How to Avoid the Résumé Black Hole

A black hole is an object so compact (usually a collapsed star) that nothing can escape its gravitational pull. Not even light.

By Arnie Fertig

I've applied online to numerous positions, and I never get a response. My résumé just gets swallowed up in some black hole, and it never even gets seen by a recruiter or hiring manager.

This a common complaint from frustrated job seekers.

Imagine, however, that you are on the other side of the hiring desk. You advertise a job and receive anywhere from 50 to 200 or more applicants. Each submits a two-page résumé with dense prose depicting complex sets of skills and experiences. That's easily 100 to 400 pages to sift through in order to find an initial set of 10 or 15 candidates who you might want to contact. Then, remember that every human resources staffing person typically deals with 15 to 30 job requisitions at any given time, so he or she needs to contend with literally thousands of pages of résumés.

That's a daunting task, which is made even more complex with the need to document Equal Employment Opportunity Commission compliance and to track candidates' interactions with various HR staff, hiring managers and department personnel.

The solution is known as an applicant tracking system, or ATS. This kind of software has become integral to the hiring process for companies of all sizes, as well as for external executive recruiters and headhunters. Say you're applying for a job on the company website. There's a good chance you're actually accessing the outward-facing portion of an externally run ATS site that's branded to look just like the company site.

There are many companies that provide hundreds of competing of ATS software products for employers. Some are simple and stand alone, while others are far more complex with greater abilities. One of the significant players in this arena is iCIMS, with more than 2,000 corporate clients. Susan Vitale, the iCIMS chief marketing officer, spoke with this author to debunk myths that surround the supposed "résumé black holes." She also provides valuable tips for job seekers about how to best gain the attention of internal HR personnel and external recruiters.

Vitale contends that ATS companies like iCIMS make every effort to meet candidates' needs for convenience. For example, they often allow one to submit information using their login from social media sites, such as Facebook, Google Plus and LinkedIn.

This way, she points out, "a candidate doesn't have to create yet another username and password." She provides the assurance that logging in using social media credentials does not give the ATS the ability to search one's timeline or other posts.

When asked if screening questions posed by ATS systems automatically knock out certain candidates, here's how she replied: "Absolutely not! It totally varies. Some companies use the screening questions as knockout questions, and some do not." Vitale points out that – particularly in regard to EEOC compliance – companies have to define requirements of positions and show that they didn't pick a candidate because he or she didn't meet the minimum qualifications.

For example, perhaps a job requires a certain certification. If a candidate doesn't indicate that he or she has that certification, he or she could automatically be put in a "doesn't meet minimum qualifications" category.

Vitale acknowledges that it is "uncomfortable" for applicants when companies require an answer to the salary question in order to submit a résumé. She understands that people, "don't want to go higher than they should or lower than they need to." Industry best practice today is for companies to provide an option for candidates to decline to answer any screening question, but each company decides for itself what questions to pose and whether or not answers are mandatory for a candidate to be considered.

According to Vitale, these points are key to making the ATS system best understand candidates' résumés as intended.

1. Any ATS system these days can easily work with Word or PDF file types. It will parse out key pieces of information and populate the database with your name, address, skills, employment history and relevant keywords. It will also preserve the résumé in the form you submit to be viewed by the recruiter.

2. Lines, text boxes and color can be be handled by almost every ATS today. Use these elements judiciously.

3. Be careful about using graphics. Different ATS systems vary in their abilities to deal with images. Regardless, words embedded in graphics won't be recognized or parsed out. If you submit a graphic-heavy résumé, it may lose the visual appeal for which you strive. Instead, it may be seen as gibberish on the other side.

4. ATS systems look for certain items to be in particular places on your résumé. For example, your name and contact information should be at the top – not placed in a vertical text box along the side of the page. Use appropriate headings for the various sections of your résumé and have them formatted logically.

5. Don't try to game the system. For example, don't needlessly repeat the same keywords in your résumé just to get a better keyword-scoring match. It doesn't work that way. It may be noticed, but recruiters generally take a negative view of this practice.

6. Make sure your résumé demonstrates that you are well suited for the positions for which you are applying. It is not the fault of the ATS if you are continually rejected for positions for which you don't qualify.

7. Use common sense. Don't apply for widely different positions within the same company. And don't go for positions at significantly different expertise or experience levels within the same company, either. Keep in mind that your entire profile will be seen by anyone in the company who is looking at your résumé.

Happy hunting!

Arnie Fertig, MPA, is passionate about helping his Jobhuntercoach clients advance their careers by transforming frantic "I'll apply to anything" searches into focused hunts for "great fit" opportunities. He brings to each client the extensive knowledge he gained when working in HR staffing and managing his boutique recruiting firm.