Software Is Often Screening Your Résumé When You Apply Online. Here's How To Beat It.

Applicant tracking systems may penalize you for these common mistakes.
Applicant tracking systems sometimes screen out candidates over easily avoidable mistakes.
ne2pi via Getty Images
Applicant tracking systems sometimes screen out candidates over easily avoidable mistakes.

Before you ever have a chance to get judged by a human hiring manager, your résumé may be screened out by a machine.

Applicant tracking systems, which are used to manage, sort and filter electronic job submissions, are popular with employers who handle large volumes of applicants. A 2018 analysis of job listings from online résumé service Jobscan found that 98 percent of Fortune 500 companies were using such a system.

If you apply online for employment and the URL of the job listing includes names like Taleo, Workday, SuccessFactors, iCIMS, BrassRing or ADP, you are applying through an applicant tracking system.

Like all human-run systems, these programs are not perfect. In a 2016 survey of 374 human resources professionals, 62 percent admitted that some qualified candidates are likely being filtered out by their software.

Sometimes these errors are not predictable ― at least not to the job applicant. Patrick Foss of ThinkTalent Human Capital Partners, who advises clients on applicant tracking systems and other talent technologies, pointed to one such example: when the person setting the parameters for a job sets the filter to require a bachelor’s degree, but fails to mark any degree above that which would also be acceptable.

But you can prepare for other kinds of hiccups with applicant tracking systems. Here are three key ways to format your résumé so that the tracking program won’t reject you for no good reason.

1. Don’t put information in the header and footer.

Putting your contact information in the header or footer of your résumé may seem like an eye-catching way to grab a recruiter’s attention, but it is also a bad idea when facing an applicant tracking system, according to the experts.

“That is so dangerous,” said Gala Jackson, a certified career and executive leadership coach. “Putting information in the header or footer of your document actually can cause some errors in applicant tracking systems. If you’ve ever gotten one of those immediate ‘Thanks, but no thanks’ emails, it’s probably something to do with the formatting.”

The problem is that software may not read information correctly or at all if it appears in those top and bottom margins.

“Put your name and address at the top of the page right below where the header would fall, because otherwise you will never be able to get contacted because the software can’t read it,” said Virginia Franco, a nationally certified résumé writer.

“Résumé parsers are looking for fielded information,” Foss said. “It shouldn’t matter, but if you’re putting it in the header or footer, it may not pick that up accurately.”

To format a résumé for an applicant tracking system, don't put information in the header like this.
To format a résumé for an applicant tracking system, don't put information in the header like this.
Instead, put that information directly below the header.
Instead, put that information directly below the header.

2. Don’t get creative with columns and graphics.

There are many creative résumé templates out there. But Ashley Watkins, a nationally certified résumé writer, warned that graphics, tables and excessive columns can be hard for an applicant tracking system to parse.

“That graphic is only for the human reader,” she said. “You can do that if you know that your résumé is being delivered directly to a person.”

Watkins suggested one trick that job applicants can try to ensure their résumé is software-friendly: Save it as a .txt unformatted document and then look at it.

“If they can read it in that and all the information is there, nothing is deleted, then your résumé more than likely can be read by the [applicant tracking system],” she said.

3. Align your résumé keywords with the job description.

Read through the job description and make sure the keywords used for the activities, titles and tools associated with the position are reflected in your own résumé, said Alison Daley, the founder of a tech recruitment training platform called Recruiting Innovation.

Do not despair if your professional background is not the absolute ideal for that job.

“If they call the role a UX designer and you don’t have a UX designer title yet, then what you could do [is] focus on the other keywords in terms of your experience,” Daley said.

Or if you lack the bachelor’s degree noted in the job listing, you can still help your chances by putting down your relevant coursework, experts advise.

How you format your employment history is also key, Franco said. The applicant tracking software may not make certain leaps that are obvious to the human mind. So if you held multiple roles with a single employer, Franco advised listing that company with each role. Otherwise, she said, “you run the risk that it can’t score it as associated with that company.”

Making your résumé easy to understand for an applicant tracking system is one small step to making the process of finding a job run a little smoother.

Of course, another way to avoid the hassles of applicant tracking systems is to get your résumé directly in the hands of a hiring manager. Knowing someone at the company can get you ahead of the pack, as referred candidates are twice as likely to be hired as other candidates applying through job boards, a 2014 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found.

“My biggest advice for all of this is try and bypass screening whenever possible,” Franco said. Look to your networks and reach out directly. “And then it doesn’t matter if you score amazing or horrible, because you’ve got someone who is willing to pick you out of the pile and get it in front of the right people.”

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