Ever since the Internet made applying for a job as easy as uploading or e-mailing a résumé, hiring managers and HR personnel have had to contend with volumes of applicants for jobs. To help them screen all the résumés, they've turned to recruiting software and applicant tracking systems that filter candidates' résumés based on how well they match the job description. In fact, by 2004, 90 percent of the top 500 U.S. employers were using recruiting software, according to Human Resources Leader.
Applicant tracking and recruiting systems originally relied on keyword-matching algorithms to identify candidates with the right skills and experience for a position—and to rule out unqualified candidates. Job seekers who were unaware of these systems but otherwise qualified for the job sometimes got eliminated before human eyes even perused their résumés because they didn't know how to gear their résumés to these systems. Meanwhile, tech-savvy job seekers quickly learned to game them.
Even though the systems have grown in technical sophistication (they now do more than simple keyword matching and some use artificial intelligence), job seekers' concerns about being erroneously ruled out by them haven't abated, say career coaches and résumé writers. Their worries are heightened by the fact that when they submit a résumé to a prospective employer, they rarely hear back one way or the other, says Louise Kursmark, an executive résumé writer, career consultant and author of several books on career management.
To better the odds of hiring managers seeing—and responding to—your résumé, career experts offer the following 10 tips for standing out and getting past the electronic gate-keepers.
1. Apply for jobs for which you're qualified.
When you're unemployed, it's tempting to apply for any and all jobs in your field, regardless of whether you meet the exact requirements. You may think playing the numbers game will increase your odds of getting a response, but a more targeted approach may in fact yield better results, says Kursmark.
Because so many highly qualified professionals are looking for jobs, competition is fierce, and employers are being very selective about the candidates they bring in for job interviews. Applying for positions in which your skills and qualifications most closely match those in the job description will increase your odds of getting through the system.
2. Know what keywords to include in your résumé and cover letter.
Whether you're a project manager, .NET developer, DBA or CIO, Kursmark recommends reading every job ad related to your profession to get a sense of the key skills and capabilities organizations consistently seek. Even if you don't plan to apply for these jobs, scanning the ads will increase your awareness of the most commonly used industry-standard terms and keywords that you should build into your résumé.
NEXT: Don't let your location hold you back!
3. Learn how to pack your résumé with keywords—legitimately.
Because recruiting software and applicant tracking systems still use keyword-matching algorithms as one way to identify potentially qualified candidates, you want to ensure your résumé includes appropriate keywords.
Katy Piotrowski, a career counselor and author of the Career Cowards book series, says that some job seekers have incorporated keywords into their résumés by copying the job description from the ad, pasting it into their résumé in a tiny font and coloring the text white so that it goes undetected by human eyes but still gets noticed by applicant tracking systems. Piotrowski doesn't recommend this disingenuous technique.
[ Don't let the appearance of job hopping on your resume sink your chances of landing interviews. ]
To legitimately get keywords into your résumé, she and Kursmark suggest adding a paragraph near the top of the first page labeled "Strengths" or "Core Competencies." This paragraph should summarize your key skills and areas of expertise. The core competencies you list in this paragraph should match the requirements laid out in the job description. Piotrowski and Kursmark recommend copying the job description into your résumé and then adapting it by adding or subtracting keywords so that it matches you to a T. Kursmark says this is a standard and accepted way to get keywords into your résumé without looking like you're trying to game the system. Just make sure the paragraph doesn't run much longer than 12 terms, she adds. Otherwise, it can start to look ridiculous.
4. Vary your terminology.
Recruiting software and applicant tracking systems are now sophisticated enough to understand that variations on certain words, such as Bachelor of Science, BS and B.S. or programmer, software developer and software engineer, mean the same thing. For that reason, it's unlikely that you'll get screened out if you use the word "programmer" exclusively throughout your résumé for a software developer job. Nevertheless, it doesn't hurt to vary the terms you use in your résumé, says Kursmark.
"For example, if you put the term 'supply chain management' into your résumé, you might also include 'managing a supply chain' or 'supply chain logistics'," says Kursmark. "Include other terms that mean the same thing so that regardless of how an employer searches for a particular keyword, your résumé shows up. Mentioning it more than once also shows your depth of experience."
5. Don't let your location hold you back.
Another way applicant tracking systems screen candidates is on the basis of their location. Hiring managers can program these systems so that they only select candidates who live within, say, a 20 mile radius of the job.
"Employers use area codes and zip codes to screen people in because they prefer not to relocate people," says Kursmark.
If you're considering a job in a different state, Kursmark suggests getting a phone number local to the employer's area via Skype so that you don't get screened out.
"If you're looking nationally, it doesn't make sense to get 50 phone numbers," she says. "Get two or three pre-paid cell phones and use those for your job search. That can be an efficient—albeit expensive—way to put yourself in that location."
[ For more job search tips, see CIO.com's IT Job Search Bible. ]
NEXT: Follow-up with a hard copy and a phone call.
6. Don't use any fancy formatting or fonts.
Depending on the recruiting software an employer may be using, its system might scan your résumé into a back-end database. To ease scanning, format your résumé as simply as possible, say Martin Buckland, principal of Elite Résumés, a résumé writing service, and Praj Patel, executive vice president of Talent Technology, which makes recruiting software. Don't include graphics, pictures or tables, says Patel, because they won't scan. For the same reason, Buckland says to limit the amount of bold, italics and underlining, and to use a single font that scans easily, such as Times New Roman, Arial, Helvetica, Century, Century Gothic, Bookman, Garamond or Trebuchet. 7. Emphasize relevant accomplishments.
If an applicant tracking system flags your résumé for the hiring manager, the hiring manager isn't going to spend much more than 10 seconds sizing it up, says Piotrowski. During that 10 seconds, the hiring manager is looking to see if your work experience relates to the job she's trying to fill, she adds. If your résumé doesn't communicate your accomplishments that are relevant to the job you're applying for, the hiring manager will quickly move on to the next résumé. So prominently displaying the accomplishments an employer seeks is critical, says Piotrowski.
8. Mail a hard copy of your résumé.
After you've submitted your résumé electronically, Piotrowski advises job seekers to send a hard copy of their résumé to prospective employers with a note saying that this is their second submission and that they're very interested in the job. She says this makes job seekers stand out.
"When I talk to HR managers or hiring coordinators about having candidates do this, they say it's great because they rarely see paper and because it's nice to get something tangible," Piotrowski says, adding that a client successfully scored two interviews after following up on three electronic submissions with paper copies.
If you don't know the name of the employer (as is sometimes the case when you're applying for a job through a recruiter), Piotrowski says you might be able to find out the name of the company if you know the industry and location. For example, she says, if you know the employer is a widget manufacturer in Cleveland, you can enter those terms in a search engine and you'll likely get a list of companies that make widgets in Cleveland.
"In addition to sending your résumé to HR, I recommend researching the name of the person you would report to and sending a hard copy of your résumé directly to them," says Piotrowski. "It's not hard to get that information. You might be able to find it on the Internet or by calling the company and asking who's in charge of the IT function."
9. Follow-up with a phone call.
Another way job seekers can distinguish themselves is by calling employers to confirm that they've received the job seekers' résumé and cover letter, says Piotrowski.
"Most hiring coordinators are happy to take a minute to look in their database to see if your materials were received," she says. "When they do, they have a chance to look at your materials. I also recommend you ask about the next step in the process and if it would make sense to set up an interview while you've got them on the phone."
Though HR people can be tough to get on the phone, job seekers shouldn't worry about appearing pushy by calling them. "My experience is that only 10 to 20 percent of job seekers do any follow-up," says Piotrowski. "There may be more people now who are calling employers and asking if they received their résumé, but if you don't follow-up, you really limit your chances of being noticed. It's better to come across as a slightly squeaky wheel who's interested in the position. If you want an interview, you have to push yourself."
10. Don't spend all your time on your résumé or trying to game the system.
Kursmark warns job seekers against getting hung up on their résumés and trying to match their qualifications with a job description. "Even if [you think] you're a perfect match, there's a very good chance you'll never hear back from the majority of employers, and you'll become very discouraged after putting so much effort into your résumé," she says. "Networking is still the best use of your time."
Follow Meridith Levinson on Twitter at @meridith.