We've all been there. You pour your energy into a new resume and craft the perfect cover letter. After anxiously pressing “submit" on the online application, you wait—and wait, and wait.
But you never hear back about that dream job.
There's a reason why, and it may have nothing to do with how qualified you are and everything to do with big data.
It can be extremely time consuming for hiring managers and recruiters to wade through the hundreds of applicants for a particular role. So, instead of wading through online applications, many hiring managers and recruiters use applicant tracking systems (ATS) to sift through the information in resumes, cover letters, and social media profiles to help identify the strong candidates.
How does it that work? A company identifies keywords for each job posting in advance, and the ATS scans and rates every applicant based on how well they match these keywords.
So, to get to the top of that virtual stack of resumes, you need a keyword strategy. Here's how you can optimize your application approach to get noticed—and get an interview:
1. Identify Top Keywords
Here's some good news: Most companies include the keywords they're targeting right there in the job posting. So, start by re-reading the job description. If you are looking at multiple jobs, you should use this same approach for each application.
First, identify the key requirements for the position. For example, if you're applying to work as a software engineer, you may notice the terms “Java," “Python," “analytical skills," “2 to 4 years of experience."
The more often the company repeats the words or phrases in the job posting, the more important they are for you to include in your own application. Make a list of the top ten keywords based on the responsibilities of the job.
2. Adjust Your Application
These keywords should serve as a blueprint for your resume, cover letter, and social media profiles—you'll want to build your application around them. If you already have your application materials ready, go through and tweak the language of each document to include the exact keywords.
Now, it's important to know that there's no way to cheat the system. Stuffing keywords into every sentence won't bode well for your application. In fact, an ATS is advanced enough that it won't allow a keyword-stuffed resume to match with a job posting. And even in the off chance it did make it to an HR professional, they're sure to pick up your over abundance of keywords quickly. So remember, your resume and cover letter should be an honest representation of your skills and sound natural, rather than forced.
An easy way to list keywords in a relevant way? Adding a robust skills section to your resume. Include any skills the hiring manager listed on the job posting even if you've already highlighted them in other sections of your application. From there, you can add technical qualifications—especially if they're industry specific.
3. Use a Simple Format
When it comes to ATS technology, the simpler the format of your materials, the better. Some people love a well-designed resume, but unless you're in a creative field (where design matters), it could zap your chances at getting an interview.
For your resume and cover letter, use a basic, black font. Cut any fancy formatting like columns, graphics, and special characters. Work in reverse chronological order on a resume, and whenever possible, stick to generic language for headings (like Education and Skills) so the ATS can easily understand what each section contains.
Although you want to stand out as a candidate, for the purpose of this first round, you really need to match the company's language for your skill set, experience, and interest in the job.
Word documents, instead of PDFs, are the easiest for this technology to process. So, make sure to submit your resume and cover letters in .docx files.
4. Double Check Your Work
When you're optimizing an application for an ATS system, the magic is in the details. If the language you use differs (even slightly) from the keywords, the ATS won't know you're a match.
Go through the application and make sure you used the right form of each phrase. For example, if the job description says, “3 years experience," write that phrase with numerals, too.
A tool like Jobscan can also help confirm that your application is ready to go. The software uses the same algorithms as ATS technology and identifies last-minute adjustments that give your application a competitive edge.
Once you're confident about each keyword, check your application for any typos or errors. Try running everything through Grammarly—it's far more comprehensive than your average spell check. Because misspelled words don't register as keywords (and are a big no-no for job applications in general), it's always worth the extra time.
ATS' and big data may play a role in your job search, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. By creating a clear keyword strategy and optimizing every aspect of your application, you're that much more likely to land an interview.