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June 17, 2014 at 1:00 AM

5 easy hacks to beat applicant tracking systems

Anyone who has applied for a job online has probably run into the brick wall of the applicant tracking system, also known as the “resume black hole.” Often, this impersonal ATS portal is the only interaction between the job seeker and the prospective employer other than a terse auto-reply email acknowledging receipt — followed by a deafening silence.

The ATS may seem like a sadistic indignity that job seekers must endure in a sour economy, but it’s there for a reason: To make it easier for hiring managers to instantly weed out the multitudes of unqualified, ill-informed and/or careless applicants who otherwise would clog their inboxes with cookie-cutter resumes.

Fortunately, if you have tailored your resume to the specific needs of the position, you can “hack” an ATS system to make your experience stand out once you know how the systems work.

Obey the standard format. The name of the game with ATS is conformity. Use a simple font, save it as a Rich Text or MS Word doc and lose the fancy graphics. In general, use standard headings, such as “Education,” “Work Experience” and “Skills.” Also, most systems are programmed to read work experience in the order of company name, followed by title and dates of employment. So make sure you don’t place the dates ahead of the company name.

Put keywords in context. It’s a well-known tactic to look for keywords in a job description and sprinkle them through the resume. In recent years, however, more-sophisticated ATS technology factors in context along with keywords. Add other descriptive terms about how your skills were honed every day to demonstrate that you’ve progressed with new developments.

Don’t limit yourself. The standard one- to two-page limit on resumes does not apply with the ATS. The more descriptive you can be about your accomplishments for previous employers, the greater your chance the ATS will find useful context for your keywords.

Avoid acronyms. While CPA, OEM and MBA may be standard acronyms in your field, an ATS usually looks for whole terms, so be sure to spell everything out.

Skip the ATS altogether. Sometimes it’s best to be like Captain Kirk in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” and refuse to play by the rules. ATSs are designed to help HR and recruiters, not you. If you’re honestly certain that you’re a perfect fit, fall back on your LinkedIn network and try to find a connection to a hiring manager. A credible recommendation from an actual human being will trump a boatload of well-chosen keywords any day.

Randy Woods is a writer and editor in the Puget Sound business publishing arena and a veteran of the local job-search scene. Email him at

More in Work Life Blog | Topics: HR, recruiting, resumes, skills

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Blog contributors

Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.

Randy Woods Writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.

Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.

Former contributors

Kristen Fife is a senior recruiter, career mentor, blogger and resume consultant.

Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."

Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.

Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.


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