I, Robot

Wall-E as the ATS botAs if today’s job applicants didn’t have enough to worry about. You’ve got the quality of your applications, making sure your resume is up to snuff. You’ve got the hiring managers who are doing their best to screen out as many people as possible before interviewing anyone. You’ve got competition from other job seekers – possibly hundreds of them.

There’s another adversary you might be hearing a lot about. Artificial intelligence. Spoiler alert: it’s not your adversary.

If you’ve read even a few of my blogs, you’ve probably gotten a pretty clear sense that recruiters will do anything to make the most efficient use of the time we spend evaluating candidates. Bluntly, this includes personally looking at as few applications as possible. What this means for you is that your resume might be screened out by an Applicant Tracking System (ATS) before a human being ever sees it.

ATS’s are generally found in two forms. There’s software (either enterprise, or – more frequently these days – cloud-based) that’s used in-house, usually by larger companies and recruiting firms who are constantly fielding applications and have an acute need to house that information somewhere and put it to use. Online job sites also sometimes offer applicant tracking systems to the companies who post jobs on their sites, though. This means that almost any company these days, regardless of size, could be using some sort of software system to cut down on the number of applications they see, and – in theory – make sure the ones they are looking at are a good investment of time. Some ‘push’ qualified applications to a recruiter working on a specific open job, but there’s also usually a ‘pull’ system where the recruiter does the searching.

The title I used for this blog is tongue-in-cheek, of course; these systems aren’t anything like robots. There isn’t a room filled with robots reading resumes, and then laughing maniacally as they ruthlessly throw some in the shredder.

It’s just not that complicated. A better analogy for applicant tracking systems is search engines. When you’re searching online for something, how does Google know which websites to show you in the search results? Keywords. Google looks for words and phrases that suggest that a website will have the information you’re looking for. These systems do more or less the same.

Think about your resume – your skills and experience – as though they’re search terms that a hiring manager would google if they were looking for you. If your resume has the right keywords (ones that accurately describe you, of course) would it land at the top of the first page of search results? That’s what you want.

The systems aren’t generally all that intuitive, so there are a few other considerations when thinking about applications you submit either directly to companies or through job sites:

  • First and foremost, always remember when you’re targeting your applications that these systems are designed to match keywords. Descriptions of your experience and qualifications that (truthfully and accurately, of course) align with those in the posting will increase the likelihood that a human will see your application.
  • Look carefully for any application instructions in the posting, and follow them to the letter. Miss a single one, and your application might be rejected by the system altogether.
  • Look for any specific qualifying questions in a job posting and make sure you’ve answered them. On the recruiter’s end, answers to these questions are often pre-populated in an application preview. If your answers aren’t there, the person screening may not take a second look.
  • If you’ve had unique job titles that are unusual for your line or work or your industry, consider translating these into a form that’s more typical (in a way that’s not misleading about your responsibilities). For example, at least one major retail chain refers to their Associates as ‘Cast Members’. I also remember seeing a Sales Manager with the title ‘Creator of Opportunities’ on his business cards and his resume. An ATS probably wouldn’t understand either of those. Again: keywords.

These systems are designed and used as a necessary time-saving mechanism. It’s not personal, it’s about recruiters being more efficient with our time. Despite some (very well-deserved) recent criticism, I don’t think they’re going anywhere soon. These systems can mean a recruiter only has to look at 50 applications, most of which are pretty well-qualified, as opposed to 437 applications, many of which may not be. Consider what a ‘bot’ may be seeing in your application, and you’ll stand a better chance of being one of the 50.



Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash