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.

Applicant Tracking Systems: 5 Things You Need to Know

When I became a Certified Professional Resume Writer a couple of years ago, I had never heard of an Applicant Tracking System, or ATS. I knew that many companies used software packages to allow candidates to upload their applications, and had used Penn State’s HR system as a member of several screening committees. That system was pretty basic, allowing committee members to view applications online as they screened them in whatever way their department prescribed, but if it had higher-level functions, we didn’t use them.

It wasn’t until I began following a discussion on a resume writers’ discussion forum that I learned how widespread Applicant Tracking Systems are, and how they can be used to mine data and determine a candidate’s match to a position. I left the discussion, though, with a clear understanding that I needed to learn more about these systems, if I wanted to be a better resume writer.

I’m still unclear on how colleges and universities are using Applicant Tracking Systems, and hope to interview some Human Resources professionals soon to learn more, but I have come to the conclusion that it is always best to write your resume with both the human reader and the computer in mind.

Computers and Humans Use Different Logic

Writing for a computer forces you to apply some different logic than writing for a human. I had learned this already in my efforts to understand Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and get better rankings on Google for my websites. Computers parse information differently than a human reader does. In some ways, software can be less forgiving than a human reader. As a result, simple mistakes in formatting, style, or word choice can cause the ATS to misinterpret information and return a low score for your match to a position. If you don’t get past the ATS, a real human might not see your resume!

For the past few months, I have been using a tool called Resumeter that emulates an Applicant Tracking System, and can help you identify the potential matches and gaps between your resume and a position description or job posting. It can also return reports that show you where errors in formatting are confusing the ATS, so you can reduce the possibility of information on your resume being misinterpreted or skipped over altogether.

Using a tool like this one takes some patience, because Applicant Tracking Systems are “smart enough to be dumb.”

Five things you need to keep in mind, and how to work around them:

  • Keywords matter. Applicant Tracking Systems apply some of the same principles that a search engine does. In particular, they look for keywords. When parsing information out of a document, an ATS will find exact matches, but may indicate information is missing, if it does not find an exact match. Some systems will give partial credit for related terms, some will not. Work-around: To maximize the possibility of being seen as a match, use the exact words you see in a position description or advertisement, whenever you can honestly and accurately do so.
  • Applicant Tracking System software is logical but not reasonable. I’ve had to learn when to edit the job description down to only the most important keywords (almost always). Since the software will be applying rules, not reason, you sometimes have to step in and apply kind of a “reasonable person” test and take your best guess at whether a term is a “required” term, a “preferred” term, or just some word that was stuck in there. This requires using the tool, seeing what the tool is not finding, and then going back to read the position description in context. Sometimes the tool is looking for a more complex word where you may have used a simpler one. Work-around: When this happens, you can change the word on your resume to the exact one being sought, or you can edit the job description in the tool to search for the simpler word instead, and hope that it won’t count against you in an actual application process.
  • Repeating yourself is a good thing. One thing I used to do when writing resumes was switch up wording here and there, because I played similar roles across different jobs. I didn’t want to bore the reader by seeming repetitive. Throw that idea out the window! Applicant Tracking  Systems, like search engines, score documents higher based on keyword density. So if you are applying to be an academic advisor, for example, don’t put in one bullet that you “advised” students and in another bullet that you “assisted” students. If you “advised” them here and “advised” them there, then maybe you can “advise” them anywhere.  Work-around: Use the word they are looking for whenever it applies, and you will get better results than going for variety.
  • Inconsistent formatting will confuse the software. Applicant Tracking Systems will parse information out of sections of your document, by looking for words commonly used in Headings, or words that seem to be headings (For example, single words in all capital letters or underlined and set apart from other information.) The ATS may find a blank line and interpret it as a section break. One area where I see this often is in the “Education” section. Let’s say that you have an advanced degree and wrote a thesis, so you list it under the graduate degree, maybe inset by a tab. Then you list your bachelor’s degree but do not have a parallel section there. Even worse, you have more than one graduate degree and you list your thesis the same way for both. I’ve seen the ATS get confused and start mismatching degrees to institutions and dates, and I’ve seen it think that the thesis was a separate degree and note it as missing dates and the issuing institution. Work-around: Tweak the format within each section and eliminate any extra line breaks, until the ATS at least records the correct degrees, dates and institutions, even if it lists some of the other information as “additional education.” Or you can move your thesis information into a “publications” or “research” section.
  • Where (and how) you list skills matters to the Applicant Tracking System. If you have many skills that you would like to list, you may be tempted to use a table. It’s a legitimate way to get a lot of information into a document. But there are legitimate reasons to list your skills in bullets, under specific positions. First, it helps in interpreting your skills in context. Second, many ATS systems give credit for one year of experience for each mention of a skill in a skills list, but will estimate length of experience listed in position-related bullets by looking at the dates you were in a position. They can tally up skills mentioned under multiple positions, and give a much better approximation of your experience. Work-around: Put skills in position-related bullets whenever possible.  Some ATS systems are confused by table formatting, and will skip tables altogether, which means that whatever you listed in the skipped table won’t count toward your potential match score. Work-around: If you use a skills list, do not use the “table” function in Word. Use the columns setting instead, or make columns using the tabs.

I’ll be writing some more posts soon about Applicant Tracking Systems, and how candidates can write their resumes to get through computerized screening measures. In the meantime, please share this article with anyone you think might be interested, and post your questions and comments.

LinkedIn Calendar in IOS App Brings Social Network Intelligence Into Your Schedule

photo-200x300LinkedIn rolled out a new feature the other day, and somehow I missed it until yesterday, when I was using it on my iPhone. It asked me if I wanted to activate the new calendar feature so I could find out more about the people I’m meeting with this week. This is a great enhancement to the app, and something I hope they integrate into the web version soon.

The move is also the latest proof that we have moved beyond the era of simple social networking and solidly into the era of social network intelligence, where the average user can take advantage of the vast data mines we so happily participate in. I’ve covered “social network intelligence” tools before, with my favorite being Gist, a free social CRM tool that was acquired by Blackberry as part of its efforts to integrate cloud-based features into the lagging Blackberry ecosystem and their related notebooks. I’ve also recently been testing Nimble, which does many of the same things, and have tested Rapportive, as well as Xobni’s Smartr Contacts app on iPhone. GMail also gives users the ability to see more about your contacts by turning on the “people widget” in their mail settings.

CRM (Customer Relationship Management) applications have been widely used by sales professionals for years, but the advent of Social CRM apps (especially free ones) brings the possibility of better relationship management to the everyday user.

Some typical features of social CRM apps:

  • Calendar and e-mail integration. Inside one app, you can see who you are meeting with, when you’ve met with the person before, and the e-mails you’ve traded. It’s great to be able to pull up e-mails and attachments you’ve traded as you meet with a contact. How many times have you been on a phone or web meeting and had to say, “I don’t know if I received that, let me search my inbox.” No more. It’s all right there.
  • Notes. You can make notes about your meeting.
  • Tasks. You can create new tasks and set deadlines. In some CRM apps, you can share tasks with colleagues, or assign them to specific team members for follow-up.
  • Social network integration. Add a social network profile to follow, and you can read tweets, Facebook posts, and LinkedIn updates from within the contact dashboard.
  • Web searches. Many social CRM apps integrate with Google API and will return possible results for the person, company, and industry related to your contact.
  • RSS feed integration. Follow a contact’s personal or corporate blogs, podcasts, and anything else with an RSS feed.
  • Maps. If you have a physical address for a contact, you can get a map and driving directions from within the CRM application.

photo1-200x300LinkedIn’s foray into social CRM is interesting, but at this point, it’s also pretty basic. First, you click on the calendar tab (really a frame of sorts) in the upper right, and it shows your calendar. You’ll see the contact’s LinkedIn photo and name. Within the meeting, you see links to the LinkedIn profile for each person in the meeting (including you) and a pane with notes. If you want more information, you click through to view the  person’s profile.


I’ll be interested to see how many more of the typical social CRM features LinkedIn integrates in the future. With access to so much user data, and its position as “the” professional social network, LinkedIn could bring Social CRM not only into your schedule, but into the mainstream.

Using Gist to Keep Track of Your Job Search

Keeping track of your applications and all the related communications between yourself and potential employers is one of the biggest challenges of the job search. Some people use paper lists, some use Excel sheets, and for papers, mail, and important documents, some people use folders and pocket portfolios.

All of that is well and good, and you should definitely use whatever works for you. But there are so many tools available for free on the internet that will make it easier for you to keep track of information. One category of tools, called Social CRM tools, can help you track your communication, follow up with your contacts, and get more information about your contact or your target employer, so you can develop a more comprehensive profile.

I use one of these CRM (Customer Relationship Management or Contact Relationship Management systems) to keep track of information and learn more about my contacts: Gist. (Available at Gist.Com) Gist aggregrates information from your e-mail, calendar and social media interactions and searches the internet for public information to give you a better view of a person or company in your network. In the video, I provide an overview of how Gist works and some ideas about how you can use it to keep track of your job search.

If you like this video, please like it, leave a comment here, and share it with your networks. You can also subscribe to the higheredcareercoach channel to get new videos as I publish them.

Looking for a job in Student Affairs?

Join me and Laura McGivern from theSASearch.Org at 11:30 am ET today (Wednesday) for the #sasearch hashtag chat. We’re talking about keeping track of your job applications and following up with employers about your status. Use the hashtag #sasearch and join in, or use TweetChat or a similar tool to follow the chat.

The Adjunct Job Search With Sharon Thomas DeLay

adjunctllcpanelAdjunct teaching positions occupy an interesting space in the higher ed job market. As such, the advice you might get about how to identify potential opportunities, and how to make a case for your candidacy is likely to be different than advice you might get when looking for tenure-track faculty posts or administrative roles.

Add in the reality that many administrators look toward adjunct roles to get teaching experience, that experienced faculty who are not in tenured positions are likely to be competing for the same jobs, and that persons with industry experience are sought after in some disciplines, and the adjunct search can be mysterious and confounding.

In this week’s episode, Higher Ed Career Coach Sean Cook will talk with Sharon Thomas DeLay, the founder and president of Adjunct Solutions, LLC. She has over 15 years professional experience as it relates to education, training and human resources.

Adjunct Solutions is a niche staffing agency focused on building a candidate pool of pre-qualified, experienced, and enthusiastic adjunct faculty and other higher education professionals.

We’ll discuss the nuances of the adjunct job search, and get perspectives from Sharon about how candidates can put their best foot forward in the job search, and how institutions can benefit from working with a staffing agency to fill open positions.

Please join us at 11 am ET on Friday, September 16. If you are interested in seeking adjunct positions, please call in to (347) 989-0055 with questions, or send them to @hiedcareercoach via Twitter or sean@higheredcareercoach.com before or during the podcast.