Your resume: Getting past the machines

If your resume can't get past the applicant tracking system, it might never be seen by human eyes

Résumé keywords are the phrases in a résumé that HR screeners, recruiters, hiring managers and, most critically, automated applicant tracking systems (ATS), look for during the initial round of vetting candidates for specific job openings.

When automated tracking tools are used, a résumé that doesn't have the right combination of keywords might never be seen by human eyes.

An ATS is a software system that includes a database that holds résumé information. It operates behind the commercial and corporate job boards to capture and store submitted résumés.

When a résumé is submitted through a job board, the content is separated and placed into the ATS. The résumé loses all of its formatting and becomes plain text within the database. That's why it's best to use a plain-text (ASCII) version of your résumé when submitting information about yourself to job boards -- so it's easier for the ATS to work with.

Employers sign on to the ATS and perform keyword searches to find the résumés of job seekers who might be good candidates for open positions. For a résumé to reach human eyes, it must contain keywords matching the search criteria. When there's a decent match, the employer can choose to view the entire résumé.

Why the résumé might be ignored

Most ATS users are savvy enough to perform Boolean searches, meaning they combine keywords. If a hiring manager wants someone with project management, technology and quality assurance skills, he could use a search like this:

" 'project management' AND 'technology' AND 'quality assurance' "

Only résumés that have all three exact search terms would be returned.

Using résumé keywords

Automated tracking systems are pretty smart. You must use keywords in the proper context, or the ATS might ignore your résumé. And you must use keywords throughout your résumé, especially if you're looking for a job in IT.

This is where creative writing, journalism-style story structuring and career history intersect to make a spectacular résumé. Not only does your résumé need to satisfy the requirements of ATS keyword searches, but it also needs to be readable and compelling, so the hiring manager who calls it up will get a good understanding of your career history and accomplishments. You can't just pile up keywords; you have to use keywords strategically while telling your story in a way that will make a hiring manager want to contact you.

Nearly every employer uses some kind of automated tracking tool to screen résumés. Therefore, I recommend also mailing a hard copy directly to the employer. There are ways to make that process easier, too. I'll talk about them in a later column.

Ken Moore is an internationally certified IT résumé writer, former recruiter, and nationally published author. Visit his website,


Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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