5 Smart Insider Tips for Conquering Hidden ATS Landmines

resume objective statement executive summary

Today’s ATS (Applicant Tracking Systems) are designed to reduce the time investment associated with several of an organization’s talent acquisition activities and processes. The ATS’s primary function is “reading” candidates’ résumés and matching the contents to fields within a database. Most ATS are also used to rank or disqualify applicants associated with an open position within a company.

Every application requires considerable time and effort from a job seeker. It is estimated that a single well-prepared submission can take as many as 3 hours. Applicant tracking systems are often part of the equation and can make or break a successful bid for consideration in a new opportunity. The following tips from a seasoned recruiter can reduce serious ATS-related errors and help increase the value of the time investment!

  1. Embrace Tradition

Most ATS are designed to transfer a résumé’s contents to the database by following a traditional top-to-bottom layout: Personal Info, Summary / Objective, Experience, and Education. Many newer ATS also detect and correctly parse a “Skills” section, regardless of its physical location among the other sections. However, the résumé section heading names an ATS recognizes is limited. “Work I’ve Done” may seem like a creative alternative to “Experience,” but an ATS may ignore it. Sticking with Summary, Work or Professional History, Work or Professional Experience, Education and Skills allows ATS to more precisely transfer key information as well as improve its accuracy in calculating a candidate’s match to an opportunity.

  1. Define Acronyms

Acronyms can be helpful or detrimental in résumés, especially when ATS are involved. Every industry relies on both standardized and environment-specific acronyms. However, a recruiter or HR representative may not know, or take the time to include, both acronyms and the terms’ long forms in a job description or ATS matching algorithm. For instance, few people instantly associate Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act with its better-known acronym and it’s unlikely most people born after 1990 recognize the long form of IBM. To reduce the chances of ATS missing a key term associated with a common acronym, write the long form of a term the first time it’s used on a résumé and place the acronym in parentheses. All further instances of the term should be only the acronym or long form; choose whichever is most common.

  1. Divide and Conquer

When applying for roles, cover letters and reference lists cause a conundrum unless specific instructions are either included with a job posting or within an on-line application system. To err on the side of caution, candidates sometimes create a document combining all three – résumé, cover letter, and reference list – and submit it in place of a résumé. While this may seem proactive, it can cause the ATS to reject the document as invalid or create an unintelligible candidate record. Typically, a company that accepts cover letters provides instructions or means for including it in the application process. Professional references should not be shared until final interview stages, except for positions in academia or in government roles where it is standard procedure to require them.

  1. Key Word Stuffing

The most common ATS workaround advice found on the Internet is to “stuff” a résumé with key terms found in the job description. Ex: “Develop webpages for small businesses, develop webpages for medium businesses, and develop webpages for large corporations.” Excess usage of key terms may increase the ATS match %, but once the term-packed résumé gets in front of a live person, this tactic can backfire. The best course of action is to create a résumé that fully communicates professional value, includes terminology that mirrors the style within the job description, and employs formatting that reduces ATS errors.

  1. Ghost Term Stuffing

“Ghost” word stuffing, a trick sometimes used by college students to inflate word counts in writing assignments is a more indirect, yet more opportunity-quashing, form of key word stuffing. Instead of repetitively using key terms within the text of the résumé as explained in #4, ghost terms are repeated in white/empty spaces using white (invisible) text. Ex: “ Ÿ Performed laboratory testing on clinical blood specimens hematology hematology hematology.” Although when typed in white text “hematology” would not be visible on the résumé, newer ATS do not rely on OCR (Optical Character Recognition) alone in identifying and transferring data. This means the ATS recognizes and replicates résumé content regardless of font color. When a recruiter or hiring manager reviews a candidate’s ATS record, ALL text included from each résumé section is visible, including white text or hidden characters.  Using the “Ghost” technique to include key terms that aren’t part of one’s skill set or to mask key word stuffing can get a candidate labeled with a common recruiting acronym, DNH; Do Not Hire.

Young working professionals smiling.

Back to news