience” sections.

4. Balance is Key

While resume-scanning software has become increasingly popular, it has not replaced human recruiters. Let me be clear: the robots have not taken over recruiting. "When you’re writing your resume, always keep both audiences in mind," advises Augustine. "It’s important to avoid the major resume mistakes that will cause an ATS to dismiss your application, but remember that a human being will ultimately look at your resume once it passes the ATS test. You want to craft a document that is visually appealing and helps the reader quickly find the most important information."

5. Be Specific, Not General

Generic resumes are a big no-no. Gone are the days when you could send out a dozen cookie-cutter resumes and get a callback, or as my colleague describes this job application approach, "spray and pray." Customize your resume to the job you are applying to. "While you shouldn’t overhaul your resume for each job application, it’s important to make minor edits each time to highlight your most relevant qualifications (and incorporate the keywords) based on each job listing," advises Augustine.

Furthermore, as you evaluate your resume or give it the final gut check, try to remain objective, says Augustine. "Remember that you’re not writing this resume for you; you’re writing it for prospective employers. When you’re deciding what information to include in your resume, consider if the details will help a recruiter or employer assess your qualifications for a particular role."

6. The Place to Shine: A Cover Letter

At this time, not all bots or ATSs can scan or read cover letters. Therefore, even though the application may say a cover letter is optional, it could be the perfect opportunity to really differentiate yourself from the hundreds of other applicants. Augustine cautions again that you keep the formatting simple. Nevertheless, when crafting a cover letter, consider the following rules of thumb:

  • Doesn’t just regurgitate the content on your resume
  • Opening paragraph is catchy
  • Explains why you love the company
  • Connects your accomplishments and experiences to what they’re looking for
  • Explains what you can do for the company/how you can solve their challenges
  • Includes some of your personality
  • Contains a call to action (e.g. “I look forward to hearing from you about next steps.”)
  • Links to portfolio or samples of work (if applicable)
  • Is addressed to an actual person or team (NOT “To whom it may concern”)
  • Is about 3-4 paragraphs in length (and definitely less than a page)
  • Doesn’t use overly-formal language


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