Looking for a higher paying job? How to beat the resume bots

Your resume might get tossed without anyone ever laying eyes on it.

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Myles Ma

Myles Ma

Senior Managing Editor

Myles Ma is a health care expert & personal finance writer for Policygenius. He edits the Easy Money newsletter.

Published September 14, 2021|4 min read

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Job openings hit a record-high 10.9 million in July, but people seeking to fill those jobs have been hampered by a hidden obstacle: automated recruiting systems, also known as applicant tracking systems

More than 90% of employers surveyed by a recent Harvard Business School study use these systems to manage the pipeline of job applicants. But almost as many employers say these systems also throw out many qualified candidates.

“It certainly causes a bunch of candidates who would be credible to be left on the sidelines,” says Joe Fuller, a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School, where he co-leads the Managing the Future of Work team that conducted the study.

These systems use artificial intelligence and take recruiters’ preferences into account. They make winnowing down a sea of applicants faster and more efficient, but they can also miss potentially good workers because they don’t meet the all precise requirements recruiters tell the algorithm to look for. Here’s how these systems work and how to beat the bots.

How companies use recruiting bots

Recruiters set up these systems to make sure candidates have all the “must haves,” says Vicki Salemi, a career expert for job website Monster and a former corporate recruiter. Recruiters can set requirements for education levels, skills in specific software, years of experience, and so on. (Here's how to stand out in the hottest job market ever.)

This helps cut down on the number of resumes human recruiters have to go through. Salemi says she worked on roles that would receive hundreds of applications.

“To reject each one individually is very time consuming,” Salemi says.

But these systems can also be used to screen out people for reasons that have little to do with their expected job performance. For example, a candidate with an employment gap or who doesn’t include a specific keyword in their resume could be cut out of consideration with no explanation.

“It means a whole lot of candidates who are probably 80% to 90% there are screened off,” Fuller says.

And companies acknowledge this: 88% of employers told researchers that qualified high-skills candidates get vetted out of the hiring process because of automated recruiting systems. Fuller says employers should work to simplify job descriptions to identify the five or six skills a candidate must have to work a job, and adjust their recruiting systems accordingly.

But there are also things candidates can do to ensure they don’t get weeded out.

1. Tailor your resume to each job

This will take a little extra work, but it makes sense: Even jobs with similar titles might have slightly different requirements. It doesn’t mean you have to rewrite your resume from scratch. Rearranging your resume and updating your executive summary to make sure it includes the top skill in the job description could be the difference between getting past the bots or getting cut, Salemi says.

2. Use the right keywords

Look at the vocabulary in the job description, Salemi says. If the description describes a skill a certain way, make sure your resume and cover letter uses close to the exact same language.

3. Quantify everything

Don’t just say you saved the company money. How much did you save? How much did you boost revenue by? What awards did you win? Get as specific as you can with your accomplishments to help the algorithms pick them up, Salemi says.

4. Identify your skill gaps

Scout out people with similar jobs at other companies on LinkedIn, Fuller says. Compare your credentials with theirs. For example, if everyone you look at says they’re great at Excel and you’re not, that’s a sign you need to either add that skill to your resume if you have it or develop it if you don’t. Recruiting systems can eliminate you for missing a single key skill.

“Sometimes just adding one thing or two things which can be discerned by studying who’s currently in the job gets you to add that attribute or credential that gets you over the top,” Fuller says.

5. Talk to a human being

A classic way to get around resume algorithms is to make a connection with a human being at the company. It’s easier to do this at small companies. While larger companies are heavily reliant on automation because of the volume of applicants they receive, smaller companies rely more on referrals when it comes to hiring, Fuller says. When applying to any job, tap your network and see if anyone you know can make an introduction.

There are some signs recruiters have adjusted their practices due to the pandemic, which has left millions of jobs unfilled and many workers with employment gaps. Salemi says many recruiters no longer consider a gap between jobs a red flag. Some are also lowering education requirements, she says.

Recruiting bots are powerful, but they shouldn’t keep you from applying for the jobs you want, she says.

“Don’t eliminate yourself before you toss your hat in the ring,” Salemi says.

Image: Marko Geber / Getty Images

Senior Managing Editor

Myles Ma

Senior Managing Editor

Myles Ma is a health care expert & personal finance writer for Policygenius. He edits the Easy Money newsletter.