Almost every job seeker can recite the cardinal rules of résumé writing: Keep it to a single page; keep the formatting clean and simple; emphasize your accomplishments; list jobs in reverse chronological order. But given that a résumé's first – and potentially only – reader may be a computer rather than a human being, perhaps it makes sense to add a new rule to that list: Consider the preferences of algorithms.
So just what is that computer doing with your résumé after you submit it online? With job postings these days frequently netting more than 1,000 applicants, it's not surprising that many employers have turned to specialized software to wrangle the lot and make them searchable. Such applicant tracking system (ATS) programs slice up résumés submitted as Word documents or PDFs into component sections: contact information, work history, skills.
Human resources staff then apply filters and key word searches to pull up résumés to match their highly specific criteria. In the latest versions, the searches are semantic, meaning that they can make sophisticated connections between the information on the page (for instance, they can distinguish whether you worked at the Java Hut coffee shop or are a java programmer). They're also becoming highly customizable.
"Literally anything is searchable," said Susan Vitale, chief marketing officer for ATS manufacturer iCIMS, based in Matawan, New Jersey. "You can create a field called 'mother's maiden name.' You can search for candidates who graduated in the past three years, had a 3.5 GPS or better, and went to one of six schools."
Often HR managers maintain saved searches for hard-to-fill positions to alert them if anyone matches the criteria, or for candidates who have the names of competitor firms on their résumés. A common search value is proximity to a location, so Ms. Vitale recommends including a postal code on your résumé.
Not surprisingly, one of the top pieces of advice for writing a search-term-friendly electronic résumé is to make sure to include the right keywords, including acronyms and abbreviations (CRM alongside customer relationship management, for instance) and variations on job titles (documentation specialist alongside technical writer).
Most experts suggest the best place to start is with the job postings themselves. "Look at job postings for roles you want. Read the way they write job descriptions and you'll see that there are recurring terms. If you use those terms in your résumé, you're more likely to come up in their searches," said Peter Harris, chief editor of job website Workopolis.com.
Pamela Paterson, a résumé coach and author of Get the Job: Optimize Your Resume for the Online Job Search, points to the company's mission and value statements as further sources of insight.
While you don't want to overload your résumé with keywords, it is also a mistake to include too few keywords.
"I helped a lady recently who wanted to work as risk analyst in a bank," Ms. Paterson recalled. "She had an MBA, a background in accounting, she was fully qualified for the job. I did a quick keyword search of the word 'risk' in the job posting, and it showed up 17 times. Then I went to her résumé, and it showed up once, on the second page. That would never get through," she said.
Besides including the right keywords, simplifying your formatting is another important precaution. A recent Bersin by Deloitte study notes that 34 per cent of companies use ATS systems that are four to six years old. That means that the graphics, tables, and headers or footers that you use to dress up your résumé might be working against you when the ATS parses your text into the wrong fields.
"Don't do PDFs, don't get fancy, use standard headlines, keep your contact information in the résumé, not the header, put breaks between different kinds of information," advises Hawley Kane, a project manager at Ottawa-based ATS manufacturer Halogen Software, who admits to previously including all the bells and whistles herself. Another tip is not to put your name in all caps at the top of your résumé, as your name is often imported to various places and looks odd in an e-mail merge.
Since today's smarter semantic search engines strongly link experience with dates to call out candidates with the most current experience, if you've been with one company for a long time, Ms. Kane recommends treating each role as a new position with its own dates.
Job seekers should also keep in mind that the whole recruiting process is undergoing a fundamental shift. Many HR managers are using social media to connect with candidates for current or even future positions, so your LinkedIn profile should closely mirror your résumé.
"A lot of recruiters give more weight to LinkedIn today because you're less likely to exaggerate your skills because it's public and your colleagues will call you out," Ms. Kane said.