Beating the bots, how to make it through applicant tracking systems

Many institutions can receive hundreds, if not thousands of applications. Perhaps your area of research is very niche and you are not likely to be one of hundreds, but you could still be one of dozens of applicants. If the institution you are applying to uses an Applicant Tracking System (ATS), and you do not complete your application in such a way that an ATS understands it, then your application may not make it through to human eyes for review!

Before we outline the key things to you can do to beat the bots, we should highlight that there are many positive reasons why academic institutions use these systems. They are certainly not intended to screen out good candidates. Some of the key reasons for implementing an applicant tracking system are to:-

• Filter out unconscious bias
• Use systematic valuation criteria
• Ensure data protection is adhered to
• Ensure that everyone’s application is received and acknowledged
• Process large volumes of applications quickly

Going back to understanding what we mean by completing your application “as an ATS understands it.” Some of what we mean is to do with textual formatting and some of it is to do with how you use key words in your application. The easiest way to explain it, is to understand how an ATS works.

First of all an ATS will remove all the formatting from your application and then review your application on the following categories:-

  • Education
  • Contact Information
  • Skills
  • Work Experience
  • Job specification’s list of essential and desirable skills

Each ATS has database fields for this information, which is included on a CV / resume. The database fields will search for terms such as name, contact details, job titles, education, employer names and periods of employment. So if your CV / resume isn’t formatted with terms that an ATS will look for, it won’t pull this information into the proper field, and some sections could be missed altogether.
Before you start on editing your CV/resume to beat those bots you should first go back to the original job description and person specification. What you are looking for are key terms and phrases that are used in those documents and include them in your application.

You could print the job description and person specification and go through with a highlighter picking out words and phrases that are repeated. Another quick way to do this is to copy and paste the documents into a program such as Wordle or Tag Crowd to create a Word Cloud which will quickly highlight the key words and phrases used by the employer. When you have done this do be sure, where relevant, that you align your experience using those same terms. This is essentially a list of key words, which will carry a weighting for ATS. The applications with the highest scores relevant to the employer’s specified keywords and phrases combined with the years of experience will be then passed on to a human to review.

Now for the list of things that you can do to your application to ensure that when the ATS scours your application it will score you highly enough to pass you on for human review.

Here are eight simple things you can do to beat the ATS bots:-

1. Keep formatting to an absolute minimum by:-

a. using plain text such as Arial, and avoid fonts such as Times New Roman
b. do not use colour in your fonts
c. do not bold or underline anything
d. remove images, columns, tables, fields, text boxes and graphics
e. do not use Headers or Footers in any documents.

2. Ensure that there are absolutely no spelling errors, it’s not like Google which will politely ask you if you really meant…. and spells out your term correctly.
3. When asked to include attachments do it in the exact format required, if it states WORD use WORD, if it states PDF, attach the document as a PDF. Remember to strip down your formatting to the very bare bones.
4. When writing your employment history, present the information for each employer in the same order, i.e., organisation name, job title, city location, country location, and then the date, and in reverse chronological order.
5. When listing your skills give the full description as well as commonly used acronyms.
6. List all of your qualifications.
7. Never used a standard CV/resume, always tailor it and use the terminology in the job description and person specification. Remember to be sure to include those key words which you will have found using a Word Cloud BUT at the same time do not over use them.
8. Use the terminology on your application that your field of research uses. Do not try to be creative as what the system is looking for is commonly understood terminology.

Remember when you are editing your CV/resume and application that it will still need to make sense to a human reader, and not simply be a carbon copy of the job description and person specification. These steps are set out to help you make it through an automatic screening process that will screen out other potential candidates simply because they have not beaten the bots!

Other useful articles on making it through an Applicant Tracking System:-

Highered Jobs article

Wiley Network article

The Big Interview article

The CIO article

The Muse article

Jobs Can article

Forbes article

LinkedIn article

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