Three Ways To Defeat The Resume-Reading Bots

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John M. O’Connor is a multi-year career coach, outplacement and career services leader based in North Carolina.


It would be nice to believe your submitted resume would really be read closely by a caring human resources manager or hiring manager after you painstakingly submitted it. However, with the thousands of resumes submitted daily to companies, more and more organizations have turned to bots to lessen the burden of these numbers. Even if you use the dreaded applicant tracking system (ATS) many companies demand that you cut and paste your documents into, the human touch would be nice. The hope is some human will read it, get a report and interview your qualifications for the open requisition. Despite years of so-called improvements to the software that tracks and finds applications through the robots, many people struggle to defeat these AI-based resume-filtering computers and win the interviews they feel they deserve.

If you received a form-letter rejection seconds or minutes after you submitted your resume, you know how it feels. “Nobody has even read this thing. How could they reject me so fast? This is not fair.” Would you add any words to this comment? I think some of what I have heard is not printable in this type of column. Let’s just say this: Job applicants hate this process most of the time.

Here are a few ways to fight these resume-reading bots.

1. Create Powerfully Written Arguments In Word. From a pure writing process point of view, create a powerful achievement- and keyword-oriented resume by collaborating with a professional resume writer or whatever team you assemble to create your document. I like to create in Microsoft Word rather than a plain text document first, even though I know the end viewer will be a bot that doesn’t think graphs, charts or visual representation matter. Use the visual elements of a nice, reasoned and powerful visual and written tool first. After you conceive your argument visually, then save your document to a .txt file before the cutting and pasting you will have to do for the ATS. The ATS sometimes uses an optical character recognition (OCR) software to redirect your documents into digital forms. That can be good, but you are safest with an MS Word or .txt file.

Pro Tip: If you can have an insider at the company or organization you are applying to read your well-written and more visually appealing document before you apply, it can help. Let them see your work and review how you have refined your documents to fit a specific job at the organization. This is often better than having someone review your resume in general. Find out what the hiring managers look for and what seems to be catching robotic eyes among those who are making it through to the next round of interviews.

2. Match Powerful Keywords And Phrases To Specifics. Your best chance to stand out from the crowd when the ATS bots are involved in the screening process is to include powerful keywords and phrases from the job description into your documents. Years ago, the ATS bots would score you: The more keywords and phrases dumped, the more likely you were to land an interview. The creative rendering of an ATS-ready document meant keyword dumps. Now the bots are smarter. Recognize how important it is to refine and weave keywords into your specific achievements and key, metric-focused responsibilities. This isn’t about gaming the system with an info dump; it’s about meeting the needs of the organization by ensuring you can bring measurable results and direct skills to their directly advertised needs.

Pro Tip: You often need a team to ensure you squeeze every ounce of value out of your written tool. Consider employing a pro, and try to match every single keyword or phrase in the advertisement into the body of your ATS-ready resume. Subtle phrase changes, integration of keywords and anchoring of key phrases to achievements can help you defeat the bots.

3. Follow ATS Directions Closely But Creatively. A job seeker asked me recently, “How do I get my ‘transferable skills’ into this ATS?” Even the bots may have optional areas to answer questions, create a cover letter or enter in additional training or data that perhaps did not appear in your Word-rendered but .txt-ready document. Look for creative opportunities to refine your answers, and make them as specific as possible. Create a powerful cover letter full of valuable keywords and phrases and a strong argument for why you should be interviewed now. Often, as a response to frustration on the candidates’ part, some employers offer areas where you can add to the ATS, and these allow you to stand out from the crowd and potentially get picked by the bots.

Pro Tip: When possible, utilize an insider to the organization or someone who understands the ATS at that specific company. Don’t forget to be creative and use every advantage you can when submitting your application. If you can add elements by attaching them, do so wisely. If you can create a written statement, don’t leave those sections blank.

Finally, don’t abandon good sense when it comes to applying for jobs. Are many companies and organizations perhaps too beholden to technology as they try to make decisions? I think the argument can be made that they are, but let’s deal with reality.

Organizations may believe in and use the ATS to winnow down the masses who apply and to find the best fits, but don’t forget the other critical elements of search that may get you noticed. Do you have an insider who will serve as a reviewer of your application before it goes in? Have you developed a networking or better yet internal referral who can be noted on your online application? Have you met and networked effectively with anyone on the inside of the organization and perhaps even the section or division you are applying to? Don’t get so caught up in rendering your powerful, ATS-ready resume that you lose sight of proven networking, connecting and relationship-building power that should be employed in any savvy search.

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John M. O'Connor

John M. O’Connor Forbes Councils

John M. O’Connor is a multi-year career coach, outplacement and career services leader based in North Carolina.

Forbes Coaches Council

Forbes Coaches CouncilCommunityVoice

Forbes Coaches Council is an invitation-only, fee-based organization comprised of leading business coaches and career coaches. Find out if you qualify at Questions about an article? Email [email protected].