Where Does Your Resume Really Go When You Apply Online?

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We'd all like to believe that when we send our resume via a job board or a company Web site that there is someone eagerly waiting on the other side ready to read every word of it. But these days, job applicants are lucky if an actual person is reading any of it, at least on the initial screening.

As companies continue to be inundated with resumes, more and more employers are turning to applicant tracking systems (ATS) to manage the sheer volume and weed through all the applicants. What does that mean for job seekers? I spoke to HR professionals, recruiters, and hiring managers to find out.

Why do companies use applicant tracking systems?

In today's market, there can be thousands of applicants for one position. According to recruiter Jeff Altman, The Big Game Hunter, "ATS allows me as a recruiter to manage far greater amounts of information and track every communication I have with a job applicant so nothing is 'forgotten.' " Unisys HR Consultant Sharon Sizgorich notes that ATS offers a "consolidated view of all applicants against a job and the ability to build and track pipelines of talent. In addition, applicant tracking systems can help recruiters better manage the various stages of the interview process and comply with legal requirements for tracking applicants."

How do applicant tracking systems work?

"When searching my database for candidates to fit a particular job posting, I'll select an important keyword or phrase directly from the job description, and enter it into the ATS," says recruiter Roxanne Williams. "The ATS will then search the database and return the resulting resumes to me, and this process can be repeated numerous times with different keywords or phrases."

What document formats can applicant tracking systems scan?

According to our experts, most systems can scan text and Word formats; some cannot scan Word 2007, PowerPoints, or PDFs.

What should job seekers do in order to get their resumes noticed by the ATS?

  • Customize the resume for each position. Megan Pittsley, a career counselor and recruiter, advises job seekers to "extensively tweak their resume for every job and make sure you weave common keywords throughout the resume as often as possible."
  • Keep job titles fairly generic. Kathleen Steffey, founder and CEO of Naviga Business Services, a sales and marketing based recruitment firm, suggests avoiding using job titles that are too specific. "If you are a sales professional who is conducting new business and prospecting 99 percent of the time, just keep your title to 'Sales Professional' or 'Business Development Representative.' Stay away from titles that are too specific like National Accounts or Client Relations.
  • Keep resume formatting to a minimum. Dan Kilgore, principal of Riviera Advisors Inc., notes that "certain design features such as italics, bolding, and underlining can substantially increase the error rate as the system converts the data." Radical resume designs similarly are also off-limits because anything the ATS wasn't programmed to look for will not be recognized. One suggestion might be to electronically submit your resume in Word and in a standard format, and save the "pretty" one you formatted for the live interview, since most of these characteristics were made to make the human reading experience more pleasant and exciting.
  • Avoid functional resumes. Ashley Gouge, VP of Client Development and Implementation for Pinstripe Healthcare states that "functional resumes are very difficult for parsing technology to read" and recommends using the more traditional chronological format for optimal results.
  • Include full keywords and their abbreviated formats. Recruiter and BestJobHuntGuide.com owner Roxanne Williams adds, "some of the words or phrases listed on the job description can also be abbreviated; for example, Sarbanes Oxley can be abbreviated as SOX and accounts payable is often referred to as AP. Play it safe and include both versions in your resume."

While those using applicant tracking systems can point to many benefits of using these systems, some also acknowledge the drawbacks. Amber Jolley, a staffing consultant with Whitaker Technical Services, notes: "The main drawback is that often your resume isn't seen by a 'live' person if it doesn't make it past the ATS screening process. While there are many advantages, the real downfall with ATS is that they are not able to quantify the 'intangibles' that candidates bring to the table or skills that may be equivalent or transferable enough to make their resume worth reviewing."

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August 15 2013 at 4:28 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This and other articles I've read prove my hunch. This is another example of programmers not actually understanding how candidates should be accessed. And people wonder why the "Western World", lead by the US is spiraling downward. Anyone with a 6th grade education can copy and paste keywords and phrases in a resume. Therefore, the initial screening this software offers is pointless, except that it does help HR people weed out the dishwasher who is applying for an accounting position, so they save some money, and because they can more quickly narrow down the candidates, their success rate goes up. But in the process, they've taken the Human out of Human Resources and as a consequence thrown out a lot of creative, talented people who did not plagiarize a help wanted ad in the name of "customizing" their resume. Oh, I long for a world on thinking people who will join me in abandoning such ignorance.

May 11 2011 at 11:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to vthornblad's comment
Sandra Denicola

Great post its nice to see people out there who do have a mind.

February 04 2012 at 2:37 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Ruth M.

The finger pointing in these comments is so sad. Although I am employed (thank God), I have been seeking a better job opportunity for 2 years. I am a Black woman, under 30 with two bachelors degrees along with a masters. One of those bachelors is in Spanish. According to most of you the government should be jumping over itself to give me a "handout" of a job, right?

Let's face it, the market is tough right now. Being Black doesn't guarantee a job; that's the silliest thing I've ever heard. Especially when the bureau of labor statistics places Black unemployment at 16%. Speaking Spanish doesn't guarantee a job. Hell I have a DEGREE in Spanish and can't get another job.

Stop projecting your misfortune onto others. EVERYONE is hurting right now. There are simply more people looking for jobs then there are jobs to go around. And I can't even believe people really think veterans don't deserve preference in the job hunt...wow. Half of you complaining can't complete a grammatically sound sentence to save your lives as demonstrated by your comments. Perhaps that's the reason your resume didn't pass the screening. As for me...maybe I'll just blame Asians for taking all the good jobs since we're all looking for a scapegoat around here.


April 06 2010 at 9:46 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I agree with Cecil. Most of the employers are using the information as a disqualifier. Due to economic downturn, a large part of the population is unable to afford phones and internet. Employers are using these as a means of disqualifying people from work for lack of communication. I lost two jobs because I didn't had mobile access. Rather than helping candidates, employers are using scare-tactics.

March 16 2010 at 11:20 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

In a related issue:

FOX News’ Glenn Beck is outrageous! What a Richard he is. (Think about it - the nickname for Richard is ...?)
Seriously, Republicans will do anything, especially use the Big Lie, and they have surpassed the way the Nazis used the Big Lie in the 40s.

If you tell a big enough lie, and do it often enough, at some point, most people will begin to believe it. Republicans are counting upon people believing their lies, to be able to stop President Obama from succeeding on anything, especially the Health Care issue.

Beck and Bush and their people count on Democrats not really doing their due diligence, not checking for the truth, and allowing President Obama to be slandered and lied about, so they can use fear and misdirection, to keep people from learning the truth. They are even trying to make the people believe that the economic problems this country is having is the fault of the Democrats, not the Republicans.

Even though when Bush took office, he inherited the largest surplus this country ever had. He then turned it into the largest debt we have ever had, and passed that debt along to Obama!

If the population learns the truth, they will vote Republicans out of office in droves.

So, your assignment, if you wish to take it, is to learn the truth - remember, the Truth belongs to no one - nobody owns the Truth! And, the truth shall set you free.

Don't take my word for it; definitely don't take the Republicans' word for it; do the fact checking yourselves, and then you will see just how evil these people, these Republicans, really are.


March 10 2010 at 7:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I don't mind if preferential treatment goes to returning vets. They have sacrificed their lives to go where they get shot at. They should return to a chance to get ahead safely.

But a level playing field is necessary for the rest of us.

As someone else said, W and his friends are responsible for this economic mess, due to them treating the US Treasury as their own private checking account.

What bothers me is that the Republicans are now trying to put it off on the DEMs.

They use the Big Lie approach as well as the Nazis did, with fear and misdirection, and expect the public to buy into it.
Hopefully, the people can now see through their BS.

If not, we're never going to get out of this jam.

Okay, I'll take my soapbox and leave now .

Good luck to all trying to get jobs. May your lives get better soon.


March 06 2010 at 2:51 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I'm also a "retired" person DUE TO a medical disability, trying to "live" on a very limited, disability income. It IS very frustrating to "see" those you refer to as, 'not having a care in the world' when there are those of us who WISH we could work and cannot, but who HAVE TO SURVIVE on the meager amount SS ALLOWS us, BASED ON WHAT WE PAID INTO THE 'SYSTEM' - this ain't a 'free ride', folks!

It's even more frustrating to "see" how my grown daughter, a single Mom, has to struggle because she was "let go" from the last two jobs she had - the last one BECAUSE WAL-MART decided to take its optical department to MEXICO and leave 650 plus employees, WITHOUT ANY NOTICE - locked out of their place of employment when they showed up to do their job, one day! NOW, she isn't able to FIND a job, "thanks" to a crooked administration AND the economy IT HAS CREATED while they pad their own pockets and carry out their own greedy agendas for power!!

I agree - "on-line" resume`s stink - HOW does an employer "see"
personality, enthusiasm, or appearance (sloppy or not) from the cold, impersonal wording sent via a computer???!!!

March 05 2010 at 9:45 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It is definitely hard to get a job these days, but employers have to have some means to cut down 100's - 1,000's resumes. There is alot of time and manpower required, and this is money, to search for qualified applicants. Yes it is not fair, but an ATS is currently a means to an end. It's not like the old days when a call, quick interview, and physical resume could land you a job immediately - too many people are out of work. I am an unemployed professional with extensive years of experience, skills, education, and achievements and cannot even get one call back for numerous resumes emailed out. Not only very, very frustrating but stressful because I am a single parent and to go from making just over $50,000 a year to unemployment is impossible to live on and hopeless. Who is going to take care of my family? But it isn't the responsibility of employers but there needs to be another way to get in for an interview.

March 04 2010 at 10:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
John S

You are right, ROY, the Vets do deserve priority. A few of us however, were rejected for military service, and have no access to these services. It doesn't mean we didn't want to, we weren't allowed to. My 4F rating was due to a birth defect, that left me with one kidney. I wasn't good enough for service but still pulled 40+ years on OTR trucks. Figure that one out.

March 04 2010 at 5:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
John S

I rarely use online aplications. If I find a job in a newspaper, I will apply in person. Phone numbers can be backtracked in the reverse directory. I avoid blind ads that only give you a broad view of what they are looking for, and no company name. Leg work is the most productive.

March 04 2010 at 5:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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