Writing Secrets for Job Hunters: Resumes vs. Robots

Writing secrets for job hunters: How to a write a resume for ATS (Applicant Tracking Software)

5 min read

It generally goes something like this: You’re looking online for some resume help and you type in your job title + “sample resume.” You dig around in the results until you find one that sorta seems good, maybe even great.

You then model your own resume on that one. Sure, you might update your cover letter to reflect the job ad a bit, but you barely—if at all—alter your resume from application to application.

Sound familiar?

Eek! Big mistake.

Why?

Because you’ve modelled your resume on the wrong document.

Strategically adapting your application to each specific job you’re applying to is key.

First, HR staff and hiring managers want to give you the job. They really do. But first, they want to know why you’d be a good fit for them and them specifically. So submitting the same generic resume you send out to half the city isn’t going to get you noticed.

Second, and maybe even more important, is the screening software that’s becoming more and more prevalent but is still being overlooked by many job hunters.

Known as ATS (Applicant Tracking System) software, this is the gatekeeper between you and your dream job.

Think Henry from HR will be screening your resume? … more like HAL 9000. The robots are among us, and they’re surprisingly fussy about your job application.

Before your resume is seen by a person, it will often first go through an ATS program that screens for matching keywords between your resume and the job ad.

If the software doesn’t identify enough similarities between these two documents, it effectively rips up your resume and throws it in the trash.

The following are my top tips for crafting a resume that will get you noticed and save your online application from the place where resumes go to die.

Keep it simple

A big part of persuading Applicant Tracking Systems to let you get past Go is to remember that robots like easy reading. This means keeping your resume simple and using a standard format.

Use simple fonts and .doc format—some ATS software still have trouble reading formats like .pdf and .jpg.

Tables, graphs, and charts are all difficult for ATS to read. Bullet points are fine.

But… if you’re submitting your application (via cut-and-paste) through an online form, don’t use any formatting (no italics, no bolding, no bullets, etc.). Just simply separate each section using spaces.

Outsmart ATS through PLAGIARISM

Quick Tip: While you can add some desired keywords into the Skills section of your resume, do your best to add these phrases in context, and flesh them out as full sentences.

But plagiarism’s bad, right?

Well…

Not when it comes to job applications.

Of course I’m not talking about using someone else’s work and passing it off as your own.

I’m talking about using lots of the keywords and terms from the job ad in your resume (and even cover letter). This will outsmart the software and get real human eyes on your application.

Think of it as assisting the program to recognize that you are the one for the job.

Start with key terms that match the job ad you’re applying for. Of course these depend entirely on the ad, but might include terms like “building partnerships” or “strong communicator.

If the ad has a list of required skills or programs they want you to know, list them in the same way they do on the job ad, such as “Databases (Oracle, SQL Server).”

But don’t be afraid to lift longer phrases from the ad as well. Here are some phrases, ripe for the picking, from sample job ads I found online:

  • moving projects through production
  • thinking big picture about audience experience
  • experience with disciplined agile development
  • code merge and other code maintenance procedures

Include a Profile Summary

Quick Tip: Think of the profile summary as the snapshot of your resume. Place it at the top of your resume to offer a short, informative summary of who you are, your strengths, and what benefit you will offer the company.

I’ve read conflicting things about this step. Some people have said it’s a fluff section, but I disagree.

A Profile Summary section at the top of your resume shows that you can think broadly and holistically about yourself as an asset to any organization. It shows you can think in a big picture way about your career history and your value as a professional.

A few examples:

  • Non-Fiction book editor with 5+ years of in-house editing, proofreading, and project management experience. Professional and creative problem-solver with over 15 titles currently on the best-sellers list.
  • Energetic marketing team lead with 10 years experience offering effective growth strategies and group training skills. I thrive while working with others in environments where my goal-focused coaching skills can be demonstrated.

Encourage scannability

Chances are that as you were reading this blog post you didn’t read entirely top-to-bottom, left-to-right.

You eyes probably darted around a bit. Maybe you scrolled to see whether you’d be getting worthwhile information before you started reading.

Well, that’s how recruiters’ eyes work too.

This heat maps shows a comparison of two resumes read by recruiters.

What does it show? That more time and thoroughness was spent on the resume that was arranged for greater scannability.

Make your resume reader-friendly by using the following visual cues:

  • bullets
  • section breaks
  • indentation
  • capitalization
  • bolding
  • italics

Show achievement through storytelling

Think of your resume as telling short, informative stories about your work experience. Instead of just the what—also think about how and what happened after?

Witness this transformation:

  • project-managed the development of 3 apps

This does an okay job of showing us what, but it stops short of giving us a full picture and isn’t compelling.

What if we turn this point into a story that also shows us how and what happened after?

It becomes:

  • Managed agile teams developing 3 B2B healthcare apps (iOS and Android) while continuously developing productivity of Scrum teams. Encouraged teams to self-organize, meeting all deadlines on time, and 13% under budget. 

This approach gives further info about the product they developed (B2B healthcare apps in iOS and Android formats), insight into the applicant’s approach (agile, Scrum), and also their effectiveness (meeting deadlines 13% under budget.)

It tells a well-rounded story that links experiences with positive outcomes.


This has been Part Two of my three-part series, Writing Secrets for Job Hunters. In Part One, I wrote about common cover letter mistakes. In Part Three I wrote about how to avoid the job bank altogether.

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