Executive Resumes, Personal Branding & Executive Job Search

The Resume Writer's Dilemma That Can Sink Your Job Chances

Posted by Tyrone Norwood

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Mar 25, 2014 9:00:00 AM


Image attribution: Butchbellah.com

Resume writers have to come to terms with a new reality.

ATS - Applicant Tracking Systems - are now so ubiquitous that job seekers have to assume their resume will be processed electronically. Wendy Enelow and Louise Kursmark, in their recent Webinar on ATS and resumes, cited the statistic that more than 90% of resumes will be processed this way.

Back in 2011 (when I wrote the blog post I'm quoting, with a few changes, below) I recommended that applicants write both a highly formatted resume meant for human eyes and an ASCII resume (saved as a .txt file) in case the company used ATS. But my thinking now, along with Louise, is that applicants should have only one resume - an ATS-compliant one - and skip the highly formatted one.

It is a dilemma for resume writers and job seekers alike. We like the resume that has been formatted for visual effect with color, tables, graphs, and other visuals! We want it to be easily scanned visually in 6 seconds! Because resumes are, like it or not, a representation of who we are.

And wouldn't we rather go out into the world with awesome clothes on (whatever that looks like to each of us) than a black and white uniform? Fortunately there are a few newer ways that resumes can look more distinctive even with ATS-mandated restrictions. This is due to the advances in the ATS technology. We can assume that the day will swing around again when we can dress up the resume. But for now...here is what I recommend:

1. Create your resume according to the ATS-compliant standards below

2. Submit it and it alone - online, in person, all the time

The reason I am not suggesting that you use a highly formatted one when you present it in person is that, though the resume you hand over will most likely make a great impression, it will eventually be processed by the ATS. And then you're sunk. Wendy and Louise pointed out that companies use ATS at all job levels to help them meet government reporting and fair hiring regulations. So even C-suite candidates have to expect this.

I actually continue to recommend an additional step though. It's been a great idea for years now, but you have to love it now! Create an online resume, website, blogsite, or other Internet property to showcase, not only your resume, but recommendations, projects, PP presentations, other visuals, outside interests and anything else you want your prospective employer to know about you. And put the URL under your name on your ATS resume.

Use the Internet's amazing visual potential to present a more in-depth, attractive, enticing, and well-rounded personal brand!

So, here's 2011's blog post brought up to date:

1. Format: Stick to a simple format in Word (saved as a .doc or .docx) or save your highly formatted resume as a .txt (ASCII) file and then clean up the places that translate wrong. Most ATS will scramble tables, graphs, graphics, italics, and unusual fonts, defeating your purpose in using them. Simple bullets, keyword symbols, bolded words, and lines that don't touch letters appear to be OK.

2. Keywords: Don't assume that it is enough to include the common keywords for your position, level, function, and industry or the ones in a job posting! Many ATS will identify as keywords the uncommon, unique-to-the-job-posting words or phrases in the job ad. This practice doesn't feel fair but cuts down dramatically on the number of resumes hiring managers or recruiters have to read :)

3. Headings: Most ATS will only recognize the common headings like Professional Summary, Work Experience or Professional Experience, and Education. Eliminate creative headings such as "Career Highlights".

4. Sections: Extra sections - that is, those that don't have the common titles listed in #3 - may not be processed. So if you have information essential to your application, such as certifications, community activities, publications etc., I suggest you include it under the Education heading.

5. Contact Information: Leave it out of the Header and Footer sections. Put it at the top of page 1, right UNDER your name. The name stands alone! And use your personal mobile phone number, LinkedIn profile URL, social media URLs, blogsite URL and any other relevant info. In terms of location - street address, city, state, zip - use it only if your job search is confined to your current geographical area.

6. Process: Don't paste your resume into a field online. Rather, upload it, if given the opportunity. Chances are better that the formatting will remain intact with this method.

7. Acronyms & Abbreviations: Don't rely on acronyms alone. Include the full language. For instance, don't use "USPs" without including "unique selling points". Use BA, MS, and MBA and spell out their meaning. Do the same with other tech and business acronyms.

8. Keyword Use: Newer ATS recognize keywords in proper context within a sentence or word group. In other words, they can use Boolean search to see if keywords are being used meaningfully. So don't rely on the keyword list. Let the job ad be your guide about which keywords to use in context. You may still want to provide a keyword list - "Additional Relevant Keywords "- at the end of your resume under "Education" to cover ones that apply to you but couldn't be woven into the content of the resume.

9. Job Description: Don't forget that the ATS software will be searching for keywords that can be found in the descriptions of your jobs. Many people have been leaving that section out in favor of just achievements. Time to put them back in!

10. Cover Letter: Write a short-form cover letter and repeat the most important keywords in the content.

If you are like a lot of people, you probably wish that the resume you worked so hard on to make visually attractive and easy to grasp would be seen on the first pass. Unfortunately, it probably won't even be seen on the second pass. The resume you submit gets mined for data that then may populate fields on a form. The HR employee or recruiter may see just that form. Your resume may in fact only be seen at the time of an interview or maybe not even then.

One further thought on length. If you need to go longer to adequately communicate what you've done and integrate keywords into context, go ahead. The software doesn't care! Don't go wild, though! Stick to 2.5 pages if you need them.

So, observe the guidelines above - and make sure your resume gets past the electronic gatekeeper so you can really strut your stuff! Good luck!



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Tyrone Norwood