One of the fun parts (for me at least) about being a career coach is seeing some of the terrible advice that other people are giving out.  Right now, the one of the big fads among career “experts” who completely miss the point is to talk about how to beat Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS), those software programs you feed your resume into at some of the bigger companies and recruiting firms.

This always involves SEO-like techniques which boil down to just packing your resume full of keywords- typically skills, tools you’ve been trained with, and the name of the company you’re applying to.  On a less-crazy level, it can also entail simply not doing any weird stuff on your resume that an Applicant Tracking System can’t process.  Either way, writing your resume to convince actual human beings that you’re a good fit for the role thus takes a backseat to getting top marks from the world’s crappiest search engine.  Feeding your resume into an ATS with the intention of “beating” it is like volunteering to be a Roman gladiator; the game itself is designed to make everyone a loser.  Here’s why: 

You’re not fooling anyone 

I’ve spoken to several HR managers about this, and winning top marks from the ATS just doesn’t carry much weight with any of them.  They know that the formula for beating the system is pretty well-known, and they know your ATS doesn’t really measure your value as a worker.  There may have been a time when these tricks worked, but that time is long gone.

Moreover, trying to beat the ATS doesn’t address a bigger problem- by applying to job postings like 80% of other job seekers, you’ve shown that you’re just one of the masses.  Most jobs are filled without ever being posted on job boards, through networking, personal referrals, or people just applying to companies without even knowing if there’s an opening for them. 

You can’t write for robots and people at the same time

Okay, so you’ve keyword-packed your resume.  Now try reading it out loud.  Does it sound like anything a human being would say?  Of course not, because you didn’t write it for a human being.  You wrote it for the ATS. 

There’s the dilemma: look good to a person, but never get to her, or look good to the ATS but fail with the person.  The very tactics that help you pass the ATS lead to a pyrrhic victory, as you get past the ATS only to be summarily rejected by an HR coordinator.

The ATS makes you a commodity

Implicit in the Applicant Tracking System, and the hundreds of applications that it implies, is the idea that potential employees are a dime a dozen.  Employers looking through resumes in this environment are like shoppers buying apples at the supermarket- they have so many choices, even the slightest imperfection gives them an excuse to reject a candidate.  And of course, this also means that going through an ATS puts you in a position to get a lower salary, lower benefits, and lower-level position than you could otherwise qualify for.

You might not even have a chance

Here’s a dirty little secret nobody likes to admit about job postings: many of those openings never get filled by people applying from a job board.  It could be that you get preempted by someone who is friends with a current employee.  Maybe the position was already filled, but they needed to make a show of attracting other applicants so they could avoid charges of nepotism.  The company may have intended to hire from the job posting, only to change its mind.  And in some rare cases, the company had no intention of hiring for the role at all, but just wanted to see what kind of responses the posting would get for future reference.  Yes, that happens. 

You don’t want to talk to HR 

Typically, you’ll be screened by an HR coordinator before being passed on to the department you’re actually applying to.  There are two problems with this: first off, the HR coordinator doesn’t know much about the job other than what’s in the job posting itself, so she’ll judge people largely based on how good they look on paper.  The most qualified applicants will get through, but the most qualified applicants are generally overqualified. 

Second, going through HR gets you lumped in with everyone else.  If you can bypass HR and go straight to the department you’re applying to, you immediately stand out from the competition, and can beat more experienced candidates for the job.  You can also start discussing that department’s “hidden needs” that weren’t mentioned in the job posting.  While everyone else is trying to be the candidate the company says it wants, you’ll be the employee it really needs.

Author: John Fawkes helps people find and win their dream jobs at  He loves networking, preparation and work/life balance, and hates job boards and Applicant Tracking Systems.  

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