Your resume: Getting past the machines

If your resume can't get past the applicant tracking system, it might never be seen by human eyes
  • Ken Moore (Computerworld (US))
  • 15 June, 2012 19:02

Resume keywords are the phrases in a resume that HR screeners, recruiters, hiring managers and, most critically, Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS), look for relative to a specific job opening.

And when ATSs are used, a resume that doesn't have the right combination of keywords may never be seen by human eyes.

An ATS is a software system and a database holding resume information. It operates behind the commercial and corporate job boards to capture and store submitted rsums.

When a resume is submitted through a job board, the content is separated and placed into the ATS. The resume loses all of its formatting and becomes plain text within the database. This is why it's best to use a plain-text (ASCII) version of the resume when submitting through job boards, so it's easier for the ATS to work with.

Employers sign on to the ATS and perform keyword searches. For the resume to reach human eyes, it must contain keywords matching the search criteria. When there's a decent match, the employer can choose to view the entire rsum.

Why the resume may be ignored

Most ATS users are savvy enough to perform Boolean searches, meaning combining keywords. If the employer wants someone with project management, technology and quality assurance skills, it could use a search like this:

" 'project management' AND technology AND 'quality assurance' "

Only rsums that have all three exact search terms would be returned.

Using resume keywords

ATS systems are pretty smart. Keywords must be used in the proper context or the ATS might ignore the resume. And job seekers must use keywords throughout the resume , especially if their job search is in the technology industry.

This is where creative writing, journalism-style story structuring and career history intersect to make a spectacular resume . Not only does the resume need to satisfy the ATS for keyword searching, but it also needs to be readable and compelling for the hiring manager who calls it up in order to find out about career history and accomplishments. You can't just pile up the keywords; you have to tell your story in a way that will make a hiring manager want to contact you, while using keywords strategically.

The ATS process, which nearly every employer requires you to follow, is why I recommend also mailing a hard copy directly to the employer -- and there are ways to make that process much easier. I'll talk about that in a later column.

Ken Moore is an internationally certified IT resume writer, former recruiter, and nationally published author. Visit his website,

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