Even in this strong job market, applicant tracking systems may weed you out of a good role. How to get around them
There are more than 1 million job openings in Kenya right now, and many experts agree that it’s the best job market for workers in Africa in decades. But that means nothing if a computerized tracking system knocks you out.
Indeed, it isn’t a human that an applicant must first impress. An applicant tracking system is the fancy name for software that helps with interview scheduling, job postings, and the other basics of recruiting. But importantly, many firms use it to cull applicants and recommend qualified candidates to recruiting professionals. Some even use sophisticated artificial intelligence to judge how likely a candidate might stick around or how good of a teammate the candidate may potentially be.
The software is nearly everywhere: an estimated 75% of all firms use some form of it. Among Fortune 500 firms, it’s essentially a given—an estimated 98% of firms use it. “These systems want to push you along but also find reasons to stop you,” says Catherine Ndenga, a career coach for Bliss HR. Overall, only about 30% of resumes make it through to be seen by a human. Unfortunately, that means some good applicants can get cut. It’s why experts say candidates should follow these simple strategies when applying to jobs online:
Use basic formatting.
Unless the job opening is for a graphic designer or a similar role, just use a simple Microsoft Word or Google Docs format. Software often can’t register applications that have been created using graphics software. Stick to using just words as well. “Graphics. Tables. Pictures. They are a real quick way to get your resume kicked out of the system,” Catherine says.
Experts also recommend avoiding using multiple columns since many of the software systems have a hard time reading them. For example, if a resume is divided into three columns, the software may only read the first column. Finally, stick to a basic font, such as Arial or Calibri, two standard fonts in both MS Word and Google Docs.
Spell out the contact information.
It’s great for applicants to include a LinkedIn page in their contact information, but the best practice is to type out the full URL address rather than hyperlinking your name or the word “LinkedIn.” Automated tracking software often disables hyperlinks. An attempt to digitally show off other professional highlights or experiences can wind up only making it difficult for a human recruiter to get in touch with the applicant.
Prioritize for the position.
Metrics about hitting sales targets don’t need to be in a resume for a non-sales position. Instead, reorder the bullet points under each past role to highlight the most relevant experience and metrics for the job you’re applying for. “Your resume is not your greatest hits but your most relevant skills, experience, and passion for the job you’re going after,” says David Ngatia, a career coach at Bliss HR.
Before applying, take a look at the job description and try to identify keywords that the company might be looking for; odds are, the recruiting software will be looking for them as well. Experts say a resume will have a far better chance of getting picked up if the applicant spends time customizing it for those keywords.
But don’t try to “trick” the system.
Sometimes applicant tracking software will prioritize the number of times a particular keyword shows up on a resume. For example, if a role will require a lot of spreadsheet work, the software may look for a word like “Excel.” Some sneaky applicants have tried to game the system by writing the word “excel” at the bottom of their application, using white font that the software may notice but a human talent manager may not. That might work if the software didn’t highlight the number of times “excel” showed up—including all the times it was written in white font.
At this point, experts say software developers have figured out the keyword gambit and most other tricks. “They’ll get discovered, and that doesn’t look good for you,” David says. Stick to letting the qualifications and experience speak for themselves.
Sometimes the idea of working for a particular organization takes precedence over what the actual role is. In that case, applicants may wind up applying for several jobs at the same firm. The problem with that strategy, experts say, is that the recruiting software could treat all those applications as spam and toss them all. Apply only for the one or two positions that are of particular interest. If the role really doesn’t matter, consider networking and developing relationships with people within the organization rather than sending online job applications.
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