How to Outsmart Applicant Screening Systems

winking dogThe rising ubiquity of automated applicant screening and matching systems for many jobs has lead to a debate over whether these applicant software systems are fair to job-seekers. Are these systems overly sensitive to keywords and too reliant on trick questions to weed out “non-optimal” job candidates? In many cases, a single “no” answer to a question that may not even have particular relevance to a job can be the difference between your resume reaching a pair of human eyes and being automatically disqualified as a viable candidate by a software program that has no idea how to distinguish between a valuable candidate and one who simply knows how to cheat the system.

The conundrum facing people during the job application process is that even though they may know that they have what it takes to do a job well, their previous experience does not match the precise requirements demanded by an employer. People then wonder whether to tell the truth and possible be immediately disqualified immediately or tell a lie that may catch up with you during the interview process. And forcing this dilemma upon job seekers is unfair because the software just can’t do this sort of job nearly as well as a person since it simply follows the commands of a programmer who may have set the bar for entry exceedingly high in order to narrow the applicant pool. In fact, applicant tracking systems frequently set job requirements so precisely that nearly no candidates get through the initial software screening process.

Resume Optimization

While computerized applicant screening systems are often set to weed out all but the best matches, there is one good thing about them: they are computers, not humans. Therefore, they operate by set rules – rules that you can understand how to manipulate to your advantage. Screening systems tend to focus on two factors: keyword inclusion/density and recency. Study the job description carefully before you submit your resume. Does the job description mention SAP? J2EE? A particular accounting system? Even if you’ve used these systems, your resume may not mention it, unless you have a particular specialization in them. Make sure to include all of the technologies, skills, and competencies that strike you as “specialized”. Of course, only include skills and technologies that you have used before. Additionally, if the job appears to focus on one particular skill or function, for example project management or online marketing – be sure to include those words in your resume multiple times.

Job titles often play a key role in deciding a candidate match. Compare your job titles to the one that you are applying for. Maybe you’re a Java Developer, but your current employer lists you as a system specialist or “Computer Systems Specialist IV”. You do not want to change your job title, as this may come up during the hiring process as a discrepancy. However, you can include both titles. For example, “Computer Systems Specialist IV (Java Developer). The parentheses add clarification to your job function. You want to narrow down your function as closely as possible to the job position open.

You can also manipulate recency of particular jobs while still being entirely honest. If you’re applying to the Java Developer role, you might include a short section at the top of your resume about your java development skills and the positions when you have used Java. Follow that section with your chronological professional experience. Depending on your career history, you may wish to shed the notion of a chronological experience altogether and list relevant positions at the top and then near the bottom include a list of dates with positions.

Applying to Jobs

You might think that once you apply to job with an employer that they will consider you for different positions as they come up. Due to the number of applicants, this scenario is starting to be very unlikely. In order for a corporate recruiter to find your resume, they have to search through their applicant database and happen to come across you. In other words, unless the recruiter for the employer is being very proactive about recruiting for the position, they aren’t going to find you. It may in fact be a necessary evil to apply to each and every job with that employer that you are qualified for.

If you are applying multiple times to the same employer, your next question might be: if I tailor my resume to one job, how can I then change it for another job? The answer may be in the above referenced strategy of including a section about how you are particularly qualified for the job above your chronological experience. It’s fine to speak to how you are uniquely qualified to be a project manager on one resume and then speak to how you are a great Java developer in the next: so long as your accounts are entirely honest and speak to your real strengths. Whatever you do, don’t say that you have great experience for every type of role that the employer has open – it’s just not true, and makes you appear fluffy and desperate. But if there are groups of highly related roles for which you can clarify your particular strengths, go ahead – it just makes it easy on the recruiter or person screening for the role.

Social Networking

There is also a solution to get around this barrier that involves going back to the tried and true principles of landing jobs, before the dawn of online applications, except with the help of modern technology. If you really want a job that you are certain that you are qualified for, don’t worry about gaming the system, get out there and build your professional connections. You need to meet people and the rise of social networking has opened the door to uncovering that connection that you will need to get your foot in the door.

LinkedIn is a repository for many job listings and offers a directory of virtually anyone you would need to contact in order to push your way into the position. Job listings on LinkedIn are posted by someone, and that someone can be identified in the posting itself. Reach out to the recruiter or hiring manager through making a connection and sending a message explaining your situation and why you feel your skill set is a good match despite the issue that led to your online disqualification. Provide relevant links to your profile, professional blogs, and other sites that demonstrate your aptitude and quality in your field.

With a little bit of luck (and an impressive portfolio), you may actually make it through the screening system to a real person. You’ll hear back and have an opportunity to at least discuss more about your fitness for the job, and you may even score an interview with the hiring manager. While these tactics may not always work, the little bit of extra effort that they entail is worth it to land a job that you really want.

in Job Applications]
Joshua Bjerke
Joshua Bjerke, from Savannah, Georgia, focuses on articles involving the labor force, economy, and HR topics including new technology and workplace news. Joshua has a B.A. in Political Science with a Minor in International Studies and is currently pursuing his M.A. in International Security.