Pleasing human beings is hard enough when you’re looking for work, but today’s job seekers are increasingly faced with navigating a digital obstacle course in a world ruled by computers.
According to the Wall Street Journal, almost all large companies use “applicant tracking systems,” also known as “resume robots,” to sort prospective employees. About half of all midsized companies use them, too.
Whether job seekers know it or not, computers with sophisticated software often take at least a first pass through the thousands of applications some companies receive annually.
“Given that we had around 25,000 applications for jobs in the last year, we use this kind of technology to expedite the process,” says Jennifer Emmons, manager of talent acquisition at Alliant Energy.
Often, job seekers apply online, have their materials reviewed by applicant tracking systems, and get a rejection email minutes later because they did not fit the profile set by the employer.
There’s no way to know in detail what qualifications an employer is using to screen job applicants. But there are ways to make the computers understand the skills that set an applicant apart from others and boost the chances of getting past that first robotic review.
Most importantly, job seekers must use the right keywords in their resumes. Find words that appear in the job description and research the company’s website for more words that are tied to its values and business.
“It is essential to read the job posting, understand what is required and, if you do possess those requirements, ensure that your resume actually has those elements in it,” says Emmons.
Given that your first reader may be a machine, there’s no need to get fancy with your resume.
“We are not big advocates of resumes with lots of graphics, tables and colors,” says Cory Erickson, owner of the Madison talent-management firm Career Momentum, Inc. “Computers do not like them, so they don’t help you get the interview in most cases.”
Never send a PDF file, because the applicant tracking system lacks a standard way to structure PDF documents. And avoid using uncommon titles. For example, call “work experience” what it is: “work experience.”
The best way to short-circuit the computer review is by networking with real people — a tried-and-true strategy that should be part of every job search.
“I would recommend that applicants identify two or more companies they are interested in working for and start to build connections there before even looking for a job,” says Emmons.
Networking may not be high tech, but time after time it works. Connecting with others has always been the best strategy for creating opportunities and building professional relationships. It is still the most effective tool in a job seeker’s toolbox.
April McHugh is a senior career counselor in UW-Madison’s Division of Continuing Studies. For inquires about resume robots or other career questions, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article originally appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal on Jan. 11, 2015.