What Recruiters Look For in a 6-Second Resume Scan

Six seconds. That’s how much time recruiters usually take to look at your resume. Your stellar academic record and long list of professional accomplishments, all in six seconds.

StopwatchIn a 2012 study, researchers recorded their subjects’ eyeball movements, what they zeroed in on, and for how long. The study examined specific behaviors of recruiters as they screened resumes and interviewed candidates over a 10-week period, looking for what caught their attention and what was overlooked. Recruiters looked at both paper resumes and online credentials.

The researchers were after three primary issues:

  1. Did recruiters perceive professionally written resumes differently from those generated by job seekers themselves?
  2. How long did recruiters actually spend reviewing each resume?
  3. What is the process that recruiters use to review online profiles?

When it comes to reviewing resumes and online profiles, the recruiters turned out to be a fairly predictable bunch. The study found that professionally organized documents rated higher in usability, showing a 60 percent improvement over those that were compiled by candidates. The most often heard comment was that the re-written resumes were easier to read.

The reason’s simple: Poorly organized resumes make it more difficult for recruiters to find information and evaluate a prospect. That’s not news to many job seekers — or, it shouldn’t be — but the science of eye tracking confirms it. Professional resumes used in the study contained less data, less clutter and better formatting, which made them easier to read.

Key Data Points

The study’s eye-tracking technology showed that recruiters spent almost 80 percent of their resume review time looking at just a few essential elements: the candidate’s name, current title and company, previous title and company, start and end dates for current and previous positions, and education. In the six seconds they spent on these bits of information, they absorbed little else.

“Beyond these data points, recruiters did little more than scan for keywords to match the open position, which amounted to a very cursory pattern-matching activity,” the researchers said.

Resume Heat MapsThe images here show where recruiters’ eyes focused, and demonstrate the difference made by judicious editing and layout. The resume on the left right was from a candidate before it was professionally edited. The one on the right left had been edited by a professional resume preparation service. The redder the spot, the more attention the information got from the recruiter.

Spend Your Six Seconds Well

The bottom line is these results are sobering. They suggest that everything on your resume besides those key points — name, titles, companies, start and end dates, and education — is just filler and does little to affect the next step in the hiring process. You have six seconds to make an impression and for a recruiter to figure out whether your credentials fit the job opening.

So what can you take away from this research? Several points:

  • If you can afford it, use a professional to clean up your resume, or at least have another pair of eyes review it.
  •  Insist on a strong and clean visual layout, or have a friend help you pare down the clutter.
  • Avoid large blocks of text and use plenty of white space.
  • Make sure your online profiles are easy to read and review.
  • Focus on your current and last positions, and make sure it’s clear when you started working at each place, and list a descriptive title for both.

The study was conducted by the Ladders, a career service which among other things offers resume editing service. While the study might somewhat self-serving, the data’s interesting, and the study points out a key approach to creating an effective resume.

Good luck with your job search, and remember: Make every second count.

Images: Wikimedia Commons, the Ladders

42 Responses to “What Recruiters Look For in a 6-Second Resume Scan”

  1. Hmmm…based on the picture, it appears that the candidate resume got a lot more attention on the jobs he/she had and the “professionally done” resume got a lot more attention on unimportant details like name and title. I’ll stick with my own if this is the case (especially since I get tons of hits on mine.)

    Also, I’d love to see a follow-up study of what the recruiters look at on the second round, after they’ve filtered out the ones they don’t like. I’m guessing they spend a lot more than 6 seconds looking at the actual job descriptions, which means you’d better write that well for round 2.

    • Excellent observations Robs. Also interesting to notice:

      The article’s third summary recommendation to “Avoid large blocks of text and use plenty of white space” appears to have been observed more faithfully by the candidate resume than the professional resume.

  2. Skip the recruiters and HR personnel and find networking opportunities to speak with the actual supervisor or owner (depending on the size of the company). Most in HR don’t have the background to recognize skills necessary for the industry they’re representing. To them it’s just a puzzle game to match the hot words. You don’t have the time to research each company’s nomenclature especially when everyone else is doing the same thing. Job hunting shouldn’t be a game where the winner is the one that matched the most hot words. HR does have the time to do a better job but quite frankly they don’t have the background in their firm’s expertise. The best jobs go to those that skip this process and the poorest employees are those hired by HR. Better pay, better position, better career move….network with the person that has had experience in the position you’re seeking.

    • The Heretic

      “Skip the recruiters and HR personnel and find networking opportunities to speak with the actual supervisor or owner. Most in HR don’t have the background to recognize skills necessary for the industry they’re representing. To them it’s just a puzzle game to match the hot words.”

      You are a master of understatement. It is much worse then that. Recruiters and HR personnel wage sociological warfare to beat down wages, drive up the costs of job search, and externalize those costs back at job seekers

      Do I believe the individual recruiters and HR personnel do it on purpose? The answer is no. They are just trying to make a living just like everyone else, but disparate impact and disparate treatment are none the less real problems in our current labor market dynamic. It is a systemic problem in almost every labor market at this time.

      IMHO, the problem is with the unintended consequences of the business models that have developed around the new technology (the internet). The resume mills sell personal data on job applicants for profit. The recruiters are agents for the employers who mine the resume mills for pedigrees and sell them like commodities to their principles for a commission. It works quite well for the demand side until it breaks down from its own weight.

      The problem here is externality. Who is going to pay the costs? It is all on you the applicant. There are costs associated with filling out online forms, maintaining twenty resumes on multiple sites, and yes communicating with recruiters/HR/agents; time, effort, and materials. The fact is that people don’t appreciate what they don’t pay for and consequently the propaganda perspective of the demand side is always for the applicants to do more or something different. That is easy to say if you are on the demand side not paying the costs.

      The end result of this lopsided equation is an impaction where no one is getting what they want on either side of the equation. The pedigrees on top of the impaction have lower wages to pay recruiter commissions and the poor smocks under the impaction can’t get up thru the impaction and eventually expend all their resources dropping out of the labor market. The employer and their agents have to deal with growing shortages of qualified workers because the impaction doesn’t allow expansion of the supply. Everything shuts down.

      Stephen, you are giving very good advice to pedigrees, but pedigrees should not loose site of the fact that employers are willing to pay more; recruiter commissions. When they contact an employer directly, they must make sure they capture the difference. If an employer is willing to pay 100k plus a 25k commission then they are willing to pay 125k. Consequently, 125k is what is available to pedigrees willing to cut out the middle man.

      If you are under the impaction, just leave the industry. Don’t burn up your resources when the chance of success is about the same as winning the lottery. Conditions will change over time and at that time you will have an opportunity to reenter the IT labor market. In the mean time take a job driving a truck or plumbing. Analyze the lifetime costs of the learning curve that are being externalized back at you. When you do, you will find that the truck driving and plumbing are better career moves anyway.

      • A very good analysis.

        Not only do most in HR not have enough background to know what they’re recruiting for, they’re far more geared to numbers than they are to quality.

        All the advice about “how to tailor your resume” is just so much bullshit. “Tailoring” your resume for every possible job is like providing references for every job. Pretty soon you wear out the resource.

      • The Heretic

        BAMBIB, I have to agree with you. Those types of articles are white noise to mask the sound of the heavy equipment from a massive strip mining operation. The heavy equipment quickly and efficiently pushes the overburden off to the side exposing and processing the pedigrees for harvest. The problem is that the overburden is people trying to feed themselves.

        For a limited period of time, the white noise allows the operation to continue at full capacity without addressing the externality of the ecological damage caused by the extraction process on surrounding communities. The community push back that occurs has tremendous force. Often it brings with it the full force of government and industries engaged in this sort of externality behavior end up heavily regulated.

        The funny thing is that while the white noise allows for profit maximizing in the short term, it blocks out the feed back necessary for long term viability avoiding the regulation all together. This concept is what economists refer to as moral hazard.

        Unfortunately, the theory of moral hazard as a self regulating device doesn’t work very well in practice. Sociopaths and psychopaths exist in the general population. That is a fact. Consequently there will always be individuals willing to rationalize the externalizing of their costs on to others. Therefore, the concept of moral hazard has very limited utility as a self regulating device.

        This is why history repeats itself over and over again. It stays in line with Einstein’s theory of insanity. Unfortunately, prosperity and regulation must go hand in hand or externality runs amuck.

  3. Kent (pro-engineer mech designer)

    First of all, if a recruiter is so busy, that he only spends (or she) 6 seconds on your resume, what does that say about the sweat-shop expectations of the company, and its why so many e-mails from recruiters seem to be a complete and disastrous waste of our time, since they are an obvious mis-match of skill and talent versus what the company needs. They have little budget for the job your trying to hire into, and no extra help in HR is a warning sign to those with talent. Beware of the HR specialists, who couldn’t make it in the higher paying world of recruiting and contracting. Getting past these quick browsey HR people and talking with anyone in the department who can properly asses your strengths to the companies needs is WAY more important than reorganizing your text in your resume, albeit content needed not omitted!

    • Couldn’t be put better! The perfect resume-writing advice is getting totally lopsided in favor of HR folks. I don’t argue that your resume should be literate, have major keywords, clear structure, etc. But this is not about hiring slaves.

      • The Heretic

        Mark, if they are doing it and not getting results, then they are doing it for free like slaves. The folks under the impaction view things differently.

        If someone is above the impaction with a solid pedigree, they could write their resume on a roll of toilet paper and get results from recruiters desperate to make commissions. They are after all the commodity being mined, bought, and sold to the highest bidder.

    • johngalt2001

      > …and its why so many e-mails from recruiters seem to be a complete and
      > disastrous waste of our time, since they are an obvious mis-match of skill
      > and talent versus what the company needs.

      I suspect many of those grossly-mismatched job contacts are, in fact, INTENTIONAL. In order to fill a job with an H1B, the company has to first show that they tried filling the job with someone already in the USA (not sure if citizenship is also a requirement). So throwing out job leads to anyone and everyone they know *won’t* take the job means it’s wide-open to the H1B they wanted to give it to all along. Meanwhile they’ve wasted *your* time, and magnified your frustration immensely. I figure if I can’t pronounce the name, it’s probably a bogus job.

  4. Lawrence Weinzimer

    Never mind fancy brainscans of Human Resouces recruiters demonstrated above. Best to focus on effective keyword search competency bits, sensible syntax, prioritize order of responsibilities. Then focus on ability to learn, adapt, and just plain ‘fit-in’ to the underlying organizational culture.

    • The Heretic

      Jamessavik, I think the point they are trying to make is to make it easier on the recruiter. Your 30 years of experience is not what they can easily sell. Technology more then five year old is obsolete. They need two or more years of current work experience with a technology that probably just came out.

      Recruiters don’t want to wade thru anything that is not pertinent to their commission and there is no limit to how much they will make you spend for their convenience because the applicants pay all the costs.

      I interviewed someone at a code camp who became livid when a recruiter casually suggested creating a blog to show case his talent. If you spend a thousand hours developing content it costs the employers and their agents nothing. That is why it seems reasonable to them, but a thousand hours times $65 an hour is $65,000 dollars and someone has to pay it.

      I’m a big fan of old truisms; The Peter Principle, Prato’s Rule, The golden Rule, etc. One of my favorites is Katona’s rule, “Employers don’t appreciate what they are not paying for.” There is absolutely no limit to how much employers and their agents are willing to make you spend when it cost them nothing.

  5. Sounds like these recruiters should be fired and more conscientious people hired to replace them.

    If they’re only spending six seconds on a resume, unless their reading rate is 6000 wpm with 90%+ retention, they’re not likely to retain enough information to make the scan worthwhile.

    If all they’re looking at is titles and education, they don’t know much more after “reading” the resume than they did before. Personally, as a former hiring manager, I spent more like 10 minutes per resume – unless something earlier in the review disqualified the candidate.

  6. I’m beginning to wonder what the hell good a resume is these days! Damned if you do and damned if you don’t!

    For experienced consulting folks, with many years of experience, a functional chronological resume is best. Keep each consulting project to;

    A short project description
    A short summary of what you did and your responsibilities

    If you’re a project manager:

    A project description
    A short summary of what you did
    Team composition and / or makeup
    Methodology used

    Don’t go back any more than 10 years, because no one cares about that far back. You can discuss them verbally if asked during an interview or phone screen.

    If no one wants to read your resume, to heck with them, but that aside, seek the help of a professioanl resume writer! It’s way over priced, but if you get the right one, it’s worth it in the long run.

  7. Amber S.

    Recruiters spend initially six seconds before making the call to a candidate and generally they are looking for what the hiring manager has asked them to find. They would love it if every resume they looked at led to a potential match. Personally, I spend about 6-30 seconds looking at a resume before I am going to call you. When I get you on the phone, I’m going to ask you about the skills the hiring manager would like in the candidate. Key words are how we find you when searching a database. If companies felt that recruiters were a waste of time/money, then they wouldn’t hire internal or external recruiters.

    • Amber S.

      I meant to say, it’s the initial look that is 6-30 seconds. When I have you on the phone, I’m looking at your resume while talking to you, asking questions, and taking notes, which tends to be anywhere from another 15 to 30 minutes reading your resume and talking to you.

      • I’m not a recruiter, but I’ve had to pore through a stack of resume looking for candidates. In my opinion, the first thing a “hirer” will do it scan the resume to see if he/she can find keywords that might be relevant.
        It’s really not so much about the content (at this point) as much as the format. If you have the best keywords in the world and they’re hidden in a muddle of text, they will be missed and you may end up in the stack to either be reviewed later or the stack to hit the trash.

        During the scan, you see if you can quickly find those keywords . When you have 1000 resumes to examine, if you can’t find them right away, it’s on to the next one.

        So given that, the required keywords should either in bold, or color, or anything that stands out, like surrounded by white space, or maybe even organized into a nice section like “Skills”
        If the Skills section exists, I might just spend 3-6 MORE seconds looking at the list for those keywords and maybe a few more keywords that I know we’d like in our candidate. The more I find, the more time I spend on it to see if there’s even more of a match.

        So basically, write your resume so recruiters can quickly find the required skills, then make the set of skills easy to review. Ideally, you’d customize your resume for every job so the required skills show up in a 2-second search of “where are the skills?” and “are the required skills there?”

        After all of that, then the resume is reclassified as “passed phase 1; review more later” (or maybe even “possible top candidate” or “possible secondary candidate”, also set aside for more review later)

        • “During the scan, you see if you can quickly find those keywords . When you have 1000 resumes to examine, if you can’t find them right away, it’s on to the next one.”

          Recruiters are NOT scanning resumes with their eyes rather they are using automatic keyword search to find the relevant documents.

          • Then what’s the point of looking at the resume at all…a good scanning tool will tell you everything you need to select the candidates.
            At even an adequate one will give you enough information that you will have filtered out the majority and will certainly spend more than 6 seconds looking at the remaining few.
            Of course, if the recruiter does this professionally and doesn’t have a good tool, do you really want to work with that agency?

          • Furthermore, the point of this article, as indicated in the pictures (“The images here show where recruiters’ eyes focused”), is that recruiters are looking at certain parts of the resume with their eyes.

  8. jelabarre

    So if having a “professionally done” resume is supposed to be so much better, how do you determine who to do business with? From what I see, it would seem the majority of resume editors are outright scam artists, with a minimal handful that are legitimate businesses. Instead of these pithy platitudes of the benefits of specialist resume re-writers, how about a study of exactly *what* you should expect from them, just how much you should expect to spend from someone actually capable and competent, perhaps information on how to screen out the cream from the cr(uft), etc. Some actually HELPFUL information would be, well, helpful.

  9. I’m lucky enough to be an expert in a field that every company uses. There is therefore constant competition for what I can do. It always makes me chuckle when the odd Human Remorses drone or clueless Recruiter presumes to give me “advice”. I’ve been gainfully employed for 25 years and counting. There’s a reason for that state of affairs. When such unsolicited advice is proffered, I always just think “yeah, thanks for that”, smile, and move on to the next opportunity. It wouldn’t be the first time that some Inhuman Resources clown has asked me to fill in an application form after I’ve been dumb enough to let them see my CV, for me to tell them I “don’t do” application forms, only to have them chase me down the line once some hiring manager in their company finally wakes them up to the opportunity they’d missed through their blind bureaucracy. Similar thing with recruiters: recruiters at least appear to have got the memo that beyond a certain level of experience candidates aren’t going to entertain application forms, but boy a small number of them can still be stupid enough to imagine you’ll entertain rewriting your CV just for their One Fussy Client.

    So, keep giving that great advice about having shiny shoes, thinking happy thoughts, and re-writing CVs to whatever format is in vogue this month, Recruiters and Antipersonnel Jockeys. That attention to irrelevant detail is the reason you’re there in a high-turnover sales/admin job, whilst I’m gainfully employed here in a highly-remunerated technical one. For your competitor.

    • jelabarre

      My thought on these specialized requests is

      1: often they request a MSWord file, so they have the full text of the resume in an editable form (notice that the product name is “Microsoft Word”, not “Word”; the term ‘word’ is a generic word)

      2: They will have often asked questions to flesh out the information for their own needs, and added more you didn’t already have. In theory, they should have taken notes

      3: ***THEY*** are the ones getting paid the big comissions. Asking you to re-work th eresume for a clinet is effectively asking *you* to do *their* job. THEY are the ones gatting paid to present you to the client in the best way possible. In theory, then, *they* should know better yjan you how to re-work your resume. If you’re going to have to do some (or all) of their work, are you going to get paid some of their commission too? If they don’t know how to properly present your resume, how do they expect *you* to?

  10. “You have six seconds to make an impression and for a recruiter to figure out whether your credentials fit the job opening.”

    Pretty friggin’ disgusting….an increasingly computerized and de-personalized system squeezing workers more and more….

  11. Yes- the resume is ironically one of the most neglected things that people keep. It’s a good idea to look through it every once in a while and update it with things you’ve been doing recently.

  12. As a recruiter, I can say that for the most part this is true. Except first I look for the keywords which are usually highlighted for me using either CTRL+F or making sure I include them in my Monser.com search string. Then if the position I’m recruiting for requires a degree (which most do because I recruit for engineering) I check to see the education. Note to candidates: If you did not receive a degree, don’t put that education on your resume. Taking classes does nothing for you if you don’t have the diploma at the end. I’m looking for titles, softwares, skills, parts of cars they would be working on… those are what get you noticed by a recruiter.

    • You should give us tips about what you’re doing. Is it the format, the content, the experience, maybe you’re specific skills that others don’t have? This article is specifically about the format so if yours is like everyone else’s then you’re not applying to the jobs they’re talking about.

  13. Edith Richardson

    I’m constantly being contacted by recruiters from all over the world (I think, based on their accent), for employment opportunities in my state of Missouri. They have my resume, they see my experience, and where I’ve worked and so forth. Why are they contacting me for positions that I have not experience nor knowledge of? I received a call today from a recruiter, presenting an opportunity for a Benefits Specialists. The only benefits experience I have is enrolling people into a plan. My titles does not state that I am a specialist in benefits. So why contact me in the first place? Are they phishing to just present my resume for a just a commission? I wish they stop.