Job seekers, forget recruiters and hiring managers. There's a new gatekeeper standing between you and your dream job that you need to please first.
Three-fourths of all resumes never even get seen by human eyes, according to a study from job search services firm Preptel. Instead, they're scanned by a piece of software, known as an applicant tracking system, or "ATS." Depending on how highly this machine ranks your resume, you could be first in line for an interview or buried so far down the list recruiters never find you.
More than 95 percent of Fortune 500 companies use an ATS to streamline the recruiting process and keep up with the thousands of applications received weekly, but plenty of smaller employers have embraced the tool too, according to data collected by Jobscan.
So if you want to get hired, you'll need to beat these bots.
Thankfully, that's not hard to do. It just requires tweaking your resume to deliver exactly what the software system's been programmed to search for — and nothing it hasn't been told to want.
"Most applications are removed from the equation because they are not formatted in way these systems can read and interpret," Amanda Augustine, a career expert with TopResume, tells CNBC Make It. Out of 1,000 resumes TopResume analyzed that were submitted trough an ATS, 43 percent were sent in an incompatible file type.
Pick a file format that you know this employer's specific application system can accurately process. The online application usually specifies file uploads it accepts, but if it is unclear, stick to Word docs or pure text, which are near universally understood by all ATS. If you don't have Microsoft Word, consider using free tools like Google docs to save in this format.
Many of us may be tempted to upload a PDF document, especially when we're concerned about our formatting and design remaining intact, but some of the less sophisticated systems employers rely on may be unable to read this common file type, viewing it as blank or as one large image, adds Augustine. Even if an employer's application says you can upload a PDF, Nick Francioso, founder of resume optimization tool SkillSyncer, recommends uploading an additional doc version.
Finally, avoid placing any important information, such as contact details, in the header or footer, since not every ATS can read these sections. And if the recruiter can't see your name or email, they'll never be able to bring you in for an interview no matter how much they may like your resume.
Creative resumes with pops of color, fun graphics and charts, or inventive layouts may grab a human recruiter's attention, but the ATS bots don't appreciate these extra efforts to stand out. Instead, these embellishments actually lower the odds your resume will make it through this initial cull.
ATS gets tripped up by any images, photos, logos, graphics, charts or tables that you might have included within the document. Even unusual fonts or fancy stylized bullet points, like an arrow, can be a problem, Francioso tells CNBC Make It.
"Some newer systems can read these kinds of things correctly, but the problem is you don't know which kind of system you're applying to," says Francioso. "Older systems may render graphics or photos as garbled text. The file will look like it got corrupted with random characters everywhere and that's what a recruiter will see if they find your resume in the system."
TopResume found that 21 percent of resumes submitted through an ATS included graphics or charts that are unreadable to the software.
If you're unsure if your pared-back layout might be misunderstood by ATS, Augustine recommends copying the entire resume, formatting and all, and pasting it into a plain text document.
"If weird symbols pop up, if things are out of order, that's how the bot will read it," Augustine says.
ATS can only understand what it has been programmed to understand and requires robotic levels of conformity.
Eye-catching titles or sections labeled "what I've been working on" or "what motivates me" likely won't be recognized, because these systems have been specifically told to search and sort information based on the most common section headers, such as work experience, professional summary, work history, education, skills and professional certifications.
"There is no standard you have to follow exactly for which headers to use, but you should stick to the most popular or most frequently used ones to be safe," says Francioso. "ATS are looking for these specific cue words to section off your resume so that when it goes to search for your degree it knows to parse that information out of an education section, for instance."
Each resume you submit needs to be tweaked to mimic the exact language a company used in its job description. ATS determines whether you're qualified for the position based on how closely the terms you use match the keywords recruiters search for.
"Keyword optimization is the most important element," says Augustine.
Copy the job description into a word cloud using a free tool like Wordle, Augustine suggests. The words that appear in the largest-size font are the keywords you need to be sure to include. If a term pops up such as search-engine optimization that has a common abbreviation, like SEO, or other name, be sure to include that as well. After all, recruiters aren't subject-matter experts, says Francioso.
You could also try a more sophisticated approach using tools like Francioso's Skillsyncer or Jobscan that will identify any skills or keywords missing from your resume and tell you how closely your application aligns with the job listing.
Incorporate those keywords into your resume two to three times each, with at least one mention coming in your work experience section, suggests Augustine. A separate skills section within your resume can be another useful place to pack in keywords and highlight your talents.
Of course, you need to be honest, too. Don't mention a skill you don't possess just because it appears in the listing. Even if a bot can't tell you've keyword-stuffed, a hiring manager easily can.
The best way around the ATS software? Go directly to a human.
While you'll still need to follow a company's hiring procedures and submit an online application, it never hurts to send a direct email to the hiring manager. Find out who the decision-maker is and send them your resume along with a brief explanation as to why you're the perfect fit for the position.
If you have contacts at the company, ask if they can pass your resume along to the right people. A study from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that referred candidates are twice as likely to land an interview as other applicants. And some companies The New York Times spoke with rate a recommendation from an existing employee so highly that such candidates are 10 times more likely to be hired.
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