Filtering: The Enemy of Career Progress

photo: clean and dirty water. In my practice, I find myself working most often with people who have great passion, talent and commitment, but have stalled in their career tracks because of self-limiting beliefs, and because of what I describe as faulty approaches to “filtering.” People can have a few kinds of faulty career filters that get them stuck in their tracks. The first faulty kind is the filter that screens too many thing out, and the second is the one that lets too many things in. Both can leave you dead in the water. The key, I think, is to fine-tune your filtering process, so you can let enough options pass through, without having too many random options that lead you down blind alleys, toward disappointment and eventually, despair.

The first kind of filter is caused by self-limiting beliefs. If you find yourself thinking or saying any of the following, you may be over-filtering.

  • I think I’d like the job, but I probably can’t do that.
  • There’s going to be so much competition for that job. They won’t consider me.
  • I’m sure there’s an inside candidate, so why bother applying?

The second kind of filtering really isn’t filtering at all. It’s what I call “shotgunning.” Basically, any option is seen as a good option. Instead of aiming for a particular target, you choose a general direction and apply for everything you see. This may result in interviews, but is less likely to result in jobs that are a good match.

The point of filtering something is to get to its purest possible state, leaving only the best parts in the final product. When it comes to career planning, the point is to filter out options that “muddy” the picture, and leave both you and your potential employer with a crystal clear view of your best qualities.

How, then, can you keep the right things in and the wrong things out of your career plan? By applying the right kinds of filters. The five I suggest you concentrate on are the same ones most recruiters will apply in considering a candidate: Education, Experience, Achievements, Motivation and Fit. In this series, we will explore the best ways to apply these filters toward your career planning and job search efforts.

How are you “filtering” opportunities into or out of your career plan? Share your thoughts in the comments.

The Applicant’s Role in the Screening Process

bigstock-futuristic-networking-13063529-e1359992609269What can a candidate do to affect the outcome of the screening process? Not much. You can’t set the search criteria for an employer. You can’t make screeners meticulously follow the criteria they have. And you can’t eliminate bias.

You can only present a coherent argument, and make sure that it highlights what you have to offer in relation to the position and the needs of an employer.

How can you describe, explain, or imply a high degree of fit between you/your skills and the needs of your potential employer?

It will not be through the use of buzzwords. It will be through the use of keywords. And the best way to discover the most relevant keywords are to study the employer, read the position description or advertisement carefully, and pull out those elements that seem most important. This introduces the value of “word-farming.” There are some great tools out there that can help you distill a job description down to the most important keywords. We’ll delve into them in a later post. For now, let’s start at the beginning. If you are going to make a coherent argument, you have to do one thing first…

Know Your Goal

Have you ever heard the term “He couldn’t hit the side of a barn?”

 It implies a lack of precision and lack of focus.

How about “shooting from the hip?”

It implies that a person engages in hasty, gut-level reactions, rather than taking carefully-considered and well-planned actions in an attempt reach a goal.

Let’s consider these metaphors and attempt to apply them to our thinking about the job search process.

How specific is your job target? Is it the side of a barn, or the barn window?

You see, shooting at the side of a barn is a really aimless activity. It doesn’t take much talent. You could almost do so by accident. Bored teenagers shoot paintballs at the side of a barn for something to do. A serious marksman wouldn’t bother. A marksman would shoot out the windows (or maybe the lights!)

If you ever shot from the hip, it was probably during a moment of reaction, when you had your guard down, felt attacked or confronted, and responded immediately, in a way designed to help you deflect the arguments of your attacker, or to escape from an unpleasant situation. Is that really any way to approach your job search? Some job seekers browse job postings without specific job titles, employers, roles, or responsibilities in mind, taking an “I’ll know the right job when I see it” sort of attitude. If you aren’t imagining an ideal job, or ideal roles, you’ll be less able to coherently present your arguments, and when interview time comes (if you are that lucky), you’ll be responding to questions in the same way. Shooting from the hip is a terrible way to interview.

Aimless is as Aimless Does.

I have a piece of paper tacked to the bulletin board above my desk that reads “Aimless is as aimless does.” It reminds me to set specific goals to hold myself accountable for reaching them.

Notice that the key point is that your goal must be specific.

Aim for a bullseye, not a barn.

Would you really be happy just having any random job? Probably not.

You might get by. You might pay your bills. You might even be able to do so for quite a while. But don’t you deserve more?

Know Yourself First

You are a unique person. No one else has seen the world through your eyes. No one else can bring the exact same mix of qualities to the table.

There is a job out there that you are a perfect match for. And you aren’t going to find it if you view every opportunity equally.

If you are going to have a great résumé, you need to have a goal in mind. My belief is that your goal should be to find an ideal job. Not just any job, but a job that is a good match for your education, skills, interests and motivation.

When I talk to clients who have been looking for an extended period of time, I usually see a common thread: lack of focus. They are shooting at the side of a barn, and wondering why no one’s giving out marksmanship trophies!

So set a good goal. Make it as specific as possible (we’ll talk more about how to do this in a later post). And understand that you may not reach it.

But, as Benjamin May once said:

“The tragedy in life does not lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach.”

Where a Screening Process Might Break Down: The Human Factor

Screening by Humans

The resume screening process can break down in a variety of ways. In this post, we’ll take a look at the human factor: how errors and bias on the part of persons involved in the screening process might affect your candidacy. 

Screeners who just “wing it.” There are a couple of common ways this might happen. First, if it’s a single person, it could be that he or she has sole authority over hiring and thinks: “I’ll know what I like when I see it.” Or it could be that a supervisor has asked a person or committee to do the screening without giving any clear guidelines. In these cases, it is likely that there will be some loose criteria, but unless the person or committee comes up with some that are clear, it’s pretty much like “shooting at the side of a barn.”

(Yes, employers are just as guilty of this as job-seekers!)

Sometimes bias comes into play. Sometimes screeners ignore stated criteria in favor of their own “preferred” qualifications. At other times, a “preference” may be factored into the equation. For example, some employers have a preference for hiring and promoting from within, or through employee referral programs. Some give preference to those that come directly to a human resource officer than to those entered through the web. Some may give preference to candidates who apply through the company over those forwarded by job boards. And some individuals might give preference to people who went to the same school, were a member of an organization they like, or who they know through social connections.

Sometimes, screeners are lazy or disorganized and skim hastily through the résumés. If it is because the person is lazy, there’s just no telling whether there will be a rhyme or reason to their picks. If it is because they are disorganized, they might give early applicants a more thorough review than those they review closer to the deadline.

So what can you do, in the face of human errors and bias? Not much, really.

  • If a screener is just “winging it,” that is an internal issue for his employer to deal with, and it is well beyond your control. You’ll really never know if this is the case, so don’t spend a lot of time worrying about it. When someone is just making it up as they go along, it doesn’t matter how you’ve presented your arguments. It’s probably a blessing to not work with people who have such a loose grasp on such an important role.
  • You can never control for a screener’s bias. In fact, there is always some sort of bias at play. In the best cases, the bias is toward a candidate with certain skills or experiences. In the worst cases, the biases aren’t stated, but internalized by the candidate, and it’s likely they justified screening a candidate in or out based on some other grounds. The best way to deal with perceived bias is to tightly align your arguments with a potential employer’s known biases. When reading job announcements, look for the terms “preferred,” “would a plus,” “desired,” or “ideal.” if you lack any of the skills or experiences listed with these terms, you will be less competitive than candidate who have those skills and experiences. The best you can do is argue for transferability of skills, aptitude, and motivation.  So write your resume toward related skills and experiences, and describe them in ways that accurately depict your strengths in other areas, and your motivation to close any gaps. This can be done through re-writing bullet points and/or the professional summary on your resume, and through the cover letter. The strategy is simple. Acknowledge the gaps quickly and show how you would fill them, while also showing strong foundational skills in other key skill areas.
  • You can’t control a screener’s laziness or disorganization. But you can apply early (as soon as you see a position posted), and organize your documents in a clear concise manner, that brings the most important details up front and early, so the lazy screener gets en0ugh information from pre-screening the document’s top third of page 1 that they don’t have to read any further to make an initial decision. Basically, make it easy for a lazy person to quickly see what you have to offer.

This post is part of a series adapted from my e-b0ok “7 Points to a Winning Resume.”  Next up in the series, we’ll explore the applicant’s role in the screening process, and how you can increase your possibility for  success.


Where the Screening Process Might Break Down, Part 1: Applicant Tracking Systems

bigstock-Building-A-Home-Based-Business-4554871Where the Screening Process Might Break Down

In any screening process, there is always room for error. In fact, there is always a degree of error. This applies to machine-driven processes and human-powered ones.

Let’s talk about ways that each type of screening process might break down.

Computer Screening Software

Applicant Tracking Systems (also known as ATS) are highly sophisticated software packages that scan information in the résumé to determine the degree of match between an application and available positions. They do not simply look for keywords. Many can also read for terms in context, much like a human reader. For example, some screening programs are advanced enough to interpret how recent your experience is in a particular area, and rank you accordingly. Some can even relate relevant terms to other key terms or phrases. And they are at times a bit “picky” about how information is formatted. Some things to know about ATS that could result in your résumé being kicked out of the system, garbled, or ranked differently:

  • Keywords without context. Basically, this is what I mean when I say “buzzwords.” They are on the résumé, but it may not be clear why. Today’s ATS systems are smarter than that, and so you are less likely to be able to game the system through simply putting keywords in.
  • Graphic elements, including lines, boxes, tables, shading and non-standard fonts. These may be misunderstood by the ATS system and may result in your résumé coming back as garbled nonsense. Because of the volume of applications many employers receive, it’s not likely the recruiter will bother to follow up with a candidate whose résumé is unreadable. There are probably many qualified candidates that submitted materials that were readable.
  • Files submitted in the wrong format. Many systems ask for Word or pdf for a reason. Word (.doc) documents  are more easily read and scanned by the ATS systems. So submitting in another format might result in the résumé being flagged or ranked lower by the ATS. (for a great free online pdf converter, go here.)
  • Cutting and pasting a text version rather than uploading another acceptable format. This is simple enough: text files may come back with interesting errors in spacing or tabs. If you accidentally cut and paste HTML into a text field, your markups will result in a document coming back loaded with garbage. And even if these things don’t happen, anything you have conveyed or emphasized through formatting or design will be lost. If you are given the option, ALWAYS use the format that will convey both the content and design as you intended. These days. .pdf (portable document format, which is easily read by Adobe Acrobat Reader, Preview for Mac and many web browsers and word processors) is the standard. If given the option to upload a .pdf, do so. As such, both humans and machines will be able to read your content in context.

In my practice as a Certified Professional Resume Writer, I use a tool that emulates a typical ATS and can estimate the potential match of a resume to a job posting, by:

  • Relating keywords between the documents,
  • Estimating how recently a candidate has used a skill, and
  • Estimating the length of experience with different skills.

The tool also tells the user whether an ATS will have difficulty finding some information, which helps identify possible formatting errors that might result in the ATS having difficulty parsing out information. By using keywords that mirror and match the language of the employer, and eliminating formatting errors, a writer can make smart revisions that result in a highly targeted argument for a candidate’s potential match to an employer’s requirements.

In the next installment in this series, we’ll explore the human factor: how human errors and bias can derail your candidacy during the screening process. This post is adapted from my e-book “7 Points to a Winning Resume,” which is available here. I am developing a brief resume-writing crash course based on this e-book, and will have details about that program in a later post.

The Screening Process: How Recruiters Choose Candidates Worth Pursuing


How Will You Stand Out from the Crowd?

Once a job application arrives at an employer’s office, the screening process can begin. As mentioned before, screening might be done by a single person, by a group of persons, or by a machine. You may not know which approach a company takes, unless you ask specifically about how screening is done in the department or division where an opening exists.

There may also be nuances between writing for a machine and writing for human. Lacking information specific to a particular type of screening software, job seekers must do their best to present their arguments in language that can be easily filtered by both human and machine.

Let’s imagine a “typical” screening process, discuss some possible stages in that process, and then imagine some strategies that might be useful for capturing and keeping the reader’s attention.

It’s probably impossible to give one explanation that will cleanly and accurately describe all the nuances to different stages of the job search process, but let’s try to describe some generalities.

I have been on many screening and selection committees during my career, and I’ve seen a few thousand résumés during that time. My explanation of the screening process is heavily drawn on my personal experience. In no way should it be construed that my experiences are somehow universal. However, I do believe that I can bring some insights about how résumé screeners and job search committees might conduct their screening processes.

A “Typical” Screening Process

In my experience, screening works like this:

  • Application packets arrive at the employer. This usually happens these days via e-mail or through a database-driven form that is part of an online application system.
  • Some companies may use software to scan your documents or keywords and phrases before a real person takes a look at. This is less common in small businesses, non-profit organizations, local governments, and academic institutions.
  • Other companies may allow a recruiter or members of a search committee to view a candidate’s materials as soon as they are available in the system, and to rank them.


Whether your résumé is screened by a person or by a computer, some sort of ranking system will likely be used to determine the degree of “fit” between the candidate and a fictional “ideal” candidate. Such a system relies heavily upon the use of scoring rubrics, which are much like the guides that a teacher might follow in grading a standardized test.

Ideally, the screeners use a scoring rubric to rate each candidate on their match to minimum and preferred qualifications. Ideally, those members of the committee follow those guidelines and come up with a list that accurately reflects the match between each candidate and the stated needs of the employer.

Ideally. Not always in practice. But ideally.

In the next post in this series, we’ll explore ways the screening process might break down, and what you might be able to do to minimize the possibility that you will be screened out of a process.