Keeping Your Resume Out Of Online 'Oblivion'

Read Lauren Weber's Wall Street Journal piece "Your Résumé vs. Oblivion"

Many mid- and large-sized companies rely on computerized systems to scan resumes and narrow the field of job candidates. Some tracking software may overlook qualified applicants who haven't used the right keywords. The Wall Street Journal's Lauren Weber explains what it takes to get noticed.

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LYNN NEARY, HOST:

If you're one of millions of Americans looking for a job, you've probably wondered more than once what happens to all those resumes you've sent to potential employers. You may suspect that a hiring manager or a recruiter never even glanced at your job qualifications, and you might be right. Many mid- and large-sized companies now rely on software known as applicant tracking systems to narrow the field of potential candidates. That's because they're getting so many resumes.

But what can an applicant do to prevent his or her resume from getting sucked into a vortex from which there is no return? What did you do to get noticed by an employer? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. And our email address is talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation at our website, go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Lauren Weber joins us now from our bureau in New York. She's a reporter who covers careers for The Wall Street Journal. Good to have you with us, Lauren.

LAUREN WEBER: Hi, Lynn. Thanks for having me.

NEARY: So explain to us how this system, this applicant tracking system works. What happens exactly?

WEBER: This is software that companies can buy - generally, companies that do a fair amount of hiring because they can be quite a big investment. And they are then programmed for every job description that the company posts. So they're programmed with, for instance, keywords that they will scan for. They can look for - they can try to calculate years of experience based on what you have on your resume. They can look for the names of schools you attended, things like that.

Now, based on the information that the system picks up, it will then score and rank the candidates so that the recruiter can then go into the system, open up, you know, a particular job opening, and they'll see, you know, maybe the 200 applications that they've received for that job, but they're scored and ranked, and they can look at, you know, the top 25, the top 50, however many resumes they want to look at.

NEARY: So why do they need to do this? I mean, how many applicants are these companies getting?

WEBER: A lot.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WEBER: Even relatively small companies that I spoke to that, you know, post a job on Monster, they might get 400 resumes for a single opening. And I spoke to Starbucks, and they get 7.6 million job applications every year for about 65,000 openings. So as you can see, the numbers are enormous, and it's because of how technology has changed job searching. People now can go to the big job boards, like CareerBuilder or Monster, find thousands of listings, or they can go directly to a company's website. Often, the company has its own careers page, and people can apply through that.

NEARY: Yeah. Now, you mentioned that there are some keywords, for instance, that they would look for. What - do you know what they are, like what are some of these keywords?

WEBER: Well, they're not standardized for every job. You know, it depends on the job that you're looking for. So if you're applying to be a sales manager, the system is going to look for words like sales and manage. If you're applying to be a statistician, it will have that word, although one expert I spoke to said there's a good chance that if you call yourself a numerical modeler on your resume, it is not going to pick that up even if that is basically being a statistician.

So, you know, the system - the point that was made to me over and over again are that the systems are only as good as the people who programmed them. So a company needs to do a very good job of making the keywords that they enter narrow enough to make the recruiters' job easier but also broad enough to capture the qualified candidates.

NEARY: So does it sometimes miss qualified candidates?

WEBER: I'm sure it does. And all the H.R. people and recruiters I spoke to said that, you know, they're sure that they do as well. It's because, you know, people who were trained on how to write a resume may be 10 years ago. We're often told to use creative descriptions, use active verbs. You know, they were told to kind of stand out in that way with the assumption that a human being was going to be the first - yeah - the frontline of looking at your resume. They weren't trained to write a resume that a machine was going to be looking at first.

And so, you know, unless you sort of game the system to a certain extend by basically mimicking the job descriptions very closely. And then there are few other things that you might be able to do to, sort of, increase your chances of getting through the machine. You know, there are a lot of people who are probably getting kicked out of these systems who are very qualified.

I mean, I spoke to a number of job seekers who said, I don't even know if these jobs exists, you know, where they spend an hour, really, customizing their resume for a job, and then they never hear a word back. And they, you know, feel that they were a perfect candidate for it.

NEARY: We're talking with Lauren Weber of The Wall Street Journal about resumes and software that can send your resumes straight into a black hole from which it will never return. And we're wondering, what people have done to get around this kind of thing, what they've done to get noticed by employers, knowing that there are so many people out there looking for jobs. So give us a call. We're at 800-989-8255, if you would like to join the conversation.

I'm wondering, you mentioned in an article you wrote about this, Lauren, that even the order of the words or the order in which you put down information can have an affect on whether it gets bumped out or whether they'll take a look at it.

WEBER: Yeah. Again, it really depends on how the system has been programmed. One expert I spoke to said, sometimes these systems are just too stupid to catch everything. In other words, if they have been programmed to only look for a certain order of things, like first you name the company, then you have the years that you work there, and then you have your title. If it's not programmed broadly enough to be able to pull out that information, no matter where it is on the resume or how it's presented or formatted, then, you know, again, you might be end up in the black hole or end at the bottom of the ranking system.

And so some of the advice that people gave was, you know, make your formatting as simple as possible, as clean as possible. You don't want to get cute with graphics or anything like that could confuse the system.

NEARY: Now, we've been asking people to call in and tell us what they have done to get noticed, or how they've gotten a company to give an interview, for instance. Again, you can call 800-989-8255. But we have an email here from Daniel(ph) in Georgia, who says: I use words from the job description and requirement. So he goes to the job description and deliberately takes out words that he sees there, figuring that that would, you know, that would work with this.

WEBER: Yeah. That is really the trick. I mean, unfortunately, again, you just want to not try to be creative at all. You want to mimic the job description pretty closely. But actually, the key words that can work might even go beyond that. For instance, if a company has a very strong culture, let's say it's a company with a professed commitment to environmental values or something like that, that might not be part of the job description for what you're applying for, but it might - they might have programmed key words like...

NEARY: I care about the environment?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WEBER: ...yeah, or natural resources or something like that into the system. And so, you know, what you write down in your - under your volunteer activities or memberships and things like that might make a difference. You know, want to - you do want to try to get a sense of what the company culture is and try to customize your resume to a certain extend to fit that company. I mean, not every company will do that. You don't know - many people don't even realize that these programs and systems exists, so, you know, but you can try to still make it clear to the company that you are a good fit, not just for the job, but for the entire company.

NEARY: OK. Let's go to Kenneth, who is calling from Houston, Texas. Hi, Kenneth.

KENNETH: Hi there.

NEARY: Go ahead.

KENNETH: Well, what I found - I was out of work for about two and a half years, partly by my own doing. I chose to leave a very good job right about October of 2008, which was a really bad decision, looking back. And then I had a really kind of lengthy, wordy resume. I had sort of a varied background, and I just did not get hit. I couldn't get any hits. And suddenly, one day, I just said, you know what? I'm going to sit down. I'm going to simplify this. I'm going to really trim on it. And I sent it out to a job listing, and I got a call that, and I've been working at that job now for two years. So my advice is to keep it simple.

NEARY: That's interesting. Would that - I mean, Lauren, would that help with the systems that are in place if it is a simpler resume?

WEBER: Absolutely. You know, again, like I said, it's not just about the words themselves. It's also about the formatting, just very streamline and simple. And I also want to make the point that there - this is, you know, this is not companies trying to keep people out of their program or trying not to find good people. Part of the problem here is that HR staffs have been cut a lot in this recession. You know, a company that makes microchips can cut its number of recruiters down from 100 to 80 without really hurting the core business. So what's happened is that these recruiters are squeezed from both ends, and they are both being inundated with resumes because of technology making it so easy to apply. And on the other hand, there's fewer of them to try to go through them. So, you know, I want to say there are very valid reasons why companies are using these.

NEARY: Well, thanks for your call, Kenneth.

KENNETH: Thank you. Have a great day.

NEARY: Yeah. But, Lauren, is there a way for people to get human contact without going through this resume process? I mean, ultimately, it seems like you really have to have a face-to-face in order to get a job. Do you have to go through the resume - putting the resume into the system?

WEBER: Different companies have different policies. I mean, you know, every one will tell you the number way to get a job is through an employee referral. You really do want that personal touch if you know somebody at a company and they can put you in touch directly with a recruiter. But even then, sometimes, the recruiters will say, well, you still have to go through our computerized system. Because not only do these systems get used for weeding out applicants, they're also used to, basically, track you through the interview process if you get in and then also through the hiring process. So if you do get hired, these system will make sure that you filled out your tax forms and things like that. So they really want you inside their computer database.

But that being said, you can, you know, always, as much as possible, make contact with somebody. Use your social networks, use LinkedIn, use whatever. And then even if they direct you to their website, often there'll be a spot when you're on the online application that will say, are you in - are you referred by an employee? And there you can put in that you are. And some companies, more and more, are actually, sort of, fast-tracking employee referrals.

NEARY: My guest is Lauren Weber of The Wall Street Journal. And you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. All right. We're going to go to Ken, calling from Holland, Michigan. Hi, Ken.

KEN: Hi. How are you?

NEARY: Good. Thanks.

KEN: Great. Hey, I just want to let you know, I was unemployed for 11 months. I did the resumes electronically. I was aware that the key words were being scanned, so I tried to be cognizant of that. But seriously, it came down to the fact that my wife and I actually knew somebody that work at a different branch of that corporation. A quick phone call to him. He sent an email off. And within two days, I had a phone call asking for the interview and, of which, I did get the job.

NEARY: Yeah. Well, there you go. Exactly what Lauren was just saying, that - right, you just said that, Lauren, that that's the way to get a job, ultimately, is knowing somebody.

Exactly.

KEN: It's not what you know. It's who you know.

NEARY: It's now what you know. It's who you know. And also - thanks so much for calling, Ken. And also, Lauren, I was wondering, you know, if you do know somebody at a company, you put that reference down on the resume, will the software pick that up?

WEBER: Yeah. Different companies do this differently and - but many firms that I've spoken to are really trying to increase the number of employee referrals that they get. So they're especially interested in those candidates. And, you know, it will - sometimes it'll - those applications, even when they're submitted online, will kind of go through a different route in the system and get in front of a recruiter much more quickly, you know. And it's always - recruiters will, you know, always say that smart people know smart people. Good people know good people. They'll always pay more attention to somebody who came in through an employee.

NEARY: All right. Let's take a call from Brennan. And Brennan is calling from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Hi, Brennan.

BRENNAN: Hi. How are you?

NEARY: Good. Thanks.

BRENNAN: I'm a first time caller. I just want to share a little trick that I use for applications that's worked a couple of times for me. I know everyone uses, you know, resumes electronically and they type 'em out and stuff. But for jobs that you have to actually write in the applications and, you know, send it in handwritten, I'll actually take the paper and then scan it into my computer. And then on my computer, I'll actually type into the spaces in a different color in a very clean font, and usually that stands out more than the handwritten one, and they'll read those first. It's worked a couple of time for me, like I said, so.

NEARY: Good idea. Is that a good idea, Lauren?

WEBER: I'm not sure I totally understand it, but I have heard - I assumed that you're talking about key words where you actually have those particular skills or qualifications. I've heard about certain tricks where people will put on a resume key words, but then they'll put them in white font so that it doesn't show up when a recruiter clicks on that resume in their system. However, recruiters are getting more and more smart about the ways that people are trying to - about the tricks that people are trying to pull. And so if the system is telling them, well, this person said they had X, Y and Z key words, and the recruiters doesn't see those, they can highlight the whole resume. And if you're written something in white text, it will come out that way. And that is a terrible way to find a job, and a very good way to burn a bridge, so, you know, I don't recommend that. And all the experts I spoke to do not recommend that. It can be a really bad idea.

NEARY: All right. Thanks for your call.

BRENNAN: Thank you.

NEARY: All right. Here's a question from Julie in St. Louis: I'm wondering what this offer means for the cover letter. Traditionally, I've thought of them as my best choice - chance of standing out. Are they now obsolete?

WEBER: I think fewer and fewer companies are looking for cover letters. You know, it always depends on what jobs you're talking about. If you're applying to be a sales associate at a Wal-Mart or a Target, you're not going to need a cover letter to apply through their website. If you're applying for a higher-skilled job where that still makes a difference, whether you're applying online or, you know, coming - they want you to come in for an interview and you can bring in a cover letter and a resume that way, or you get the name of somebody and can send them a cover letter. You know, there it's still really does matter.

NEARY: All right. Let's take a call from Angela in San Antonio, Texas. Hi, Angela.

ANGELA: Hi.

NEARY: Go ahead.

ANGELA: I'm just calling from an employer's perspective. We use a recruiting firm. And a couple of times in the last two years, we've hired people that we never got their resumes from the recruiting firm. They were just, as I would call them, squeaky wheels. They just kept calling me and calling me and calling me until they drove me crazy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ANGELA: And I called them back, annoyed, to make them stop calling me, and we ended up hiring them.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NEARY: That's funny. So persistence actually does work. Is that what you're telling us?

ANGELA: I, honestly, am starting to think it does, you know. Before we started doing the recruiting firm, I didn't believe that. But now, I'm starting to see that we are missing some very quality people that aren't getting through that recruiting process, and I'm actually quite glad that they were persistent.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for calling, Angela. You know, Lauren, I'm thinking, listening to Angela and the question about the cover letter, it seems to me you really still have to do pretty much everything, right? You want to game the system of software, but maybe you still want to do some of the old fashion stuff, persistence and cover letters and everything else too.

WEBER: Mm-hmm. Yes. And it's really important to know that the - even though online job search techniques have become so prominent and everybody uses them, and companies use them for recruiting, offline jobs search techniques are still really important. It's the networking. It's, you know, those persistent people who made all those phone calls. Very few people want to do that because nobody wants to be seen as a pest. But clearly, it can work.

NEARY: All right. Well, Lauren, thanks so much for being with us.

WEBER: Thanks for having me.

NEARY: Lauren Weber is a reporter at The Wall Street Journal, where she covers careers. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

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