Dear Annie: What exactly is an applicant tracking system? I’ve applied for several job openings where my qualifications match the job descriptions for each position precisely, yet I’ve gotten called in for an interview only once (so far). A colleague at my current job told me he read somewhere that computerized applicant tracking systems reject most resumes before a human being even gets involved in the process. Is that true? If it is, how do you get past that and reach an actual person? — Left Hanging in Houston

Dear L.H.H.: An applicant tracking system (ATS), as the name implies, is how many big companies keep track of the hundreds or thousands of resumes that are constantly coming in. Designed to follow each candidate through each stage of the hiring process, from application to start date, the systems usually begin with computer software that “reads” each resume and weeds out the ones that don’t match up with specific job openings.

Unfortunately, that’s usually a lot less efficient than it sounds. That 75% rejection rate your friend cited probably came from a study by a job search services firm called Preptel (which was founded by its CEO Jon Ciampi, an alumnus of ATS maker SumTotal Systems).

The huge number of rejections is due to some, shall we say, quirks in the software that screens resumes before they arrive on a hiring manager’s desk. You could be the perfect prospect for a given job, using all the right keywords, and still be kicked aside by the system because it couldn’t quite make out parts of your resume — like work experience, for instance.

Here are four ways that Preptel suggests to avoid:

  • Go ahead and make your resume longer than the standard one page, if you have lots of experience. ATS software will scan it no matter how long it is. A 3-page document, for instance, may allow you to include more relevant keywords and phrases, which could move up your ranking in the system.

 

  • Call your work experience “Work Experience.” Using less common headings, like “Professional Accomplishments,” may mean that section doesn’t appear at all in the formatted version of your resume created by the software. Likewise, never start each mention of a past (or current) job with dates of employment. The system looks for company names, so put them first, then the dates.

 

  • Don’t include tables or graphics, because most tracking systems can’t read them. Likewise, don’t use italics, although boldface type is usually fine, and stick with clear, easy-to-read typefaces. Preptel recommends Arial, Tahoma, Calibri, Georgia, Impact, Courier, Lucinda or Palatino.

 

  • Never send a resume as a PDF. Since many systems lack a standard way to structure them, they’re often garbled. The same is true of resumes that are pasted into the body of an email. As ATS software gets more sophisticated, some of these limitations will go away. Most systems are already much better at reading Word documents than they used to be, for example, so Preptel now recommends uploading your resume as a Word attachment.

 

Once you get through the digital winnowing stage, your resume matters a lot less. “At that point, forget about keywords and focus on how you’re perceived on social media sites, including your own web site if you have one,” says Miranda Nash, president of online recruiting platform Jobscience. “You want to make sure you’re conveying a consistent personal image online that reinforces your expertise in your field.”

How, exactly? “Publish some of your best work on SlideShare and include that in your LinkedIn profile, for example,” Nash says. “Expand your presentation of your work, using a medium beyond your resume.” One of Jobscience’s clients is Cirque du Soleil, “so a resume is pretty useless,” she notes. “Most applicants submit videos instead, which is getting more common in other fields too.”

Nash also recommends “stepping into the interviewer’s shoes and doing some research from their point of view. News about the company, announcements they’ve made recently, what their competitors are doing — knowing these things will help you stand out from other applicants with the people who are making notes on your ATS file.”

Good luck.

Talkback: If you’ve wowed a (human) job interviewer lately, how did you do it? Leave a comment below.