Exactly What Recruiters Are Thinking While Reading Your Resume

Right out of the gates, a recruiter will look for reasons to reject you. Don’t give them any.

Exactly What Recruiters Are Thinking While Reading Your Resume
[Photos: Elnur/iStock, Flickr user Joy Holland]

You might think every recruiter is different. That’s why you tailor your cover letter and resume to each job you apply for, hoping to show each prospective employer what they want to see. But to a certain extent, every recruiter or hiring manager who reads your resume thinks the same way.


Human beings only have so many ways to make choices—that’s just the way our brains are built. And once you’ve gotten your job application past the “robots” and in front of a real live person, that person’s psychological process for deciding whether to interview (and later, to hire) you is going to look a lot like the next’s. It takes place in stages, with recruiters’ decision-making strategies shifting slightly at each stage. Here’s what you need to know to get through each one.

The Stages Of Choice

Most recruiters’ jobs start with a stack (whether digital or physical) of applications to sift through, ultimately narrowing them down to a short list to which they will give closer attention. From this group, they’ll pick an even smaller number to call in for an interview.

This means that recruiters’ initial focus is on rejecting applicants. When their brains are in rejection mode, they’re scanning for candidates’ limitations—their weaknesses, red flags, and disqualifying factors. Psychologically, this actually requires a recruiter or hiring manager to zero in on your flaws before fixating more closely on your strengths.

An applicant with less experience than others or who’s had a string of jobs with short tenures might get rejected on that basis in favor of other candidates without those drawbacks—irrespective of their comparative strengths.

Related: How Your Brain Makes Decisions When You Hate All Your Options

Once they’ve whittled down to a short list, though, a recruiter has to shift their mental focus from reasons to reject candidates toward reasons to learn more about them. At this point, they’ll start to weigh your application’s advantages more heavily.


So what can you do about this mental mode switching that you can’t exactly control but can pretty much always expect? A few things, actually. First, you need to read your own resume to scan for its most glaring potential weaknesses as well as its great strengths. Most job seekers understandably focus on dialing up the best aspects of their resumes, pushing those tidbits to the top and looking for ways to emphasize the positives. But that’s only half the battle.

There may not be much you can do about some of the weaknesses on your resume, like lack of experience. But sometimes you can get creative about how you organize the information you present. One good approach is to pair each weakness on your resume with a key positive statement. Wherever possible, embed the negatives in statements that also highlight a positive feature of your record. The aim is to make it hard for recruiters to dismiss your application out of hand while their minds are in rejection mode.

Related: Why You Should Hire Job Candidates With These Three “Weaknesses”

Show How You’ve Grown—And Still Can

At both stages of the review process, recruiters can get bogged down trying to size up candidates according to the specific requirements of the job description, which may lead them to miss your best attributes. But it’s important to remember that nobody is ever completely ready for a new position they’re applying for. Instead, most applicants have a basic set of skills. What really separates good new hires from great ones is their ability to learn on the job.

But while recruiters typically grasp this, the decision-making process they go through while reviewing job applications can make growth potential hard to see—which means you need go out of your way to help recruiters see it. For previous positions you’ve held, you should highlight the ways you developed your skills in each of those roles. It isn’t enough to say that you’re a “fast learner”—give specific examples of what you learned.

In fact, writing your resume in a way that highlights your growth potential is the best way to turn potential weaknesses into strengths. For example, if you’re leaving one industry for another, then you’re able to bring your wealth of experience in that area to the new role. If you’ve worked for a company that ultimately failed, then you have a number of lessons you can bring from that organization to help your new one succeed.


Related: A Former Google Recruiter Reveals The Biggest Resume Mistakes

The main idea is to help a potential employer to see you dynamically. A resume is a document of your past accomplishments. When faced with a stack of resumes, recruiters are liable to see them as a pile of static snapshots. But your actual career is a process. So your cover letter and resume need to create a sense of the activity you’ll bring to the new role.

Load both up with action words. Show recruiters not just what you’ve done but what you’re doing—and still hope to be able to do. That can help you power through both stages of a recruiter’s thought process and earn a seat at the interview table.