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November 15, 2016

How Might an Applicant Tracking System Affect Your Career in IT

By Jeff Lareau

ResumeAlright, let’s pretend you’re in 5th grade again. It’s recess, and there’s a clubhouse where all the fun kids are hanging out. Obviously, everyone wants to get inside that clubhouse. You try every day for a week to get in and you can’t. You finally ask why and it turns out that too many kids wanted to get inside, so they asked a sniveling unlikable wormy kid named Marty to be a secret bouncer. To get in, you need to tell Marty the password, which presents a slew of anxiety-ridden 5th grade problems for you. You don’t know the password because you didn’t even know there was one. Now that you know there’s a password, you don’t know how to get it. And even if you did have it, Marty is known for being a stickler and he might not let you in just because you said the password a little too quiet, or too loud, or some equally arbitrary reason. Well great, now what?

This, loyal readers, is the essence of an applicant tracking system (ATS) for job applicants. Marty, that fickle toad, could just as easily be called Taleo, or Homegrown, or iCIMS, or Brassring. Many job seekers are familiar with these names, but they don’t realize these systems are the secret bouncers in charge of whether their foot gets in the door or not. In this context, passwords manifest themselves as keywords. If you apply for that help desk role but don’t have the right keywords on your resume, you’ll get bounced out. If you have the right keywords but they’re not written in the right way, you’ll get bounced out. If you have the right keywords written in the right way but not in the right format, you’ll get bounced out.

No field is more affected by this than IT. IT recruiting relies on an endless supply of certifications, software packages, languages, versions and iterations, and without the right keywords on your resume, you’re not going to get past the secret bouncer. Literally zero humans will see your resume, so figuring out these keywords and using them appropriately is paramount to getting your foot in the door.

Many IT job seekers try to solve this problem by having an endless parade of keywords listed on their resumes, which will cause a red flag in the applicant tracking system. Imagine going up to Marty with a huge list of possible passwords and rattling them off. Marty will know what you’re trying to pull. He might be a putrid annoyance, but he’s smart and knows when he’s being spammed. So what do you do?

You start by customizing your resume to every job you apply for. You might think this sounds like a pain, but it’s…well, I guess you’d be right. It is. But remember, we’re dealing with Marty, that odious mutant nit-picking fusspot, so we just have to deal with his penchant for capriciousness. Read the job lead that you’re applying to over and over, and find the keywords that they’re looking for. If those keywords are in your repertoire, add them to your resume exactly as they appear on the job lead. If the job lead says CCNA, but you have it listed on your resume as Cisco Certified Network Associate, change it to say CCNA (or include both versions with the acronym in parenthesis). If you have 50 software packages listed on your resume when the job lead only asks for 2, take the other 48 off.

(My only word of caution in tweaking your resume in this fashion is to stick to the keywords, not the sentences. If an ATS thinks you’re matching the job description too closely, it’ll bounce you out.) There are a few other formatting issues to keep in mind as well. Avoid things like tables. You’d think software in 2016 could figure out a table, but it can’t, so don’t use them. Use DOC or DOCX format rather than PDF. Also, keep the names of your sections relatively standard; e.g., work experience.

Ultimately, if you spend a half hour tweaking your resume to be ATS-friendly before you submit it, you’ll breeze past Marty every single time.

Stay tuned for next month’s blog where I’m either going to talk about more ATS types or the difference between job duties and accomplishments on your resume. I haven’t decided yet, and the decision will most likely be determined based on feedback from this entry. Cheers!