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5 secrets to get you past the résumé-reading robots

Before your résumé gets to a recruiter, it’s read by an AI-driven Applicant Tracking System. A human resources exec advises how you can beat the robot.

5 secrets to get you past the résumé-reading robots
[Photo: Eric Krull/Unsplash]

Even as the economy rebounds from the coronavirus pandemic, millions of Americans remain out of work, and weekly new unemployment claims continue to hover around one million. With so many people looking for their next opportunity, it is important that job seekers not only update and refresh their résumés to highlight their key skills and experience, but to format their résumés in such a way that they will get past the automated, robot résumé-readers that are increasingly the first gatekeepers in the recruiting process.

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When you apply for a new job, it may surprise you to learn that the first person to read your résumé is often not a person at all. Especially in today’s job market, it is not uncommon for there to be up to 250 applicants for a single job. Because of the sheer volume, 99 percent of Fortune 500 companies use an Applicant Tracking System (ATS) to manage each step of the hiring process. ATSes rely on automated robot résumé readers that utilize keyword searches to scan applications quickly and, theoretically, pass the most qualified résumé along to human recruiters and hiring managers.

To help job seekers navigate these systems, Randstad RiseSmart’s certified résumé writers are constantly analyzing how résumés are evaluated by ATS robots, and we’ve found that résumés with the exact same content can be ranked differently depending on how ATS-friendly the formatting is.

Based on our findings, here are five tips to help you format an ATS-compatible résumé and ensure that your application gets seen and reviewed by a human hiring manager:

Avoid headers, tables, and text boxes

Applicants should avoid putting their name and contact info within a header at the top of the document, as ATS scans do not pick up that information. The same goes for tables or text boxes, especially to highlight your skills. Many ATSes are unable to pull text from formatted tables or boxes.

Use charts and graphics wisely

Be careful about how you include charts and graphics on your résumé, especially if you use these visuals to highlight key data, such as sales accomplishments. While this presentation may be helpful once your résumé gets to a human reader, ATS software is not currently designed to pick up graphical information, so be sure that any images, graphs, and charts you use complement and augment what you write in the text, not act as a substitute.

Don’t age yourself and keep your résumé current

This is good advice for any résumé, whether it will be screened by an ATS system or not. The experience you highlight should only go back 10 or 15 years; anything older than that is likely not relevant. This approach will help your résumé feel fresh and current without revealing too much information about your age. Also, unless you are a recent college grad who is one or two years out of school with relatively little work experience, it is not necessary to list your higher education graduation date on your résumé.

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Never use hidden keywords to trick the system

One of the most common–and frankly, misguided–pieces of résumé advice you may have heard is to take keywords from the job posting and type them somewhere on your résumé in white text so that it blends undetected into the document. The thinking is that the ATS system is designed to look for keywords in your résumé from the job description in order to rank applicants, and by hiding them, you’ll not only fool the robot, but the human reader as well. While it is debatable whether or not this tactic will help you pass an initial résumé screen, do you really want your first impression with a human hiring manager to be them discovering a string of sneaky, hidden words in your résumé?

Tailor your résumé

Rather than trying to game the system with hidden keywords, you should tailor your résumé to every job. This includes weaving keywords from the job posting into the experience and skills section of your résumé transparently, not secretly. There is nothing wrong with utilizing language from the job description to show how you have the experience and skills to perform the job. Doing so will not only get the attention of the ATS software but will present you as a relevant candidate to the human résumé reviewer. This is not to say that your résumé can’t follow a basic template, with a profile and skill-set section at the top–which should be tailored to each application–followed by work experience and education sections that can remain largely unchanged. Ultimately, you should avoid relying on a static, one-size-fits-all standard résumé for every job application.

The most important thing to remember is that any résumé you submit will likely be first examined by an automated gatekeeper before it is seen by human eyes. The key to a successful, modern job application is to tailor your résumé to each job by presenting yourself as the best and most relevant candidate for that position. You can do so by utilizing keywords from the job posting in a transparent manner and properly formatting your résumé so that you will be recognized by robot and human résumé readers alike.


 Leslee Remsburg is director of  resume services at outplacement and career transition services provider Randstad RiseSmart.

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