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Who - or what - is reading your resume?

Have you been applying for jobs but getting no response? You know you are a perfect fit for the job, yet it seems your resume has disappeared into a human resources black hole? Maybe it has.

Read No More

Many employers have stopped reading resumes. In fact, maybe we should stop using the term "reading" completely, because the reality is that only a few select resumes will actually be read or seen by anyone.

How can this be true? It's true because computers don't read. Meet the "applicant tracking system" or ATS. The ATS is software designed to automate the process of searching for and hiring the ideal job candidate. Writing a resume to impress the ATS requires a different strategy, and the key to finding the right strategy lies in understanding how these systems operate.

A computer reviews a resume much differently from how a human does. For starters, computers do not read, and they do not think. Computers do something called "parsing." They scan a document in search of exact matches to specific key words or patterns. If your resume contains these key words, your application will be flagged as a match. Resumes that do not contain matching information will be ignored. Your resume receives the cold shoulder and will be treated as if it never existed.

Consider These Examples

Let me give you an example. A clinic seeks an NP or PA for its orthopedic department. The job description states that the qualified candidate will have experience with "casting, splinting and hospital rounds." Now let's say that you are a seasoned orthopedic clinician and your previous experience includes working in an inpatient setting managing trauma patients. On your resume, you sum up your experience as "assessing and managing complex fractures and postsurgical patients." You are a perfect fit for the job.

Not so fast. The computer, via the ATS, skips over your resume because you don't possess the correct skills. Why? Because computers don't read between the lines, draw conclusions or make assumptions. Your resume will go unnoticed simply because you neglected to state the skills exactly as they were mentioned in the job ad (casting, splinting and hospital rounds).

Here is another scenario. You are a nurse practitioner applying for a job in Ohio. Job requirements include national certification as a family nurse practitioner and a current license as a registered nurse in the state of Ohio. On your resume, you list your board certification and your credentials. You also include your home address and indicate that you are currently employed at a clinic that is in Ohio. Now you and I know that if you are currently working as an NP in Ohio, you obviously possess a valid nursing license in Ohio. Duh!

But because you neglected to explicitly state on your resume that you hold a current RN license in Ohio, the computer finds you lacking. The end result is that the employer does not see you as a qualified applicant and you are left wondering why no one responded to your application.

Appearance Doesn't Matter

Computers are unimpressed by how attractive your resume is. When submitting a resume electronically, skip the fancy formatting. As I mentioned, applicant tracking systems are programmed to parse words and extract information, therefore they don't play very nice with creatively formatted documents.

When a computer system "handles" your resume, the first step is that it takes your beautifully formatted resume and converts it into something the computer prefers - which is actually no format at all. That is to say it will run all the information together into one big paragraph. This reformatted version is also how it will be displayed to the eventual human reader, should it be selected as a match. To you it would look like a mess, but those of us who review resumes every day, we have adjusted to this style and we don't mind.

The worst type for ATS is a resume with an excessive use of tabs, indents, tables or font changes. This will cause the computer to spit out your previously lovely resume as a garbled nightmare. The final result is that your resume has become something that is pretty much unreadable to both the computer and the human.

To avoid this problem, save the time and energy it takes to make your resume "pretty." Craft your resume using only one font and no bullet points, and left justify all the information. Using minimal formatting will increase the odds that your resume will get along well with both computers and people.

Dates Are Essential

Nothing gets past a computer. Missing or incomplete employment dates will cause the computer to ignore you completely. When you list previous employers, enter the month and year you started and ended so that you don't have any gaps in the dates of your employment history. Employers commonly program their computers to eliminate applicants who have been out of work for a period of time. If you have been unemployed, you can get around this by creating an entry in your job history (with dates!) for the period you weren't working. Briefly state the reason for your absence, i.e., relocation, maternity leave or whatever. This fix should be enough to satisfy the computer.

Dates are also important when it comes to your education. Ignore any well-meaning advice you many have received to exclude the date you graduated, in an effort to avoid age discrimination. The computer doesn't like when you do that, and just for the record, it never fooled the human reviewer, either.

Help the Computer Parse Your Resume

  • Keep the design simple.
  • Use one font.
  • Left justify the contents.
  • Don't use bullets.
  • Give everything start and end dates, even a period of unemployment.
  • Include your graduation year.



Career & Workforce Archives

Thank you !!! ... I had no idea that one needed to address a computer, nor how to do so!

Arlyn Duval,  Nurse Practitioner,  Rural Health ClinicMay 17, 2012
El Centro, CA


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