Applicant Tracking Systems : The Job Hunter's Friend or Foe?


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Every job seeker wants to gain as much exposure to job openings as possible, so by “snail mail" or email, off go résumés to recruiters, job ads, company web pages, or the companies themselves in the hope that someone will review them.

Ah, but unfortunately, in terms of initial screening, that “someone" has been increasingly replaced by an “it": the Applicant Tracking System (ATS).

You see, thanks mostly to the Internet, companies and recruiters today are being increasingly inundated by résumés sent to them literally at the touch of a button. So given the need for speed, quality, and economy in the hiring process, enter Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS), computer software programs that can capture requested information from paper-based résumés or online applications, and then download it directly into an applicant database.

Thus, when someone sends a Microsoft Word version of his résumé to a company or recruiter, an ATS can scan it without printing it, and store relevant information. Companies or recruiters can then — using chosen parameters, keywords, or phrases — search stored résumés when a need arises to fill a certain job posting, saving countless hours once spent in classifying and choosing résumés manually.

The Job Hunter’s Problem … and a Solution

All well and good for an ATS owner, but how can you the job hunter know what parameters the ATS user will enter into his system when looking for a candidate? How do you know what terms and phrases should be added to your résumé to “catch that mechanical eye"? Well, you can’t, at least not with certitude. All you can do is make an educated guess as to what they might be. And, since many keywords can have variants, choosing — and then integrating them into your résumé — becomes even more difficult.

Let’s use a CFO as an example. An ATS scan might use any of the following key words or phrases (or others), of which more than one might apply to you:

Job Title: CFO, Chief Financial Officer, Senior Financial Executive

Years of Experience: 5—10 years of experience, over 10 years of experience, 20+ years, etc.

Expertise: Mergers, acquisitions, profit and loss, turnarounds, start-ups, budgets, Six Sigma, etc.

Leadership qualities: Team supervision, “big picture thinker, " visionary, senior manager, Board of Directors, multinational, decision-maker, etc.

Education: MBA, Ph. D. , B. Business Administration, B. Accounting, etc.

Certifications: CPA, Certified Public Accountant, Chartered Financial Analyst, etc.

As you can see, a list of possible keywords — any of which might be appropriate to you — can be devilishly long, especially when only slight variations are involved.

How to Protect Yourself

First, put all those keywords you think the most important about you in the body of the résumé. Then put all those of lesser importance in a separate block entitled “Additional keywords" at the bottom of your résumé thusly:

Additional Keywords/Phrases: Accounting, standard cost accounting, spreadsheets, financial reporting, regulatory compliance, accounts receivable/payable, Peachtree, 10 years in upper management, BOD, manufacturing, technology, controller, comptroller, auditor, auditing, divestitures, buyouts, … etc. , etc.

Tip: If you are concerned about your résumé’s appearance, you can “hide" these additional keywords—at least, on an electronic version—by highlighting them, then changing their font color to white. Thus, whether the résumé is displayed on the screen or printed off, those words will be invisible – only the ATS can see them!

Some final thoughts. So an ATS can be a foe to you if you don’t realize how it works, but a friend to you if you do. However, remember that all the keywords or phrases you use must be grounded in truth: you must not add what you have no real knowledge of. Remember too that although these additional keywords and phrases may help you get past the mechanical ATS screening, your résumé must still be reviewed by a set of human eyes … but, then again, isn’t that what you are after?

Pierre G. Daunic, Ph. D. is a Senior Consultant for R. L. Stevens & Associates Inc. . For over 24 years, R. L. Stevens & Associates has been the Nation’s most successful privately-held firm, specializing in executive career searches generating quality interviews through advertised and unadvertised channels.


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