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.

Your Resume: Will It Make It Through Screening?

bigstockphoto_Ok_On_The_Background_6855137A good résumé captures and keeps the attention of the person reading it, and creates in that person a desire to know more about you. Hopefully, that desire will lead the reader to seek out more information about you and to put your candidacy into context. This could mean that the reader goes on to read your cover letter, if they haven’t already. It could mean that you get invited to interview for the position. But it’s not likely that someone will just read your résumé and offer you a job.

Résumés are used by employers for screening candidates, but interviews are used for selecting the best qualified person for the job. So think of your resume as a ticket. It gets you in the door, so you can continue making a case for your candidacy.

If you’ve never been on the hiring side of the table, the screening process may be foreign to you. So let’s dive into that part of the process and try to understand it.

Screening can happen in many different ways.

  • A single person might do it.
  • A committee might do it.
  • Sometimes, a machine might do it. (Initially.)

But let’s not confuse the issue. They are all looking for the same things. You might call them keywords or key concepts or key phrases, but essentially they are the same thing.

A keyword is not the same thing, necessarily, as a “buzzword.” It can be, but it really depends. Many job seekers spend time consulting websites, résumé books, and their colleagues and mentors about what the latest hot topics are in their industry. The difference between a “buzzword” and a keyword is this: a “buzzword” is a word that everyone is talking about; it may or may not relate to the position you are applying for; a keyword is a term that relates directly to the specific role to be played, and therefore, is directly relevant.

It’s important to recognize the difference between these two concepts. One (using “buzzwords”) is a cynical ploy that may lack coherence; the other (using keywords) is a smart, strategic move that brings together the aspects of your unique offering, and shows the match between what you offer and the employer’s needs.

This post is an adapted excerpt from my e-book, 7 Points to a Winning Resume, which is available for $10 and comes with a $25 discount you can apply toward a resume-writing or career coaching package.

Click here to buy now!

Credential vs. Potential: Hiring "Diamonds in the Rough"

bigstock_Diamond_In_The_Rough_6613316In higher education, as in any industry, credentials and certifications are sought after by professionals hoping to get an advantage over their competition. In an interesting post that entered my tweet stream on Friday, Kenny Silva explored the weight we often place on credentials in the hiring process, in contrast to potential. This is especially pertinent at this time of year, when the academic year is beginning, and the hiring season slows to a crawl.

Back when I was working at Penn State, I often found myself in the  awkward position of filling a vacancy or two late in the summer. In part, this was due having an area mostly populated by upper-class students and more returning staff.  The priority spots in our large residence hall system was to make sure that the first-year areas were adequately staffed first. When approximately half of your 14,000 students are first-year students, and about 4500 of those live in one area, you must have priorities.

Working with first-year students is, in general, more exciting to many staff, because, well…they need you in a different way. It’s more validating. Upperclassmen don’t get in nearly as much trouble, and mostly, they want to be left alone to do their own thing. So there were several occasions when someone left or was transferred to a new area or got promoted when we had to fill a vacancy post-haste and pronto, and many of the more highly credentialed new hires had already been placed. These are the times when it is especially important to look for potential.

In my time as Assistant Director, I cared more about potential than credentials, and honestly, I still do, because, for the most part, my least credentialed staff were easiest to work with, related better to students, and were more motivated to prove themselves. I always appreciated that perspective, because I have always had to prove myself.

I was the last male resident assistant hired at Clemson my junior year, and they put me on the top floor of a building where no one ever went unless they had a reason to be there. I went in knowing they expected me to fail and that I had a lot to prove. I made the most of it, and went on to win programming awards and have a generally good reputation on campus. Eventually, I made Student Affairs my life’s work. Along the way, I met different mentors and colleagues who kept giving me chances. Like a “diamond in the rough,” polishing up my portfolio and earning credentials took some time.

When I decided to leave the university setting, I had to sort through the value of becoming credentialed as a certified coach, and recently, as a professional résumé writer. I worked with college students for 15 years, had a master’s degree already, and had been coaching young professionals and colleague on their job search materials and strategy the whole time. I didn’t really think I needed a couple more pieces of paper to prove I could do this, but I got them anyway. I did so because that is the way our field works for some people, and I felt that the credentialing would remove some potential obstacles from my path.

Oddly enough, I can’t remember a single time I’ve been practicing when a client even asked about my credentials. Instead, they ask “how can you help me?” and “what benefits will I see from working with you?” And they weigh these against other options, many of which are free or available at a lower cost. I end up working with many of people who inquire, and when I don’t, I know that I haven’t distinguished myself in the right way, or shown the value of the relationship. When I do get a new client, it’s because they believe I can help them, and because we connected as people who potentially could work well together.

As Silva points out:

“Our ability to succeed in any endeavor, whether it’s a business or non-profit, is dictated by potential, not credential. It is only potential energy that can be tapped into in order for us to push forward. If you don’t hire the right people to bring that potential energy into your business, you will not move forward.”

I’ve always told my student leaders aspiring to go straight into student affairs that the time period we are currently in, from mid-August to the end of September, is a great time to look for a job, if you work hard to show your potential. Time and again, this worked for me as a supervisor, and I got some great staff members out of the deal.

If you still have staff vacancies, do yourself and the universe a favor: take a chance on a candidate you have a good gut feeling about. Look for the “diamonds in the rough” and help them learn to shine!