Robots Are Reading Your Resume

There’s no shortage of advice for job seekers who want to create a resume that will assure them the perfect position. In the next couple of articles, CareerProPlus looks at resumes from a different angle. This is Part One of a two part series about how today’s HR professionals are resume screening and reading your resume, and about the challenges that the process presents for even the best candidates.

Google Search Resume Writing
Google Search Resume Writing

If you’re looking for a career change, chances are good that you’re doing some research to help you update your resume. There’s plenty of information available online. In fact, a Google search on the phrase “how to write a resume” yields exactly 105 million results in less than a second. Assuming that you are able to scan each of these articles in a couple of minutes, it will only take you 399 years to learn everything you need to know. There’s a lot of good advice on the interwebs, but you’ll also have to wade through some that isn’t so profound. Here’s a short example of some of the sage wisdom you’ll encounter:

If your resume doesn’t have legs, it can’t stand. So you need to fill it with your skills, abilities, accomplishments, education, awards, and anything else which might sell you as the perfect employee for the job you are applying to. The two most important things to remember are to stick to the facts and sell yourself.

Hmmm . . . perhaps it would be more useful to take a look at the flip side of the question. If you’re going to create a DIY resume, it may be better to know how your resume will be read. Your perfect resume isn’t worth much if no one sees it. Before you start the process, it would be good to know if your resume will be read, who will see it, and how they’ll determine if you’re a fit in their organization.

Robot Reading Resume
Robot Reading Resume

Photo attribution: Troy Straszheim via Wikimedia Commons (slightly doctored)

Robots, Really?

In the age of automation, the disappointing news for job seekers is that there’s a good chance that your application will never be seen by a human. Most of us have had the miserable experience of wading through a tedious online application that requires you to parse your resume into pre-determined database fields and then may allow you to append the original and a cover letter, almost as an afterthought. This kind of cloud-based recruiting software is called an Applicant Tracking System (ATS), and it’s designed to cast your application into a black hole.

It’s generally estimated that between 50% and 75% of employers currently use Applicant Tracking Systems. There are nearly 50 software vendors who produce the systems, and the cost of implementation is low enough that most medium and large enterprises have put them in place. The original intent of ATS was simple and understandable. With the advent of online applications, HR professionals became inundated with poorly qualified applications. They needed a method of resume screening that would filter out the garbage and focus on the best candidates. Like it or not, chances are very high that the first reader of your finely crafted resume will be an ATS robot and there’s about a 70% chance that your document won’t survive the automated scrutiny.

Bugs in the System

The first generation of “smart” ATS technology screened resumes and applications for selected job keywords and assigned a rating for the likelihood that a candidate matched the job criteria. HR managers were saved the effort of shuffling through massive stacks of electronic paper. The obvious difficulty came when the best candidates didn’t use the right keywords or when the ATS missed them altogether because of formatting difficulties. For instance, there is the story of the geologist whose resume listed expertise in water modeling, hydrology, tectonics, etc., but who neglected to use the job keyword “geology.”

In 2011, Bersin and Associates, an Oakland, California based research firm that specializes in talent management, confirmed the weaknesses of applicant tracking systems:

In a test conducted in 2011, Bersin & Associates created a perfect ATS friendly resume for an ideal candidate for a clinical scientist position. The research firm matched the resume to the job description and submitted the resume to an applicant tracking system from Taleo, arguably the leading maker of these systems.

When Bersin & Associates studied how the ATS friendly resume rendered in the applicant tracking system, the company saw that one of the candidate’s work experiences was lost entirely because the resume had the date typed before the employer. The applicant tracking system also failed to read several educational degrees the putative candidate held, which would have given a recruiter the impression that the candidate lacked the educational experience necessary for the job. The end result: The resume Bersin & Associates submitted only scored a 43 percent relevance ranking to the job because the resume screening system misread it.

(Source:, 5 Insider Secrets for Beating Applicant Tracking Systems, Meredith Levinson)

The latest generation of robots is getting more artificially intelligent. According to an interview with ATS vendors conducted by The Ladders, recent versions of ATS have the ability to contextualize job keywords, analyzing them in relation to the surrounding text. For example, an instance of a keyword can be related to a career timetable or to the proximity of other weighted keywords, thereby providing a more “natural” read of the resume. It is yet uncertain whether this development should cause qualified applicants to breath a sigh of relief.

Getting to a Human

In the face of heartless robot resume readers, the natural human inclination is to short circuit the system. Unfortunately this is easier said than done. It’s an obvious conclusion that there are flaws in the ATS process, but more difficult to determine which exact flaws you may be dealing with when you click the “Apply” button. There are multiple generations and versions of ATS in use, each with their own idiosyncrasies. What is acceptable to one ATS may cause the next robot reader to crash and burn. That said, there are several strategies that are generally considered to reduce the chances that your ATS friendly resume will disintegrate into digital limbo:

● Use clear, descriptive headings – Education, Work Experience, Skills
● Avoid complex formatting – no boxes, shading, tables, or graphics. Stick to standard fonts.
● List dates last – Employer Name, Job Title, then the dates.
● Use simple file formats – .rtf or .doc are usually acceptable. PDF files can crash some systems.

Finally, a word about keywords. Packing a resume with keywords or hiding them in white text may sound like obvious hacks, but remember that a human decision-maker will see the resume if it passes ATS muster. You can’t write for the robots. The challenge is to produce a document that can be analyzed by the ATS without being sucked into the black hole and emerges reasonably intact from the process. This means that your document must be both machine and human readable. It should be keyword rich and in a format that is less likely to be scrambled or misread by the automated tracking system, but also coherent and organized to allow an HR professional to quickly understand how your skills, experience and accomplishments fit the position for which you are applying. No problem, right?

Next, we’ll look at the human side of the equation. If your resume makes it through the ATS, what happens next? How do HR Professionals read resumes? We’ve asked a few of our HR friends this question and we’ll provide their insights in Part Two of this short series.

Since 1986, CareerProPlus has specialized in federal government, military, and corporate resumes that are keyword and content rich. Crafting resumes and applications for today’s automated HR processes requires expertise and experience. If you’re serious about your career and your resume, we’re here to help!

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