How to beat the algorithm when applying for a job

Job Advice

How to beat the algorithm when applying for a job

Often, when job seekers are unsuccessful in the first round of an application, they blame the hiring company’s artificial intelligence bots. As it turns out, they’re not far from the truth: 98% of organisations use applicant tracking systems (ATS) whose job is to scan applicants’ resumes and automatically eliminate those who don’t meet enough of the requirements to go through to the next round. 

This can be efficient for companies that receive large volumes of applications that would take HR managers weeks to wade through, but the downside is that 75% of resumes are rejected automatically by the ATS before a ‘real’ recruiter even sees them. This means that applicants with a slightly unusual work history, or who might have a valid reason for not meeting one of the required criteria, for example, might be rejected without being given a fair chance. The best way to get around the applicant tracking system hurdle is to write a CV with the bots in mind - one that is optimised for what the ATS is trained to look for.

In this article, we’ll walk through everything you need to know about beating the ATS when you’re applying for a job. 

Nail the basics

First things first, ensure that your CV ticks off the basics. Don’t try and attach a very large file to your application: aim for less than 2MB in size, or double check the specifics for the company you’re applying to. When you’ve spent a lot of time and energy writing an application that shows you in your best light, it would be a shame for the ATS to reject your file for being too big. Depending on the role and company, location may play an important role, especially if employers are required to pay for their staff’s travel costs. If you’re applying for a job in the city in which you live, consider adding this information in case the ATS filters for applicants within a certain radius.

It’s also important to ensure that your CV is formatted in a way that suits the ATS. Double check if the system prefers Word documents, or whether PDFs are also permitted. Use a standard font size (11 points is a safe bet) and left align your document. These seemingly small, simple changes can help the ATS to ‘read’ your resume, making it more likely that your application will be put forward to the next round. 

Keywords are crucial

Depending on how advanced the ATS of your dream company, it may be unable to process synonyms. If your past experience contains unusual job titles like “Chief Happiness Officer” or “Data Ninja”, consider using a more standard title in your resume. It might be less fun, but it will give you a much higher chance of making it through the ATS round. This is the major downside of using an ATS: if a recruiter is reading a CV and sees an unfamiliar and playful job title, they understand what that would equate to at another company. Unfortunately, not all applicant tracking systems are able to do the same. 

Be specific

Another downside of the ATS is that it’s not very good at translating images to words. Nowadays, many applicants try to make their CV stand out through creative design, and using flags to denote the languages they speak, for example. The problem is that the ATS doesn’t understand these images, and if a job requires you to speak a language, you could be automatically rejected - albeit incorrectly. Instead, go old-school and write out the languages you speak, including your proficiency: native/ fluent/ intermediate, instead of getting creative with scales or stars. 

The same goes for any software you’re able to use. Many applicants use a logo instead of the text - a Photoshop logo to denote their familiarity with this software, for example - and run into the same issue, whereby the ATS cannot ‘understand’ this information. If a recruiter then searches for the word ‘Photoshop’ amongst applications, your CV will not be picked up.      

Make sure your social media is private

As applicant tracking systems develop and improve, they will have more and more capabilities. Some ATS software can already assess your social media presence, so it’s very important to ensure that your Twitter, Instagram and Facebook profiles are cleaned up. Either make your profiles private so that the ATS software is unable to access them, or consider skimming through your recent content to ensure you’re happy for everything to be seen by a potential employer. Not all companies employ this method, but it’s worth covering your bases just to be on the safe side. Your employer isn’t automatically provided access to your private life, but if you willingly share content online for all to see, it’s important that you’re happy with how your photos, videos and captions represent you.  

Ensure it looks good for human eyes, too

After learning about how ATS systems work, you might be tempted to write a CV that’s directed at a bot, but that’s unreadable for humans. This isn’t a good idea for a number of reasons. First, some recruiters will select resumes at random to read in the first round, to ensure the ATS is doing its job. Some recruiters, like our consultants, will check CV of every person that applied for a given job. In addition, if you do pass through the first round and a recruiter is looking at your resume for more information about you, they need to be able to read it! Make sure your CV looks good to human eyes as well as to bots. Use common fonts instead of custom ones, and don’t just cram your CV with keywords that might get picked up in an ATS, but that aren’t readable to your average recruiter. 

If you think you’ve fallen foul of applicant tracking systems in the past, you might well be right. Perhaps your CV contained too many images that the ATS was unable to process, leading it to reject you on the false basis of not meeting the job requirements. Maybe you described your past work experience using vague wording that wasn’t programmed for the ATS to pick up, or maybe the ATS didn’t realise that your role as “Marketing Superstar” was in fact a senior role, and that you’re more than qualified for the job.

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