Have you applied online for jobs recently? If so, you’ve (perhaps unknowingly) interacted with the resume robots. By one estimate, 40% of employers use applicant tracking systems to gather, process and sort job applications. If you don’t have a robot-proof resume, your candidacy might slip through the cracks.
“Applicant tracking systems act as an electronic gatekeeper for an employer,” explains career expert Amanda Augustine at TopResume. “The ATS parses a resume’s content into categories and then scans it for specific keywords to determine if the job application should be passed along to the recruiter. Its job is to essentially weed out unqualified applicants so the recruiter can devote his or her time to evaluating the candidates who are more likely to be a match for the position. In other words, the ATS is apt to toss the least-qualified candidates, rather than identify the applicants who are the best fit.”
The result? Your qualifications might get overlooked, if your resume isn’t written with the ATS in mind.
How to Write a Robot-Proof Resume
- Make sure to talk in real terms about your job experience. Don’t rely on the job description you were hired with. Did your job change over time? What new tasks did you take on that weren’t a part of your initial hire? Maybe you didn’t get a promotion, but you took on the day-to-day tasks of someone who would normally have a fancier job title. Tell those bots!
- Don’t waste space on extra stuff you don’t need. If you want to include something akin to a personal statement or objective, make that a part of your cover letter/email, not your resume proper. Use that resume real estate for a profile instead, and make sure to include keywords from the job description. Remember, the robots don’t have feelings and can’t be persuaded by a story of your childhood dreams of becoming an assistant manager at a bank. Stick to the details they care about.
- Don’t make up stuff. This is to say, don’t lie, even to the robots. You shouldn’t put in experience you don’t really have, or job titles you didn’t achieve. It will come back to bite you in the end, even if you make it past those robots. A human will check your references, past job experience, schooling, etc. And you certainly don’t want to get busted.
- Don’t make mistakes. Double- and triple-proof your resume for misspellings, wrong chronology, or even just a flubbed job title. If you mean to write “manager” and instead write “manger” and the bots miss your managerial experience as a result, you might not understand why you don’t make the cut.
Let’s Talk Job Lessons, Not Job Titles
Talk about what you learned at your job, not just what you did. Don’t know the difference? Here’s a quick way of thinking about it:
How would you relate your past experience to the experience you hope to gain in this new job? This is especially important when your background may not match up with a typical career path for this role. Maybe you changed directions a few times, or your titles weren’t the norm. You need to provide the narrative that will connect the dots.
To explain your experience in the best possible way on your resume, talk about what you learned or achieved doing your best work. Yes, metrics would be great, like what big sales numbers you earned or huge growth you fostered, but we don’t all have the benefit of great numerical results. Practice explaining your job in a way that would lay it out for someone who has never heard of it before.
Don’t make up job titles to match your experiences, however. As mentioned above, HR might check your references and discover you never were the mid-west sales manager you claimed to be.
Keywords, Keywords, Keywords
The ATS is programmed to find each employer’s priority candidate. This might mean that they look for candidates who list lots of technical experience or plenty of managerial work. How do you know what the robot wants? Look a few places for ideas:
- Read the job description carefully. You’ll want to see what kinds of words they use themselves when they list the open role. They might use words that you mentally tick off in your head as you read the job listing. Make sure that you also have those words in your resume so the AI can find them too.
- Look at similar jobs. If you search for open positions in your area, see how the role is described or what the duties are. You can see how your own experience matches up to those descriptions.
- Connect with people in similar roles. You might have friends, colleagues, or connections who have jobs like the one you’re pursuing. Besides the obvious benefits of networking, you can also ask them what they do day-to-day in their jobs. Use what you learn to talk about how you could achieve or already have achieved those goals in your past work.
- Think about more than just titles. Sometimes the right keyword is an action word. Verbs can be your best tool to make the bots notice you. They can show leadership, success, determination and even strength in the face of failure. Think about your resume experience in terms of actions and you’ll find you’ve accomplished a lot!
How to Explain Your Side Hustle
The gig life is popular, so you if you have a side hustle that is relevant to your work experience (or that new job you’d like), then make sure to talk about it on your resume. This can provide you with not only valuable keywords for that bot to notice, but also a great way to show your enthusiasm and go-getter attitude. But for some people, reading about side hustles can be a little confusing. Here’s how to talk about your gig on your resume:
- Don’t let salary value your side gig. Don’t worry about if you made a lot of money doing your side job, or if you didn’t do it for very long. You still could have learned a lot! Talk about projects you completed, roles you filled, reasons why you did the work (e.g., working on a political campaign you believed in, helping out a local school, volunteering your services at your church).
- Side hustles can be great for soft skills. These are skills that employers definitely look for in new hires and long-term employees, but are rarely mentioned in actual job descriptions (despite their high value). Soft skills in demand now include great communication, teamwork, problem solving, etc. You might not encounter these challenges in your “real” job, but you could deal with them in a side hustle.
- Put your side hustle in your Work Experience section. If it’s indeed a career-related hustle, then talk about it in those terms. Don’t simply put your extra efforts in a “misc” or “hobbies” notation — that would diminish all your efforts.
Connect the Dots on Paper
Practice that elevator speech, but don’t leave the good stuff for that in-person chat. You have to get past the bots to get in the room for that conversation, after all.
Get someone to read your resume and try to come up with a picture of your past (and future) job potential. This might be the perfect job for a friend, mentor, or partner. If they can see you had a steady climb up through the ranks at one company, but then suddenly switched to a whole different career path…why did that happen? If you can’t see the “why” on your resume, then chances are nobody else will understand it either. The problem with that is, they could assume the worst, e.g. that you were fired.
Instead of leaving the “why” up to guesswork, work in the right story on paper. You might have decided to change gears because you saw the future of the industry was shifting and you wanted to stay ahead of the curve. Or maybe you just moved and saw opportunities in your new city. You can address the why in your Experience section, your cover letter and yes, your interview, but don’t let it just hang out there in limbo.
Connect the dots with several of the techniques mentioned above, from listing side projects to using job-specific keywords. If you demonstrate how you’re engaged in the work and actively becoming a great employee, then a potential new employer will see that, too.
When in Doubt: Simplify
In an age when most resumes live online, it can be tempting to ignore the old one-page resume rule. But even if your CV exists in pixels, not print, it’s a good idea to keep it concise. Keep your language direct and to the point and your summaries brief. This gives you more space to use keywords, explain things simply and avoid wasting space.
Workers just starting out might have trouble filling a page with work experience, but this doesn’t mean you should list every paper route and babysitting gig you’ve ever had. Keep your work experiences relevant to the job.
Those of you out there with lots of experience might think you have to account for every time your business cards changed, but you simply don’t. Again, think about what the job requires, and use the best examples from your life to show why you’re the best pick for the job.
Include too much stuff, and you’ll come off as perhaps “too much” in general — and not in the good way. Include too little and you won’t make any impression at all. It might take some work, but you can definitely find your Goldilocks moment and get that resume just right.
TELL US WHAT YOU THINK
What are your favorite tips for a robot-proof resume? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.