Earlier this month, I briefly referenced the topic of applicant tracking systems (ATS) in another post, but I thought it merited further exploration, especially since I keep reading conflicting opinions as to who is using or not using it, how they’re using it, why or whether job seekers should be concerned, and so on. In our technology-driven age, it’s hard to know if there’s any single “right” answer to these kinds of situations, but hiding your head in the sand and hoping it will all go away is probably not the solution.
What is an Applicant Tracking System–What Does It Do?
Basically, as I understand it, an ATS is used by companies to manage all their job openings and screen the resumes that come in, so they only have to really look at a select few compared to the total number received. One way the system helps them do this is by searching for keyword or keyword phrases of particular interest. Okay, you’re probably familiar with the concept of keywords; it’s been around a long time now. In fact, those of us who write resumes for you make an effort to identify and use all the keywords and phrases that seem to be relevant to your experience and that appear to match some or all of the qualifications your target employers are seeking.
However, according to an article by Meridith Levinson, called “5 Insider Secrets for Beating Applicant Tracking Systems” (quoting from an interview with Jon Ciampi, CEO of Preptel), “what matters most to applicant tracking systems is the uniqueness or ‘rarity’ of the keyword or the keyword phrase….That is, the keywords and phrases must be specific to a particular job ad.” Farther on in the same article, Levinson notes that what shows up to recruiters when they see your “resume” isn’t much like the way your original submission looked. That’s because an ATS pulls data from resumes into a database according to pre-set instructions and apparently can make any number of mistakes along the way. Comforting to you as a job seeker? Not much!
Chances of “Gaming” the Applicant Tracking Systems
Can you “game” an ATS? I’m not sure I know the answer to that one, but I suspect two things: (1) it wouldn’t be easy, if possible; (2) someone (maybe a lot of someones) has probably already tried or will try soon. What most of the careers experts I know recommend is that you still aim to incorporate into your resume the keywords and phrases most likely to be of interest to the employers you’re targeting. (If you can access inside information on what those might be, more power to you!) Some say you should avoid using specialized format items such as tables and graphics because applicant tracking systems don’t read them well and will overlook or mess up your carefully formatted information.
Of course, it would almost certainly be best if you can find a way to circumvent all applicant tracking systems by going directly to the hiring manager–or, at the very least, someone who has a direct pipeline to him or her and can move your resume to the desired person without going through a tracking system. Just don’t expect the companies to make it easy for you to do that!
Let’s be clear up-front about this. I do not mean you should write a cover letter that makes the hiring manager or other reader leap up from his/her chair and keel over from shock! Getting employers’ attention is critical, but it needs to be the right kind of attention. In other words, it has to generate the type of response you need—most importantly, a phone call that can lead to an interview. Always, always keep that goal in mind when writing and sending cover letters to potential employers.
What Works in Cover Letters and What Doesn’t
What works? Maybe there’s no magic bullet you can shoot and hit the target with your cover letter every time, but much of what works comes from what ought to be common sense (but isn’t as common as it should be). Here are just a few cover letter tips to consider:
- Focus on the company. It’s not all about you. Yes, you’re the one sending the letter and hoping to land a job interview; but it’s the employer who will be reading the letter and looking for potential value for his/her company. Unless you engage what I call the “enlightened self-interest” of the employer, your submission can quickly become history—without ever gaining an interview.
- Go beyond the generic, feel-good-but-insubstantial approach. If the cover letter sounds like a blanket approach to your job search (something you are probably sending to multiple companies), it will almost certainly go unread. Cover letters are the perfect opportunity to customize your submissions and help you “come alive” to employers; don’t waste that opportunity!
- Pair genuine enthusiasm with knowledge about the company and what it does. It’s important for the company to know you really want to work for it (avoiding the “I just want a job, any job” mentality). In order to write an effective cover letter, you have to know and be able to communicate why you particularly want to work for that company—and why they should care.
What doesn’t work? In a way, it’s kind of the flip side of the tips mentioned above, but other issues can hurt your chances as well.
- A long-winded, essentially boring cover letter can easily torpedo your chances. Busy hiring managers or HR staffers most likely won’t even bother to look at it. If you were in their place, you probably wouldn’t either!
- Straight repetition of information from your resume doesn’t lead to a strong cover letter. It’s not that you can never reference items from the resume, but it needs to be done in a way that clearly adds value—makes points for you in the reader’s mind.
- Some people don’t read cover letters. Period. You’re not going to know that ahead of time, though, so don’t make the assumption that your letter won’t get read and decide (a) not to bother with a cover letter at all or (b) throw together something quickly, just to get the resume out the door. Give the letter your best shot; otherwise, you might as well forget it. If you can’t create a compelling cover letter, you can pretty much count on having it ignored.
If a company requests a cover letter, you should definitely send one—and make it a great one! But even if they don’t ask, you can still send the letter. For any job you’re strongly interested in, the cover letter represents one more chance for you to get the kind of attention you’re after. Take advantage of that opportunity!
Nick Corcadillos, of Ask the Headhunter, offers advice and opinions that are sometimes controversial, but it appears that when people follow his recommendations, they experience a high level of success. One of his most recent articles was titled “Employer Fined for Stupid Recruiting.” It had to do with a company in New Jersey that was fined under a new state law for placing a service manager ad that said, “’Must be currently employed’ because the company wanted someone ‘at the top of their game and not people who have been unemployed for 18 months.’” Corcadillos also noted that the company’s CEO had spent three years searching through resumes to try to fill the position, which means that all that time they didn’t have someone doing the job. Crazy, right?
I’ve heard from a few resume writing clients about ads stipulating that job applicants must be currently employed, and it struck me as not only short-sighted but also discriminatory. If you experience this, do you have any options? Apparently, it’s not yet against the law in any state except New Jersey, so your legal options are probably non-existent unless the company has actually violated a law that is on the books. You might not even want to work for a company that has that kind of “stupid” employment policy, but if you do, you probably need to adopt a more creative approach than just responding to their job posting by submitting your resume. In other words, find a way to get in touch with an influencer inside the company, preferably the hiring manager or someone who has a connection to him/her.
You are not less valuable if you’re currently unemployed. The trick is to demonstrate that to potential employers and generate enough interest to get them to call you for a possible job interview.