How to Beat Applicant Tracking Systems: Q&A With Lynne Williams

Lynne Williams Q&A
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Overview

Get Your Resume Past the ATS

We’re all familiar with applicant tracking systems — also known as ATS — by now. Hiring companies use ATS are to store, scan, and rank job applications for open positions. Initially designed for international mega-corporations’ recruiting systems, ATS are now used widely by companies of every sizes.

Defenders of ATS say that the systems save them time and false hires. Job seekers, meanwhile, often perceive ATS as being rigged against them.

ATS are better at eliminating unqualified candidates than at identifying the best applicants. The trick to getting your resume past them and in front of a human hiring manager lies largely in formatting – not, as is widely believed, in optimizing resumes for specific keywords.

We think a lot at Lensa about how to help job seekers find the best matching positions available. So we were excited to talk with ATS expert Lynne Williams.

Lynne told us how to crack the code of ATS everywhere. Believe it or not, the answer involves Arial font size 11.

Q&A With Lynne WIlliams

In this Lensa Q&A session ATS expert Lynne Williams shares her top 3 resume tips for beating ATS. She also talks about why your application might be rejected, why you need to have more than one resume, and much more.

Who is Lynne Williams?

Lynne is an expert on ATS resumes, LinkedIn for job seekers, reinventions, and career pivots. A career education leader and lifelong learner with a diverse background, Lynne helps job seekers through her nonprofit Great Careers Philadelphia (among many other places).

LENSA:Lynne Williams, why don’t you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about how you became an expert on applicant tracking systems.

Lynne: Sure. My name is Lynne Williams. I live in the suburbs of Philadelphia. And when I was a job seeker back in 2013, I was not getting any interviews. And after seven and a half months, I was scratching my head a little bit and figured that my problem was with the applicant tracking system. So I started doing a lot of research and then I wrote about it. I did presentations on it. And that actually led to an article for the Association of Talent Development, which led to a chapter in a book two years later with 15 other career coaches from around the country. And Dick Bolles wrote the foreword. He’s the author of What Color is Your Parachute? So that was eye opening when I learned all this research and put it together.

Misunderstandings about how ATS work

LENSA: Are there fundamental misunderstandings that job seekers have about why their application is being rejected?

Lynne: Absolutely. A lot of people think that they can have a highly formatted, very graphically, beautifully designed resume. And that doesn’t necessarily work going through an applicant tracking system. You want a bare-bones-type resume, which is black and white. You don’t want any section breaks and what-not, interrupting the bot, reading your resume. So I would definitely make sure that you deconstruct your highly formatted resume for human beings so that it can be read by bots.

You don’t want any section breaks and what-not, interrupting the bot, reading your resume. So I would definitely make sure that you deconstruct your highly formatted resume for human beings so that it can be read by bots.

Beating the ATS

LENSA:What are your top three tips for beating an applicant tracking system?
Lynne:
Well, number one is you don’t want the highly formatted resume. When I deconstruct a resume, I take it down to bare bones, just straight typing in Arial 12-point font. I do put black bullet points in, but that’s about it. There’s no nothing else. It’s pretty vanilla, so to speak. Also, you want to weave keywords in. You want to take the time to customize each of the resumes so that you’re not using one-resume-size-fits-all, so everybody should have a base pretty resume for human beings and a deconstructed resume for the bots. And then you would tweak each of those for each job that you apply for.

You want to take the time to customize each of the resumes so that you’re not using one-resume-size-fits-all, so everybody should have a base pretty resume for human beings and a deconstructed resume for the bots. And then you would tweak each of those for each job that you apply for.

LENSA: You’re saying I need more than one resume?

Lynne: Absolutely. You’re going to actually have two resumes per job that you are going to use to apply to the applicant tracking system. As I said, the pretty one for humans and it may have a little pop of color or some shading or bands or something on it, but you have to take all that stuff out so that it’s bare bones and just Arial 12-point font for that deconstructed resume. And you do have to move a couple of sections around and retain some of the sections. So it is standardized for applicant tracking systems, but there really are over 200 applicant tracking systems that exist and no one can possibly know how each one of them works. So I just subscribe to best practices.

LENSA: Walk us through the logistics of how those two resumes are paired. One is for the applicant tracking system and the others for a human being to see. How do I make sure that the one for the human being gets to a human being?

How to Get Your Resume to a Human Being

Lynne: It could be emailed separately. Or a lot of times at the end of an online application you are asked, ‘Do you want to attach a resume?’ If so, that’s the pretty resume. ‘Do you want to include a cover letter? Do you need to include any certifications or clearances?’

That’s the time at the end of the application, if it asks for it, that you can put that pretty resume up there. So there’s two words you need to be cognizant of: upload and attach. Upload is a very good indication that an applicant tracking system is involved.

Mobile view of LinkedIn during a job search.

LENSA: Sometimes when you’re applying, you’ll have the option to type in your resume manually and you can also upload. Is there a difference? Is one of those options going to go to the ATS?

Lynne: I’m a fangirl of uploading and making sure that within literally a nanosecond that resume is read by the bots. Now, you may have to make a few tweaks on it.

I’ll give you an example. My daughter applied to a company and she had to make three tweaks on her ATS resume. One was that it didn’t put commas between the city and the states, but that’s because the bot wants to put the city in the city field and the state in the state field.

A woman on the computer during her job search.

Then it put her volunteer experience into her work experience. And then there was another issue. She had her accomplishments with her bullet points right underneath, starting under her job title. Well, the ATS system that she used wanted to make that first bullet point, that little introductory sentence, whether it was about the company or her job.

So instead she turned around and just put a bullet point back in. But other than that, it was just lickety-split. It was just read by the bots because it was formatted properly.

So instead she turned around and just put a bullet point back in. But other than that, it was just lickety-split. It was just read by the bots because it was formatted properly.

LENSA: Does it make sense to try to make your resume stand out either to the ATS or to the human being that you’re sending to? Or are you trying to just optimize it so that it gets seen at all?

Lynne: Well, you do want to optimize your resume so that it does make it through because you’ve got recruiters or hiring managers or HR departments who could be operating a couple different ways.

One way I’ve heard is that they let every single resume go through. Another way that I’ve heard is that sometimes HR professionals might put parameters on the system. So let’s say 1,200 people applied to a job and it was just too much – they don’t want to look at 1,200 resumes – so they have to have these parameters on so that they look at less resumes that are more relevant.

There’s something called contextualization, where not only the keyword is read, but the words before it and afterwards. In other words, the bot reads entire phrases. So you want to make sure that you’ve got that match between the job description and your resumé so that it will score higher on the applicant tracking system.

Contextualization is when it goes through a parser gives you that mathematical score that you match 80%, 92%, 98%, etc. So you don’t want to cheat the system. I’ve heard people wanting to take the bottom of their resume and include the job description in a one point font that is put at the very bottom and they make it white.

Well, guess what color comes out on the other end? It comes out black. I don’t think that shows a lot of integrity. You don’t want to cheat the system that way, but you do want to make sure that you have half a shot of getting seen.

The best thing you should do? You should be networking your way to your next job. Make networking a habit. That is my best advice, because you’ve heard that 80% of jobs are found through networking.

So do that networking part first so that when you’re asked to upload the resume through an ATS that at least you know how to get it through and that it makes sense with your resume matching the job description somewhat.

The best thing you should do? You should be networking your way to your next job. Make networking a habit. That is my best advice, because you’ve heard that 80% of jobs are found through networking.

Other Ways to Stand Out than Beating the ATS

LENSA: Are there other things that job seekers should be doing to increase their chances of getting a job aside from optimizing their resumes for the ATS?

Lynne: That would be the networking. It’s a little tough in person now. There are so many groups that have networking available online. And one example is the Great Careers group BENG, which is the 501(C)3 non-profit I represent. We have career education and networking and we run up to 50 events per month.

There’s something almost every day. And sometimes several things a day where you can come and learn and network and meet people. We have people from not only around the country, but we actually have some international members and you never know who knows who. We’ve even had people outside of our local area land jobs due to referrals, which is wonderful.

So keep on networking, even online. And Clubhouse is a pretty cool place to talk to network also. I run a Clubhouse every Friday from 11 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.

There’s something almost every day. And sometimes several things a day where you can come and learn and network and meet people. We have people from not only around the country, but we actually have some international members and you never know who knows who. We’ve even had people outside of our local area land jobs due to referrals, which is wonderful.

Where to Find Lynne

LENSA: Where else can people find you?

Lynne: The best place is our website, which is GreatCareersPHL.org. We are a non-profit. When you go to that website, there’s three pages that I’m going to really point out to take a look at.

One is our events page and that has all the links on it to register for our events or for affiliate events. Then you go to the membership page because not everything we do is free. We’re non-profit only we don’t get funding from anywhere. All of our members pay 4-5 bucks a month, which is a total of $49-$59 a year, so we can help sustain ourselves and keep paying it forward. So 4 bucks a month for up to 100 hours worth of programming ain’t too bad.

The other thing is go to our Contact Us page because that has all the links to our social media. You can subscribe to our newsletter and our Meetup group, which has over 5,100 members. But we also have other members that are above and beyond that on a totally different platform.

We use Salesforce to register and a lot of times people don’t realize that they get an auto-reply from Salesforce when they register on our Bitly links and it goes into their spam or promotions folder. So if they search the word BRONZE or BENG, depending on what level they are, they will find that auto reply. But the best thing to do is to double up and also join the Meetup, because I do put the Zoom links on the Meetup.

However, the official registration to be let into the Meetup is via the Bitly link, and that’s where you get the choice of registering as a member or you have to pay a whopping five dollar non-member fee.

If you want to attend more than one event a month, we provide great value. We have amazing speakers. So it’s always good to just be a member.

All of our members pay 4-5 bucks a month, which is a total of $49-$59 a year, so we can help sustain ourselves and keep paying it forward. So 4 bucks a month for up to 100 hours worth of programming ain’t too bad.

LENSA: Sounds like a meaningful investment also just for the network benefits that you mentioned.

Lynne: Absolutely. We are an amazing community. We have people who believe in paying it forward and members helping members. But our main tagline is ‘Your career, our mission.’

We are here to help you learn and grow and learn how to develop your LinkedIn profile, resume tips, networking tips, ATS tips, etc. But we do publicize events for our affiliates, especially if I’m the speaker.

I hope you’ll come and join us online to our amazing community.

We are an amazing community. We have people who believe in paying it forward and members helping members.

LENSA: It’s been a pleasure talking with you, Lynne Williams, and thanks so much for being on Lensa Q&A. We hope to have you back sometime soon.

Lynne: Thanks for having me.

Lynne Williams
Lynne Williams
ATS expert Lynne Williams

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