A discouraging thought for job seekers: Sometimes competition for a position is so fierce that an HR person—mere human, after all—cannot possibly eyeball them all. Here, you’re likely at the whims of an unforgiving ATS machine. “An ATS—applicant tracking system—works by scoring resume against keywords that are important to the employer,” explains Lisa Kay, president and lead consultant at Peak Performance HR. Hacking the ATS is as simple as hitting the keywords—well, almost. Here’s how to beat the robots and impress a human all at once.
Customize, customize, customize
Kay hears this sad story all the time: “Someone will say, ‘I sent out fifty resumes last week and heard nothing but crickets!’” To them, Kay asks, “But did you customize that resume for each position?” Job search burnout is real, but a lazy generic resume is a red flag and total turn-off to an employer. “You need to do your job search as thoroughly as you would do your job if you had one,” she says.
Embrace the template
The task above, however, isn’t as daunting as it appears. To streamline the process into five to 10 minutes, Kay suggests you get efficient by beginning with a basic template—for both resume and cover letter—then tweaking certain parts to certain jobs. Start with your objective statement and make sure it matches the job posting almost exactly. Nothing says Hard No like seeking a sales position when the job says managerial, she cautions.
Hit your keywords
Theoretically, this is as simple as including the words an employer wants to hear. But in practice, not so much. “There’s no standard set of keywords, sorry. Words like communication and interpersonal skills or team player appear on every resume and therefore don’t work,” says Kay. She suggests you get out a retro highlighter alongside the job posting and highlight verbs and nouns, since “all the clues are in the job description.” Helpful hint: they’re almost certainly looking for specific skills and experience, like PowerPoint or Adobe.
Namedrop as necessary
And now, a conundrum: What if you know they want PowerPoint or Adobe but you don’t exactly have them? Don’t ever lie, warns Kay, but definitely get creative. “If you haven’t used PowerPoint since high school, you want to write “beginner PowerPoint.” IT people—long wise to the ATS—are famous for this, and even the most obvious stretch doesn’t turn off an HR person like you might think. “It shows me they know the system and made the effort.”
Dig a little deeper
To go above and beyond before you press send, spend a few minutes cruising the company site. “Most companies have a mission, vision or values statement,” says Kay. This should give you a good idea about the culture and vibe of the workplace, and then you can tweak your resume or cover letter ever so slightly in that direction.
Even the savviest web-hack will have to eventually interview the old-fashioned way: That is, in person, in real life, across the desk with a real human. So even if you’ve massaged your skills to get there, be optimistic but honest. “It’s very possible they’ll like other aspects of your experience, or maybe you’ll click with the interviewer, so if you’re lacking some skill, it’s not a deal breaker and they’ll give you a chance anyhow,” says Kay. And huge congrats too, as you’ve just successfully hacked the ATS!