Career Advice, Resumes

Ask A Resume Writer: Do I Need to “Game” Applicant Tracking Systems to Land Interviews?

“I know companies use  Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) to scan resumes for keywords- do I need to ‘game’ these systems to start landing interviews?”

Confession time: I HATE Applicant Tracking Systems. With a burning passion.


Because in the name of making things easier for companies by “pre-filtering out” unqualified candidates, the peddlers of ATS software have dehumanized the hiring process and sent a terrible message to job seekers: conform to the requirements of our machines, or risk being ignored. Does that sound like a great way to attract the best and brightest?

Now to be fair, ATS software has grown more sophisticated in recent years, moving away from simply tallying up keywords on a resume to studying the context behind them. This means a drive towards substance, and that’s a very good thing.

In this post, I’m going to show you how to communicate that substance in a way that works for these systems, and — here’s the tricky part — also works when a hiring manager is reviewing it.

Use the LinkedIn Profiles of Competitors to Identify Keywords

A big misstep job seekers make is trying to use job postings to identify keywords. This is wildly ineffective, because most job postings are a mix of “must have” skills, “good to have” skills, and “pie in the sky” skills that someone decided to stick in at the last minute. Try to play to all of these areas and your resume will end up looking like Frankenstein’s monster.

Instead, I recommend that you create a shortlist of 10-15 direct competitors.  

For example, let’s say I’m going after a Chief Medical Officer position. By using LinkedIn’s search function to pull up fellow CMOs, I can quickly gather together the URLs of highly qualified people who currently have this job.

Now, I’m going to scroll down to the “Featured Skills & Endorsements” section of their profiles. These are KEYWORDS, and the best part is that they’ve been pre-optimized by going through the LinkedIn system. You don’t need to wordsmith any of these keywords.

  • Start by opening up a document and writing down ANY and ALL keywords that you might remotely possess. Examples for CMOs would be keywords like Good Clinical Practice, Clinical Trials, Cross-Functional Leadership, Performance Improvement, Quality Management, Talent Acquisition, Community Outreach, Medical Affairs, and others.

Now that you have this general list, do the following:

  • Circle the 5-7 keywords you are STRONGEST in. This is your wheelhouse, the engine behind why you’ll succeed at this job. These will be highlighted prominently within the resume and expanded upon within your work experience section.
  • Circle the keywords you have SOME working experience with. These are electives, which you have the option of briefly highlighting within the resume.
  • Cross out those keywords which you have ZERO experience with. And no, taking a course in college doesn’t count!

Think Context, Not Keyword Stuffing

Early types of ATS software used what’s known as semantic search technology, a fancy of saying they counted up the keywords they’d been programmed to look for, and those resumes with more of them were passed along. As a result, all types of bad behavior proliferated on resumes, including “stuffing” the document with dozens upon dozens of repetitive keywords. These days however, it’s all about contextualization, analyzing the document to see how these skills are expanded upon within the document, and weighing that instead.

Here’s how to lend weight to your keywords:

1. Create a large, boldfaced title at the start of your resume (after your name and contact information) that either lists the position you’re going after or offers a powerful branding statement.

  • Title Example: Chief Medical Officer (CMO)
  • Branding Statement Example: “Clinical/Medical Affairs Executive with a focus on improved patient outcomes and growth in Managed Care environments.”

2. Ditch the “Objective” section at the start of the resume in favor of a couple of powerful bullet points that highlight your strongest keywords.

  • Here’s an example highlighting CLINICAL TRIAL DESIGN: “Expert in working with Medical Directors and Contract Research Organizations (CROs) on developing robust clinical trials and managing areas such as site selection.”

3. Create a standalone keywords section where you simply group together the major keywords you wish to highlight.

  • List the strongest ones FIRST, followed by the second-tier keywords. Remember: be sure you can credibly defend any keywords listed during an interview.

4. Don’t be afraid to go longer to tell the story.

  • Forget about adhering to a 1-page limit- fleshing out keywords is well worth the extra space. Provide examples of project successes, or even small wins at work, where you applied a keyword skill to really stand out.

5. Write out all acronyms, AND provide the abbreviation.

  • Ex. Worked with Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) to rapidly establish a presence within Albuquerque, New Mexico territory.

6. Keep fancy graphics and elements to a minimum.

  • I recently worked with a client who had some excellent content in a 3D text box within the resume. Problem was, the ATS software perceived this as an image, not text, and none of the information passed through! Keep the layout simple, use visual elements sparingly, and remember: content is king.

7. One last note: don’t place your entire career strategy in the hands of ATS software.

  • Connect with others. Demonstrate your value and passion. Ask for help. Success in the job search is still all about the human connection- not forgetting that is the REAL way you game these systems!

Anish Majumdar is a nationally recognized Career Coach, Executive Resume Writer, and LinkedIn Expert. Connect with him on LinkedIn to receive daily career and job search tips!

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