How to Crunch Your Resume for Optimum Appeal to Automatic Tracking Systems

  December 27, 2012

Are you tired of kissing your resume goodbye, consigning it to the black hole of automated resume processing systems, never to hear a peep from people who, for all you know, are laughing at whatever came out the other end? Now, (finally!) there are tools that (try to) predict the garbled gunk into which many resumes are automatically translated. But… Is that enough?

Bruce Ramsay admits it: He doesn't spend hours tailoring his resume for every single job listing. If it's something he really wants, yes, he'll take the time to match keywords from the listing and all that. If not, well, maybe he'll spend 10 minutes. I mean, come on. You can't submit 12 resumes in a day and put four hours into polishing each one.

This approach has not gone swimmingly.

Bruce did get a call back a few months ago. He had spent an hour and a half squishing his resume onto one page and then paring all that down to what he thought they wanted to hear, nothing more. But for the most part, he just doesn't know what happens after he throws his resume into the black hole of applicant tracking system (ATS) software.

Don't feel bad, Bruce: For the most part, none of us know, either.

But recently, Ramsay came across an intriguing tool. It promised to test his resume and to show him what recruiters see after the document winds its way through some machine's guts. Resumeter, from a company called Preptel, offered to check Ramsay's resume against keyword lists to see what positions might be right for him and to assess his resume's search engine matchability.

Ramsay was not impressed with the results, for reasons we will discuss. Because he'd read a package I put together on the inner workings of ATSes a few years ago, he thought I'd be interested, which I was. There are still precious few tools that focus on the job seeker side of the automated-resume scenario. I ran my own resume through RezScore, a free online tool that assigns a letter grade to your resume, and found that it, too, had limitations, though both RezScore and Resumeter can provide helpful advice and glimpses into the mysteries of parsing.

Here's how the tools fared with our limited tests, along with some input from those familiar with ATS technology, plus a look at a third tool that promises to be helpful to job seekers.

Preptel's Resumeter

With Preptel's free online Resumeter tool, job seekers submit their resume and the text for a job listing. Resumeter prescreens the resume against the job description, provides a feedback report on how well the two match, and suggests how to customize the resume for the open position. The tool analyzes missing information, potentially incomplete information, and missing keywords.

Joanne Meehl is one of more than 100 career coaches who tested the software earlier this year. She went on to mention the tool in seminars. Many attendees gave it a try to test their resumes' ability to get highly scored by ATSes. Unlike Ramsay, Meehl's job seekers reported a positive difference after using Resumeter, including hearing back from companies within hours instead of losing everything to a black hole.

Meehl isn't a big fan of people just doing a cold, automated-machine-only, resume-based search. But from what she's seen, for those who have to do it that way, Resumeter can make a difference. One of Meehl’s clients ran her resume through Resumeter, found phrases that neither she nor Meehl had picked up on, such as "key contributor to team," and tweaked accordingly.

Once the client jacked up her resume using Resumeter-identified keywords and thereby hit Resumeter's 65% match rate to a given job, she started hearing back from companies. Within hours, Meehl's client, a telecom engineer, got three phone calls and lined up one phone interview.

Was it Resumeter or the Hawthorne effect—e.g., improvement in a problem simply because you pay attention to it? "I wonder if just by talking about keywords with our clients or in a seminar, you get people to be more attuned to it," Meehl muses. Somebody tinkering with this type of software might want to explore that premise, but for most job seekers, of course, seeing improvement is the bottom line, regardless of any placebo effect.

Mind you, Resumeter isn't a cure-all. You get out what you put in.

Ramsay, for his part, wasn't so happy with the tool. It scored his resume poorly, but was it even picking up on the right keywords? Resumeter told him he was missing a list of keywords that included these phrases:

  • Banking environment located
  • Exciting temporary temporary
  • Karen warren Robert
  • List ranking 1
  • March 19 2012
  • On your essbase
  • Pay challenging careers
  • Provide exciting temporary

Those are not exactly what most people might expect hiring companies to list as valid keywords against which their ATSs would rate resumes. Given the results, Ramsay was seriously worried about how his resume is evaluated.

"I can only hope real ATSs do a better job," he concluded.

Obviously, Resumeter analyzed a job listing that included the front and end sections, where employers describe their location, including an area's amenities, and include disclaimers about being an equal opportunity employer at the end of the listing.

"Preptel evaluated that entire thing," Ramsay says. "If the listing said, 'Great skiing in Denver,' it would pull that out as a job qualification."

Lesson learned: Resumeter's current version only analyzes what you cut and paste into it. It's designed on strong science, but Preptel isn't always in control of the information that comes into its system. Therefore, Resumeter sometimes recommends words that don't make sense, as with Ramsay's list of funky keywords. On the upside, those words won't hurt you. If you put "skiing" in a "Hobbies" section, it likely wouldn't work against your chances of getting the job. Just make sure not to plug "skiing" into an irrelevant section of a job listing, and your analysis should likewise come out more relevant.

RezScore Suggests I Apply for What?

RezScore is another free online tool that uses proprietary algorithms to read and score your resume, analyzing it on more than a dozen metrics gleaned from the recommendations of hiring managers, HR directors, job search experts, and certified resume writers.

It rated my resume a B, placing it in the 79th percentile. That didn't faze me, given that the version I submitted is pretty generic: I hadn't buffed it up, slimmed it down, keyword-isized it, or customized it for any particular job. RezScore suggested that I could improve my resume by keeping the resume concise and "impactful," making sure every word counts, and using vivid language to get employers "excited." Also, avoid first-person language, it recommended.

RezScore also presented me with a graph that displayed bubbles representing my "skills," laid out in a quadrant representing higher/lower demand and more/less specific terms. My experience would suggest that users interpret the "skills" graph to relate to keywords. For example, nowhere on my resume do I claim "IT Director," "Information Security," nor "Business Intelligence" as skills, per se. I do, however, claim to have interviewed plenty of the first and written about both of the other two.

RezScore accurately identified my resume as being strongest in the writing/content industry (it's a journalist's resume). But my faith in the algorithms broke down when I saw the jobs for which the tool suggested I apply: Remote Security Architect and Senior Security Engineer.

It had analyzed my resume, failed to take into account that the title identified me as a journalist, and matched up keywords out of context to identify me as a technologist, rather than somebody who writes about technology.

Is this what ATSes do? Are they really this primitive?

ATSes Are Really that PrimitiveATSes Really are that Primitive

After talking to Jon Ciampi, president and founder of Preptel, I realized that my resume format was likely to blame for RezScore's off-kilter analysis, given that I had submitted it in PDF format.

"In general, we see a lot of errors with PDFs," he told me. "Our first recommendation is, 'Don't use PDFs.'"

The problem with PDFs, of course, is that they represent text as images, which glitches when going through rendering. Preptel tries to assess a resume format and make sure the ATSes can identify its information. Otherwise, when a recruiting manager is looking at a resume that's gone through an ATS, he could think you've been unemployed for five years whereas your job history for that time just didn't show up in the right field.

Lesson learned: Use Word or another open format, not PDF.

The upshot of both these tools is that they can help, if you use them with care. But should we really be spending this much time fretting about pleasing an ATS? Absolutely not, experts say.

You Are, In Fact, Wasting Your Time

In 2006, Jason Alba was an unemployed Internet application designer. Like the vast majority of us, he spent 90 to 95% of his time applying for jobs online. That was in spite of all the resume writers and career coaches who talk about how ineffective automated applying is and how the vast majority of jobs come through networking or direct, person-to-person contact with a given company.

Finally, having crud luck at the mechanized version of job seeking, he went to a two-day seminar where he saw, in the front of the room, in stark, graphic terms, exactly how ineffective ATSs are at getting people employed. It was a pie chart, and it broke down the success rate of all the ways you can find jobs: through networking, through applying online, or through classified ads. The cold, hard math of how many people find jobs through classifieds or by applying online was a measly 14%.

"You shouldn't spend more than 14% of your time with that tactic and should spend [at least] 65% of your time networking," Alba said. And then he went out and built a tool, JibberJobber, to help people out with networking: the thing that even extroverts have a hard time managing, in spite of their skills at, for example, collecting and disseminating business cards and just generally working the crowds like mad at industry networking opportunities.

JibberJobber helps out on the networking side by keeping track of different resume versions, cover letters, interviews, recruiters, leads, contacts, action items, and follow-ups.

Not only shouldn't we be spending a lopsided amount of our job-search time on the unfruitful technique of applying online, but also some people in the recruitment industry say we should just chuck job boards completely. After all, with tools like LinkedIn, it's easy for an employer to get a read on who's out there, who they know, what subjects they spend time discussing online in blogs or forums, and what experience their job history holds.

So Get Your LinkedIn Profile in Order

Here's the hard truth: Nowadays, resumes just aren't all that valuable. Organizations don't like candidates who come in over the web, says Josh Bersin, CEO of Bersin & Associates, which provides research-based membership programs in human resources, talent and learning.

Instead, employers are pumping up on referred candidates. They're pushing the referral rate of new hires to 40%, 50%, even 60%. They want as many candidates as possible to come from referrals, since they know such people are highly likely to be the right people. To their minds, referrals means "pre-qualified."

Referral networking is getting strong now, too, Bersin says. Here's how that works: Some companies use a tool such as Checkster to send automated competency-based assessments to your references, asking them to fill out questions based on the job itself, not on you the candidate.

If you're applying for a sales job, for example, they ask your references to rate your ability to build rapport or to negotiate. It's confidential, which means the business gets highly valuable information they never managed to get before, Bersin says.

A tool like Checkster nets companies high-value reference people, Bersin says. Well, why not email those high-value referring people to ask them if they're looking for a job? "If this guy is a high-value candidate, the thinking goes that the chances are that their referrers are as well," Bersin says.

Lesson learned: Be generous with referring people. It gets your own name out there, whether by an automated process such as Checkster or the old-fashioned way of picking up the phone. Instead of relying on ATSs and your resume to do the heavy job-search lifting, make sure your LinkedIn profile is as good as it can possibly be, Bersin advises. Make it as clear and representative of yourself as possible. After your profile is in top-notch shape, thoroughly research the places where you want to work, making sure that you've got experience and skills that line up with what those organizations need. Then, use LinkedIn's tools to make contacts and friends at those places.

"What's happening is we have high unemployment, and open positions, and companies are getting smarter about employment branding to build focused tools to find just the right people," Bersin says. "They don't want generic candidates."

So don't be a generic cookie-cutter-stamped candidate. Do apply online, and do use tools that mimic how ATSs translate your resume, but make sure to spend far more time honing your LinkedIn presence and finessing its networking tools.

And make sure that, above and beyond staring at your computer screen for any of that, the bulk of your time is spent pressing some real, live, human flesh.

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