Beat the Bots: How to Algorithm-Proof Your Tech Résumé

If you haven’t sought a new job in a while, you’ll need a revised résumé to make it past today’s A.I.-powered screening algorithms.

The latest tools deployed in A.I.-powered screening go beyond simple keyword matching in a way that tries to mimic how humans read and analyze information. For instance, the software screens for context and the candidate’s utilization of skills and knowledge to rank each résumé against the top job requirements, generating a shortlist of contenders in the process. 

 “The decision to shortlist a candidate goes beyond a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ it is much more nuanced,” explained Biron Clark, a former tech recruiter and founder of Career Sidekick.

But here’s the good news: Adapting your résumé to appeal to a text-parsing robot will also make it more appealing to human reviewers. While we don’t know which systems you’ll encounter during the hunt or how the algorithm might be configured, here are some ways to optimize your résumé and beat the bots.

Mirror the Job Description

Simply listing the name of a software program, tool or certification in the skill section of your résumé won’t cut it anymore. 

As with SEO, a résumé-parsing algorithm measures the number of times a keyword or phrase appears in the document (i.e., density) and compares that to the key requirements in the job description to determine a score or ranking. However, keyword stuffing or repetition on its own is not a successful strategy, warned Marie Zimenoff, CEO of Résumé Writing Academy. 

“For your résumé to pass, you need to meet 75 percent (or more) of what the description is asking for,” she said.

Also, because most systems use the results and feedback from recruiters and hiring managers to get “smarter” and make more precise matches over time, tailoring the information in your work history section to match a specific job posting (or the most common requirements in the role you’re pursuing) increases your score.

In fact, some programs actually look at the dates of your previous jobs to calculate the length and relative freshness of your experiences. If the program can’t align a required skill such as Python with years of experience or a previous job title, it may award you zero points for that requirement, Zimenoff said.  

Order matters, too. Oftentimes, a hiring manager will weigh the most essential job duties, skills and tools and place them near the top of the job posting. In light of that, make sure to feature bullets containing the most critical hard and soft skills near the top of your résumé; double-check that your previous job titles match the title in the job posting. 

And stay away from skills-based or functional résumé formats. “A traditional chronological résumé that lists your work experience in order, starting with the most recent job, is best for A.I.-powered parsing,” Zimenoff noted. 

Stick with standard job titles such as “senior” rather than “software engineer III,” as well as standard section titles (“Work Experience,” “Skills,” etc.). Avoid acronyms. While it’s okay to use borders, shading or bullets to set your résumé apart, stick with Word or PDF to be on the safe side, and focus more on the content than the style.

Tell Stories

Like a human recruiter, A.I.-powered screening tools look for how you’ve used a skill or whether your background matches the ideal profile. Context can make or break your résumé and your chances.

How do you create context? Turn bullet points into stories that summarize your accomplishments and project experience, which will show that you have the background the employer is looking for. When you tell stories effectively, you let robots and human reviewers understand who you are and what you have to offer.

For instance, if the job posting specifies five years’ experience with Python, the program can not only analyze how much experience you have, but whether you were involved in architecting and building web applications or testing, debugging and deploying Python components in an existing product. 

Because the software analyzes whether you have the background to successfully perform the job, citing examples of Agile practices, stakeholder communications, effective teamwork, automation scripting and other requirements is also important.

Some systems now gather data and activity from social media profiles and professional networking sites. This is why the information in your résumé should factually match the work experience in your programming portfolio, professional profiles, feedback and posts, Zimenoff noted. 

Use Strong Words to Describe Yourself

Finally, some tools are able to measure your proficiency with a skill or performance level by looking for adjectives such as ‘expert,’ ‘proficient,’ ‘superior,’ ‘strong,’ ‘meticulous.’ Also potentially important: nouns such as ‘master’ or ‘guru,’ or adverbs such as ‘successfully,’ ‘efficiently’ or ‘effectively.’ While you want to avoid clichés and trite or overused descriptors, the right word-choice can improve your chances of making it past automated screening—as well as any eventual human reviewers.

“Pay attention to the words you use right before or after a key skill requirement to optimize your résumé for modern applicant tracking systems and human reviewers, too,” Clark said.

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