Sign up now to get free exclusive access to reports, research and invitation only events.
You have two options when it comes to beating the automated systems that filter resumes: you can go through them, or you can go around them.
If you're looking for a job today, you have a nemesis, and it's a robot. More than 90 percent of large companies use an Applicant Tracking System, or ATS, to filter incoming resumes and winnow out only a few promising ones for HR to look at. And it's not just the huge, faceless corporations: one recent survey of hiring managers at small companies found that more that 80 percent use an electronic filtering process that delivers less than half of incoming resumes to them to look at with their biological human eyes. So how do you make sure that you get past the filter?
Work the system (but do it right)
Sure, you could simply hope you're the best match for the job and trust the process, but every system can and will be gamed. The Wall Street Journal points out the techniques that many people use to do this. Some, like listing continuing education classes you took at prestigious schools, if even if you didn't get a degree there, are deemed by experts to be smart thinking; others, like loading up your resume with keywords in white font so that machines can read them but people can't, are considered beyond the pale.
Keywords trump aesthetics
Then there are the formatting rules: Business Insider compiles a good list of suggestions here. In the past, you designed your resume to look good to human beings. Now you need to cater to the inscrutable aesthetics of machines. Tim Backes, a career advisor, resume expert, and hiring manager at Resume Genius and co-author of The Resume Bible, says that too many people get hung up on formatting and fonts and generally making their resume look pretty when trying to get past the robots. "A graphic artist would want to make sure and target words like Web design, print design, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, Autodesk 3ds Max, etc., and spend less time on the aesthetics of their resume," he says. "Aesthetics are of course important for when your resume does get through an ATS into the hands of an HR rep, but too many people put the cart before the horse in regards to their approach to resume writing, which can often cost them the chance at landing a great job."
Think like you're fooling Google
Larissa Cox, currently a marketing manager, has "had quite a bit of success" getting through the ATS gauntlet. Her particular hack is to imitate the techniques SEO experts use to get websites to the top of Google Search, on the logic that "Google algorithms are designed to help individuals get relevant search results for their queries. I assumed that these application screening algorithms are designed in the same way -- help the HR rep get the most relevant job applicants. The 'hack' to finding the way through the filter is use the job application to see what their imputed query would have been based on the language they use in their job application, and trying the best to match it."
(Job)-search engine optimization
The SEO techniques Cox uses include:
"Using multiple 'related' words throughout the resume, i.e., 'Photoshop, Creative Cloud, graphic design, designing.'"
"Keyword density of specific words matching emphasized skills in the job posting."
"Keyword matching. Do they use the word 'online' instead of 'digital,' 'internet,' or 'web?' I change my vernacular to match."
Specific reference to software or other tools, especially if they have mentioned specific programs in their postings. Instead of vague terms like 'social media management,' I use specific programs like 'Hootsuite,' 'Buffer,' or 'SproutSocial.'
(The white text technique we mentioned earlier that the experts tell you not to use? That's borrowed from the darker side of the SEO playbook.)
To beat a machine, you must meet another human
But perhaps thinking of the job search as a technical problem to be solved is not your cup of tea. Jack Martin, founder and CEO of Technology Jobs NYC, suggests getting around the ATS by meeting the human behind the ATS. "The best way to get around gatekeepers is to meet informally prior to discussing any potential jobs," he says. "There are countless ways to approach a potential employer on a personal level and develop a strong dialogue before any professional discussion begins. This can be achieved by attending networking events, socials, or even just sending a quick 'hello' on LinkedIn. Stay out of the black hole of electronic HR by forming a human connection first."
Hacking human networks
But this being the tech industry, the importance of human connections to getting a job has led to attempts to hack human networks themselves, a move more audacious than pulling one over on some poor unfeeling machine. Chuck Solomon pointed me to BountyMiner, which turns you into a freelance paid recruiter -- or, to use a Silicon Valley turn of phrase that probably was in its business plan, "gamifies networking." You can make money by connecting people you know in the industry to job seekers, anonymously or not, as you choose, or sign up for an account to get connected.
In truth, employers aren't super thrilled about having robots between themselves and potential employees either; but the process of face-to-face interviewing can overwhelm their resources. "The personality and soft skills that employers say are must-have and non-negotiable are pushed to later stages [of the hiring process], because they're costly to assess," says HR pro Nick Livingston. Livingston founded HoneIt to try to get around this problem: his company conducts "pre-interviews" of job-seekers that can be distilled down to 30-second highlights that can demonstrate "enthusiasm, passion and communication skills" and, when shown to recruiters or potential employers, hopefully help job-seekers get a foot in the door.
When all else fails, pay to get in their face
Then there's the tactic Ian Greenleigh took: advertising himself. Literally. Via social media. "I bypassed the gatekeepers to my dream job by taking out a 'Hire Me' Facebook ad" -- which cost about $200 -- "and targeting employees the top companies in Austin, where I lived at the time. The ad drove visitors to a special landing page I had created on my site, featuring a hybrid resume/cover letter. Within a week, I was talking to hiring managers, setting up interviews, and getting consulting inquiries." He's done the same with LinkedIn ad and gotten good results, and says that it's still unusual enough to get traction "as they're willing to innovate on my recipe"
To get the jobs, we need to play the game
So those, in short, are your options: learn to game the technical systems that filter out potential job candidates, or use technical or social-technical means to game the social systems that provide a means to bypass the technical systems. It's a somewhat grim scenario, and for workers it's a zero-sum game -- if everyone uses these techniques, they stop working, and other techniques will be necessary -- but until the economy improves to the point where there aren't a slew of applications for every job, these might be your best bet.