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.


Keywords: Turn Your Resume Into A Ticket in the Door

Handing over a ticketThink of your resume as a ticket. It gets you in the door. That’s it.

A good resume 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. It could mean that you get invited to interview for the position. But it’s not likely that someone will just read your resume and offer you a job.

Resumes are used by employers for screening candidates, but interviews are used for selecting the best qualified person for the job.

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.

The Screening Process

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, resume 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.

I’m often asked by job seekers if I have a great list of keywords for jobs in higher education, and I tell them that I do not have a comprehensive list. In fact, I think it would be a disservice to develop one and put it out there as the end-all, be-all guide. In a later post, I’ll tell you why I feel that way, and give you some practical tips on ways find the best keywords for your target position. But next, we’ll delve further into screening processes, how they work, and how they might break down.

This post is adapted from my e-book “7 Points to a Winning Resume,” which I am adapting into a resume-writing crash course, for those who can’t afford to hire a professional resume writer, or who simply want to write a better resume on their own. Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll delve into resume and CV writing strategies, though additional excerpts from the e-book, and guest posts from professional resume writers and career coaches.

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.

Podcast: 7 Points to a Winning Resume


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Your resume gets you in the door. Or it doesn’t. It won’t get you a job. Its role is to get you noticed.

In this week’s episode off the Higher Ed Career Coach Show on BlogTalkRadio, I’ll be talking about the art and science of resume writing, and give an overview of the 7 points included in my recent e-book.

We’ll also discuss ATS (Automatic Text Screener) programs, and some tools and tips for getting a handle on the challenge of writing a keyword-rich resume.

I will also take calls from those with questions about resumes, and will give a brief overview of some of my resume writing and career coaching packages.

Please join me for the podcast by clicking the episode link or listening with the player in the sidebar at right.

If you’d like to call in, the number is (347) 989-0055, or you can use the Skype “S” click-to-talk button from the episode page to connect via Skype.