Michael Frash
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How to get your resume past ATS
Last updated: September 24, 2022
Michael Frash
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How to get your resume past ATS
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Online application systems make applying for a new job easier than ever before but can also create a very big problem. Hundreds of other applicants are also applying, and you're lost in a sea of candidates, tossed about and sucked below by the powerful undertow of the ATS.

ATS, or applicant tracking systems, are great for an employer's hiring process because they keep track of thousands of applications. But they’re not always great for you because a minor mistake can kick you out of the running.

So sure, applying is easier than ever, but getting hired can seem a whole lot harder. But, don’t worry! Here’s our ATS 101 to help you understand exactly what an ATS is and how you can make sure your resume ticks all its boxes.

What is an ATS?

An ATS is the gatekeeper between you and that job you really want.

Employers use an ATS to sift through thousands of resumes and automatically strike out unqualified applicants.

By programming in specific criteria they want, and don’t want, from potential applicants, employers can use an ATS to quickly scan through thousands of applicants to find the ones best suited for the role.

ATS software takes resumes, cover letters, and information from online application forms and passes them through the criteria set by the hiring manager. By scanning for certain keywords, it can make an assumption about which candidates are most likely to be appointable.

The positives for job seekers

Applicant tracking systems aren’t all bad for qualified job candidates. An ATS is what makes applying to endless jobs possible in the first place. These systems make the application process effortless with online auto-fill applications, interview scheduling, and seamless communications with applicants.

With keyword-rich templates for employers, honing in on the perfect job prospects is usually a simple process. The bad news is that those same processes can sometimes eliminate strong applicants along with the weak. Images and complicated formatting are just some of the elements that can get your resume rejected.

(Image Source)

Strikeout vs. an ATS base hit

Understanding the game

Some insight into how an ATS works can help you score an interview rather than disqualify you before a real person even sees your resume. An ATS, in its simplest form, is an electronic sorter.

Using specific search terms, like preset keywords, an ATS will isolate only resumes that meet the criteria set by the hiring company. If an employer specifies they want someone with auto-body repair experience, their ATS may reject any resume without this key phrase within the text of the resume.

Unfortunately for job seekers, this means that for every job you apply to, you probably need to adapt your resume for that specific job. The process is less daunting if you know what pitfalls to avoid and how to do it.

What counts as a strike with an ATS?

When encountering obstacles on your journey as a job candidate, ATS included, preparation is key. To plan accordingly, you must know where you’ll likely run into trouble:

  1. Missing keywords: When you use the same resume over and over, you ignore the job listing’s specific requirements and keywords. If the ATS doesn’t find the keywords it’s hunting for, it may automatically reject your application.

  2. Bad formatting: Gone are the days of creating attractive resumes that stand out with fancy fonts and professional-looking graphs. A complicated format will confuse the ATS and earn an automatic rejection. Applicant tracking systems are computer programs, after all, and follow logic, not design.

  3. Overly specific and inaccurate job descriptions: Over-simplifying or using the wrong language when describing your past work experience will keep you from standing out to ATS.

  4. Gaps in work history: While you probably have a strong reason for a gap in work history, you won’t get the chance to explain it if your resume never sees human eyes.

How does this affect my job hunt?

Whenever you apply to a large company or a listing on a job board, you can be fairly sure the employer uses an ATS to screen applicants. While being aware that applicant tracking systems are out there making first contact, so to speak, with the computerized version of you, it shouldn’t change your approach other than fine-tuning your resume to target specific job postings.

When reviewing the job description, consider what skills, qualifications, or personal attributes the employer is likely looking for and ensure those are mentioned.

(Image Source)

Companies are adapting their ATS

Big players like Amazon and IBM are working to understand the gap between their lists of applicants and those their ATS presents as qualified.

While there are over 11 million jobs available, employers struggle to find workers. Many fall through the ATS cracks, especially when employers use overly-specific or bloated job descriptions, listing skills that aren’t necessarily required for the daily duties.

According to a Harvard Business School study, 90% of surveyed executives know the ATS they use omits thousands of qualified applicants. Top companies are looking for ways to remain competitive and efficient in the hiring process without losing out on the best candidates, even if that means doing things the old-fashioned way.

How do I create an ATS–friendly resume?

Once you recognize the pitfalls in your resume, you can use a few tricks to make it more ATS-friendly and show you are a qualified candidate that deserves to be in the running.

Explain gaps in employment in a positive light

Even though most gaps in employment have simple explanations, it’s natural to fear appearing lazy or unmotivated. There are several ways to handle this situation and make the gap a positive rather than a negative.

  • Include the gap dates as you would a job, but add volunteer work, travel, or caring for a family member to the role description, even if it was unpaid. Maybe you didn’t draw a salary, but you were likely gaining experience and contributing to your community or family.

  • Instead of exact dates, use months and years when listing past employment. This is especially helpful for small gaps in employment.

  • Use a hybrid resume format that focuses on skills and experience as much as work history.

  • If you have the option, write a cover letter to include with your resume that briefly explains the gap.

Use the job description to mine for keywords

Read the description thoroughly and make a list of keywords the company uses. Include both hard skills, such as keyboarding, and soft skills, such as effective communication.

Underline those used twice in the description, and make sure you include them in your resume at least once, more if it still sounds natural. If the job requirements are vague, look for a similar job posting and borrow relevant keywords.

Write a cover letter whenever possible

A cover letter serves several purposes. First, it’s your formal introduction to an employer, and second, it’s your sales pitch to hire you. A good cover letter can also help you overcome ATS elimination hurdles. And as mentioned above, it’s an opportunity to explain absences from the workforce.

Use proper resume formatting that sails through ATS

Skip the fancy fonts and graphs. Simple formatting works best for resumes that face ATS. If you want to draw attention to certain parts, use bullet points.

Use a logical hierarchy with clear, traditional headings. Don’t use headers or footers, and stick with basic fonts. When using an acronym like BA, always include the spelled-out version as well (Bachelor of Arts).

Apply to jobs with overly-specific job descriptions carefully

During the recruitment process, employers sometimes get carried away with job descriptions and list duties or skills not related to the position. When this happens, include as many matching keywords and skills as you can, and if possible, in more than one section. If the posting allows, include a cover letter. And don’t be afraid to use personal connections to get your foot in the door.

Tailor your resume for every job

While nobody wants to reinvent the wheel, you improve your odds of landing an interview and job by adapting your resume to each position you apply for.

To make the process easier, create a document listing your skills, both hard and soft, and main selling points. You can continually add common terms to the list as you discover them in job postings. Use your list with your existing resume template by copying and pasting where appropriate.

(Image Source)

ATS-friendly resume templates to make your resume stand out

Depending on the position you’re applying for, you can use straightforward resume templates to draw attention to specific skills.

  1. Entry-level position — Follow a basic resume format:

  2. Summary — Include listing keywords

  3. Work experience

  4. Education

  5. Additional skills

  6. Changing careers — Emphasize skills before work experience:

  7. Summary — Include listing keywords

  8. Skills — Use keywords from posted job requirements

  9. Experience — Equate your previously listed skills with past work experience

  10. Education

  11. Management position — Emphasize leadership roles:

  12. Summary — Include listing keywords

  13. Leadership experience

  14. Work experience — Relate each experience to leadership qualities and achievements.

  15. Education — Highlight any leadership-specific training

  16. Additional skills — Incorporate keywords from job posting

When it comes to saving your resume, use MS Word (.docx) or a PDF file. ATS won’t always recognize less common file types.

Three situational ATS-friendly resume templates

Work around ATS by cultivating and using personal connections

One of the simplest ways to work around ATS is to sidestep it altogether. Using your personal connections or networking will often pay benefits beyond your current needs.

Strong connections can also help with other important life events. For instance, home buying, childcare, college, event management — the possibilities are endless.

Getting your foot in the door with an employer through an existing connection gets you closer to the front of the line in the recruiting and interview process. Employers place a premium on job candidates with a direct connection to someone they already know and trust.

Not everyone is good at building relationships, and for some, it’s a painful process. Those who consider themselves shy or introverted can find reaching out and cultivating relationships especially challenging.

But like every skill you’ve mastered, it just takes some practice. In the beginning, it may feel forced, but with time it becomes easier. Start with people you’re already well acquainted with to ease into the process and work up to those you don’t really know at all.

So, how do you begin building a strong network using personal connections?

1. Make a list of your existing networks

Include family, friends, colleagues, coworkers, church members, etc.

2. Reach out to your network

Let them know you’re looking for new opportunities. If you already know someone who works for the company you’re applying to, ask to get together for lunch or another type of meeting. Face-to-face meetings make a stronger connection than email or a phone call.

3. Build your relationships

Make yourself an asset to your connections by being helpful and finding ways to make their life better or easier. While they may not have the means to help you now, further down the road they could prove to be the right person at the right time.

  1. Don’t try to sell yourself

No one likes a hard sell. Make yourself an asset as a friend, not someone just throwing their resume around to anyone who will take it. By building a good relationship, you show yourself as a valuable connection with integrity who's trustworthy and deserving of an introduction to an employer or hiring manager.

  1. Follow up with your connections and keep your network active

You never want someone thinking they were used, so even if their recommendation or introduction didn’t pan out, thank them for their effort and continue to grow the relationship and reciprocate their support.

(Image Source)

Forget about the gatekeepers and make your job search an ATS-friendly homerun

Once you optimize your resume, you won’t lose any sleep worrying about your application making it past the ATS.

While it might initially make applying for a job a more time-consuming process, designing your resume to rise to the top of the pile will greatly improve your odds of landing an interview and job, rather than blindly applying to every listing you see.

Technology is a two-way street, working to your advantage and against you in a job hunt. Learning how it helps and where it hurts and how to work with both aspects will make the once painful process painless.

When you’re ready to get serious about finding a new job, Jobcase is here and ready to help.

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Michael Frash
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Christopher Mbuvi

This is a very informative piece. I have known that employers use ATS nowadays but the secret to aligning your resume with the ATS has been an uphill task. This is because, I have not understood ATS and its precise functioning. The way Michael you have unpacked it has opened my inner eyes. There we go!

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