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Avoiding the Pitfalls of Applicant Tracking System Software

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I’ve held some type of job ever since I was 16 years old. My first job was at an ice cream shop where I worked part-time on weekends and full-time during the summer.

A friend who worked there told me about the shop’s job openings and recommended that I apply. So I called, made an appointment and was offered a position on the spot after a 10-minute verbal interview.

My first professional interview experience was quite similar. I applied for an internship and was hired immediately after a brief interview.

However, fast-forward nearly 30 years later, and landing a job is vastly different. Getting a job offer may include a series of phone, Zoom or in-person interviews as well as providing a resume and filling out an online application.

According to CNBC writer Jeff Cox, “There are 8.6 million people considered out of work in the U.S. and nearly 10 million job openings.” So if you do the math, you would think it is relatively easy to get a job right now.

But the opposite is the case. Highly sought-after positions often remain vacant for a longer period of time because employers are looking for a defined skillset. These skillsets are often communicated to a potential employer using a resume. However, a poorly organized resume can stop your job search before it begins, especially if your resume is first reviewed by an applicant tracking system (ATS).

According to JobScan writer Jon Shields, over 98% of Fortune 500 companies use an applicant tracking system, a type of software that electronically sorts and stores resumes. Applicant tracking systems are often known as “resume bots” because they use machine learning to teach a computer to think like a human.  An applicant tracking system can even be programmed to look for specific keywords relating to job skills in your application.

These job skills can be broken down into three categories: hard skills, soft skills and fuzzy skills. Hard skills are tactical skills such as degrees, certifications and specific job experience. Soft skills are communication skills like the oral and written communication skills necessary to lead and manage projects.

Fuzzy skills are descriptors that you use to label yourself such as a “self-starter” or a “team player.” According to Insider, the three ways you can avoid ATS-related errors include:

  • Following a simple resume format
  • Using keywords
  • Asking for help

Following a Simple Resume Format

Your ATS-friendly resume should follow a standard format that includes:

  • Your contact information
  • A career profile/summary
  • Career highlights
  • Education
  • Extracurricular activities if they relate to the job, such as volunteer work
  • Honors and awards

Avoid adding private, personally identifying information such as your Social Security number to your resume. This type of information can be supplied to an interviewer later on in the hiring process.

In addition, avoid any potential age- or race-related biases by leaving your photo off your resume. The resume should focus on professional accomplishments unless any personal accomplishments compliment your professional experience.

For example, if you are applying for a leadership position, including a volunteer position to demonstrate how you led an initiative can be an added bonus to your resume. That type of information highlights the breadth and depth of your experience.

Use the Right Keywords for Your Resume

Using the right keywords is essential for a crafting an ATS-friendly resume. The keywords will vary depending upon the type of job you seek, so refer to the job description and repeat the same descriptive buzzwords in your resume.

Ideally, tailor each resume to suit each position that you’re seeking. The frequency of keywords is important, as well as where the keywords are placed.

Using the company’s exact keywords from the job description is critical. Look at the job description and make sure its keywords are listed in several locations in your resume, such as the work experience and professional accomplishments sections.

In some cases, a job description may say the same thing in different ways. Make sure those same keywords and phrases appear in your resume before you submit it online to be evaluated by an applicant tracking system.

For some situations, you may need to add more details to your resume. For example, if your job title is very generic but is relevant to the job you’re seeking, include a sentence or two that describes the position as well as specific accomplishments that relate to that job.

Be accurate and honest about your skillsets because keyword stuffing – using an excessive number of the same keywords in your resume – does not work. Your resume should accurately highlight your experience.

Not all keywords are created equal when it comes to creating resumes that an applicant tracking system can easily understand. It’s more than just keywords; you should also use phrases from the job description to show you’re a good match for the position.

Similarly, avoid abbreviations unless the abbreviation is used in the job description. To be accurate, spell out an acronym the first time it is used in your resume.

Asking for Help

Resume writing is often tricky and a skill that’s developed over time, so if you have questions, definitely consult a professional. Our University has a Career Services department that offers several services to our current students and alumni to help them with the job application process.

In addition to resume reviews, our Career Coaches can also offer cover letter reviews, interview preparation, and career-related advice. They can also help you prepare an elevator pitch; determine which jobs match your degree program, skillset and interests; and develop job search strategies.

Be Creative

All employers are looking for good workers and good problem solvers. Ideally, your resume should highlight your skills in an easy-to-understand manner to help a reviewer understand your accomplishments and how they will potentially benefit and impact a prospective employer. Some experiences that employers particularly value include working on teams, managing a budget, working under deadlines and finding creative solutions to typical business problems.

Another way to highlight examples of your skillset can include providing a link to your LinkedIn profile. According to TopResume, over 600 million people have a LinkedIn profile. LinkedIn is considered a real-time portal to highlight your most recent accomplishments.

For instance, you can establish a profile, upload a resume, and add other information such as your interests, key accomplishments, and volunteer activities. LinkedIn is also a great way to make professional connections, which can lead to hearing about new job opportunities.

As a manager, I’ve reviewed countless applications and resumes, and a poorly organized resume is unlikely to receive more than a cursory review. Crafting a resume means accurately highlighting your skillset to both an applicant tracking system and a human in an easy-to-understand manner, so that you are more likely to stand out from other candidates.

Dr. Kandis Y. Wyatt, PMP, is an award-winning author, presenter, and professor with nearly 30 years of experience in science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM). She is the creator of the Professor S.T.E.A.M. Children’s Book Series, which brings tomorrow’s concepts to future leaders today. A global speaker, STE(A)M advocate, and STE(A)M communicator, she holds a B.S. in Meteorology and an M.S. in Meteorology and Water Resources from Iowa State University, as well as a D.P.A. in Public Administration from Nova Southeastern University. She is a faculty member in Transportation and Logistics for the Wallace E. Boston School of Business and specializes in Artificial Intelligence (AI) in transportation, education, and technology.

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