by Sharon Florentine

How to Beat Applicant Tracking Systems

Feb 13, 20147 mins
CareersIT Jobs

All's fair in love, war and job hunting. Learn how to use 'guerilla' job search tactics to use applicant tracking system technology to your advantage.

You’ve got all the right skills. Your resume shows a clear progression through your career, with a long list of accolades and accomplishments. You work well with others, but can excel independently. You’ve solved problems and increased revenue for your last few employers. You interview well — or at least you would if you could get an interview. So, what’s the problem?

How to Beat Applicant Tracking Systems

You might be at the mercy of an applicant tracking system (ATS) – technology that scans incoming resumes for job-specific keywords and “grades” them on a scale of 0 to 100. If your resume isn’t scoring high enough, you could be excluded before your application ever makes it before human eyes.

[Slideshow: 8 Tips to Boost Your Resume Chances with Applicant Tracking Systems]

But there’s a secret to beating these systems, one that Rick Gillis, job search expert, strategist, consultant and author encourages his clients to use to give them a better shot at landing an in-person interview and a job. Just a few quick formatting tweaks can catapult your resume to the top of the pile.

“Yes, we’re gaming the system,” Gillis says. “This is what I like to call a ‘guerrilla’ job-search tactic; really, we’re leveling the playing the field. I know that my clients can land jobs if they can get past the machines and can prove themselves in person. That part of the job search and interview process is up to them. But as a consultant, it’s my job to help them make the difference between getting that phone call, creating that touch point, and moving forward,” Gillis says.

Even Guerilla Tactics Have Rules

First, and most importantly, there are some hard-and-fast rules, even in these guerilla tactics, Gillis says. Do not lie, do not misrepresent yourself or your skills, and do not claim experience, traits or knowledge that don’t represent you, he says.

[Related: How to Avoid 16 Common IT Resume Mistakes]

“One thing clients ask me is, ‘If I see a job and I meet most of the criteria, but not all, should I even bother applying?’, and I tell them that a job description posted by a hiring company is a wish list. These companies would love to have 100 percent of these qualities and skills, but if you have 70 percent to 80 percent, go ahead and apply,” he says. “But don’t you dare put anything in your resume or your application that you can’t speak to in an interview. Sure, you’ll get past the machines, but you’ll be branded a dishonest, deceitful and untrustworthy person, and you’ll never land a job,” he says.

How Applicant Tracking Systems Work

ATSes use a resume-filtering module that scans and grades resumes on a scale of 0 to 100, with points given for each match in keywords and terms that happens between a resume and a job posting, Gillis says.

Because many recruiters and hiring managers are strapped for time, they’ll often set the software to scan only the first page of your resume, so it’s critical that all relevant keywords appear on that first page, Gillis says.

The best way to do this is to keep a running list of keywords relevant to the jobs you’re seeking, and that include jargon, lingo and industry-specific language and add to those the keywords from the job to which you’re applying, and place them in 8-point font at the bottom of your resume. That’s all there is to it.

[Related: 5 Insider Secrets for Beating Applicant Tracking Systems]

“Keep a running list of your generic keywords that you use with your peers,” he says. “Whether you’re a journalist, an attorney an IT professional or a plumber, there are terms and language that are specific to your industry that shows you’re an ‘insider’,” he says.

“If the terms are not already on your resume, you must artificially insert them. The best way to do this is putting them all in a separate section at the bottom of the resume. Remember, you’re not doing this for the humans, you’re doing this for the machines that will ‘see’ your resume first,” Gillis says.

If it sounds simple, that’s because it is, Gillis says. Here’s the logic behind it, and how you can set up your resumes — yes, you should have multiple versions — to best attract the attention of these ATSes.

“Look, I don’t fault recruiters and hiring managers for using this technology; they are completely swamped,” Gillis says. “From recruiters to large enterprises, there’s so much information, so many applications and resumes coming in, they’re overwhelmed. Google says they get something like 60,000 resumes each week. So, my clients need a way to swim to the top of this huge sea of information,” Gillis says. And they need to be quick about it — the first application and resume comes in, on average, 3.5 minutes after a job opening is posted, he says. Being one of the first to apply can up your advantage, he says.

“I advise all of my clients to have a short-form and a long-form resume. The short-form resume is set up like a tree, with the ‘keywords’ section acting as the roots. That section is placed at the very bottom of the first page, and the rest of the resume grows up from there,” he says.

[See short-form resume image]

The short-form resume should be an accomplishments-based resume, Gillis says. It should include a header, a “seeking statement,” and, if possible, you should use the name of the company in this statement. Why? Because within Taleo, one of the most popular ATS packages, the solution automatically gives applicants points for using the company name in the application, Gillis says.

“If you use the company name once, the Taleo system will give you a point. If you use it twice, you get two points in their system. If you want to see how it works, they’re very open about the process,” he says. “Taleo even has videos on YouTube that show how they eliminate candidates who don’t know how to play this game.”

In addition, Gillis says, include your most current skill sets and four — only four –accomplishments, each with a net result. Each should include the name of the company for whom you worked, your title, dates and your role. And that’s all, he says.

“All the extras, all the other details, should be saved for your long-form resume,” Gillis says. “The short-form’s the job-seeker’s equivalent of when Oprah says, ‘We’re going to take a break, but when we come back, I’ll teach you how to get $1 million!’ You’re not going to change the channel now, are you?” Gillis says.

“This is what you’re doing — this is how you’re playing the game. You want the hiring manager to call you and say, ‘I am looking at your resume, but I would love to see more information,’ and that’s why you have a rich, robust long-form resume. Then you can say, ‘Great! I will send you my long-form resume and some additional information, and we can set up an in-person conversation’,” says Gillis. “This is the end-game. This is where I’m trying to get my clients,” he says.

[See long-form resume]

“None of these tricks — adding the keywords section, short-form resumes, none of this is dishonest or deceitful,” he says. “I am simply showing people how the game is played. Companies use this filtering software, they set the technology to scan only page one, and on and on – this is how the game is played. And if you know how to do it, you can play the game, too,” he says. “I want to level the field here. My goal is to put myself out of business.”

Sharon Florentine covers IT careers and data center topics for Follow Sharon on Twitter @MyShar0na. Email her at Follow everything from on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook.