Growing up, your parents may have told you getting a job was simple. You may have heard that asking to speak to the manager of a local business and giving them a firm handshake was what would be required. That may have been true at one time. But these days? You have to face background checks and drug tests. Applications and other materials have to be polished and primed. And if you don’t know how to write a resume that will get past automation software, don’t expect many calls for interviews.
In today’s job market, your resume needs to be tailored. But not just tailored to match the job description. Your resume needs to be tailored specifically to beat filters. That begs the question: How to write a resume that shows you’re the perfect fit and also beats the computers? It’s tricky, but it can be done. First, you’ll need to take a lesson from Sun Tzu, the philosopher, general, and strategist behind The Art of War. That lesson? Know your enemy. Or, in this case, research and get an idea of what you’re up against. To beat the computer, you need to know what it’s looking for.
Beat the Computers
The objective of screening software (or applicant tracking systems, ATS) is to weed people out. Essentially, it acts as the first barrier to separate the wheat from the chaff — or, the qualified from the unqualified. It’s designed to save on costs and act as an artificial intelligence. Instead of paying a human to sort resumes by hand, companies use an ATS at the initial stage to quickly and efficiently winnow the candidate pool.
Given that the average human recruiter only looks at a resume for six seconds, it’s hard to say whether your odds improve with an actual person calling the shots.
So, your goal is to hurdle that initial barrier. To do so, you need to know what the computer is looking for.
If you’ve spent any amount of time writing or working with computers before, you know that a few things are key. First, brevity and simplicity. If you were going to search Google, for example, you’d do so with as few words as possible. You’re looking for hits on keywords or phrases to get the best results. The same is true with an ATS.
You’ll also want to keep things relatively simple. It’s a computer you’re trying to impress. That computer breaks everything down to 1s and 0s, which is about as simple as it gets. Also, aim for density. You want the text to be brief, simple, and packed with relevant information.
Using that as a starting point, you can piece things together.
How to Write a Resume: A Primer
Formatting means the basic layout of your resume. Again, because you’re trying to exploit a machine’s weaknesses, you need to make it easy for the machine to read. When it comes to formatting, that means keeping things conservative and simple. Do away with objective statements or professional summaries — they’re only muddying the waters.
Aim for a straightforward resume, in the traditional style. That should include your personal information at the top, your relevant work experience and history, education, and your relevant skills.
Keywords are incredibly important. The ATS is looking for certain words and phrases in your text, so make sure they’re there. Use basic SEO principles, and make sure that you’re using the job description as a guide. If the job description mentions teamwork and communication skills, then you need to mention your teamwork and communication skills. Tailor your writing to match what the employer has laid out. Don’t lie, of course, but do your best.
Don’t go overboard with keywords, however. If your resume is unreadable because it’s stuffed with keywords and phrases, the system will know it’s being cheated.
Watch for Mistakes
Finally, make sure your finished document is mistake-free. Use spellcheckers and tools like Grammarly.com to point out any glaring problems. This is when you actually get to use the computers for your own benefit. If your resume is filled with grammar and spelling mistakes, the ATS is probably going to get jammed up. It’s not going to recognize misspelled words, and think you’re spouting nonsense. And just like a human screener, it’ll probably send your resume to the recycle bin.
This article originally appeared on The Cheat Sheet.
[Editor’s note: Many employers look at a version of your credit report as part of the application process, so it’s a good idea to know what’s in them and to dispute any errors that may be weighing you down. You can see your free credit report summary, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com.]