How to Beat Hiring Software

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The Problem: To economize on using real people to screen job applicants' resumes, some companies are turning to recruitment software, also known as screening apps, to sift through the pile.

Not only do writers for websites have to worry about keywords, but so do increasing numbers of job applicants, in a growing number of fields. Moreover, some resume screening algorithms even score applicants based on formatting.

Then there is the matter of "pseudo-requirements." That is, lengthy "must have" lists of ultimately unnecessary requirements that serve no other purpose than to eliminate virtually all resumes from consideration, whittling down the pile to a handful, if that. This is an approach akin to demanding an MBA as a screening device for jobs that really do not require one.

Peter Capelli, the George W. Taylor Professor of Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, offers a particularly egregious example of excessive pseudo-requirements in a recent magazine interview. A company looking to fill what he describes as a "standard engineering position" could not identify a single qualified candidate out of 25,000 applications submitted. Of course, another possibility is that, given the ease with which people now can apply for jobs online, the company indeed may have received a torrent of applications from genuinely unqualified people.

Another anecdote from Capelli involves a software developer who was turned down for a job that involved using a well-known software testing tool, never mind that he had built that very same tool himself. He was turned down because he did not have prior experience with another very simple tool that someone with his expertise can learn in just a few hours.

Alternatively, it might be argued that he should have answered "yes" to the question, given his confidence that learning the tool would be quick and easy.

Equally, absurdly, Capelli notes that some companies require experienced candidates to dredge up their high school GPAs for their applications. The list goes on and on.

Top Tips to Beat the Software: According to Capelli, his discussions with various experts has uncovered these top tips for getting your job application past resume screening software:

Headers and Footers: Avoid using headers or footers, since they tend to confound most resume reading software.

Reflect the Job Description: Adjust the content of your resume to reflect the wording of the job description in question. For example, if the job description includes "CPA" be sure that "CPA" appears on your resume. Stated slightly differently, this is an example of the importance of including the proper keywords in your resume or application. However, do not copy and paste the job description verbatim into your resume. Not only is that unlikely to work, it may backfire.

Layout and Typeface: Avoid unusual fonts and layouts, as well as functional formatting. These tend to confuse the software.

Use a simple style, including listing your experience in reverse chronological order (most recent first).

Buzzwords in Context: Be sure that buzzwords are used in proper context. Advanced resume parsing software can check the context of buzzwords like Java or C++. Thus, to demonstrate more in-depth knowledge and experience than someone who just took a single course in subjects such as these, discuss your knowledge and experience in detail.

File Format: Put your resume in text format. PDF files often get read incorrectly by the software. By contrast, resumes submitted in Microsoft Word typically are interpreted correctly.

Graphics: Avoid using graphics. They also pose huge problems for resume parsing software and can be interpreted as a jumble of nonsense characters.

Postal Address: Never forget to place your postal address on the resume, since it often is a key element in how it is filed by the software.

If you fail to include it, you may have no chance to be under consideration for the position.

Correct Spelling, Syntax, and Grammar: Not included among Capelli's suggestions, but equally important, is making sure that there are absolutely no misspellings or typos in your submission. Computers tend to be rather, if not completely, unforgiving of such errors. However, an added complication is that spell checking software often does not recognize legitimate alternative spellings of common words (e.g., "traveler" as a variant of "traveler"), and editing software often parses sentences incorrectly. Meanwhile, although lapses in writing skills often result in rejection by human readers on this score alone, there nonetheless is a possibility that a human will recognize what you really mean, and forgive this error if your resume or application is otherwise compelling.

Source: Why Good People Can't Get Jobs by Peter Cappelli, copyright 2012, Wharton Digital Press (as summarized in "Home Depot Syndrome, the Purple Squirrel, and America's Job Hunt Rabbit Hole," by Trey Popp, The Pennsylvania Gazette, January - February 2013).

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