Besting the Digital System

Tips from an HR expert on how to successfully scale the dreaded online application

Back Article Feb 4, 2015 By Suzanne Lucas

“I am an entry-level employee who just graduated from a big-name university, which I thought would be helpful when it came time to job hunt. But I am finding that most of the companies I am applying to rely on automated application systems and even impersonal Skype interviews, making it nearly impossible for me to use my references or get my resume to the top of the pile. What should I know about besting these systems?”

You’re unfortunate to be graduating in a time where it’s difficult for new grads to land great jobs. Difficult, but not impossible. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that many of your colleagues have landed jobs already. But that’s not helpful, so lets get you situated.

How to beat the application systems:

Application tracking systems (known as ATS in HR lingo) are increasingly common. Even small companies use them to handle their recruiting needs. Generally, the applicants enter their information into the system directly through the company’s website. Companies may ask you to email resumes, in which case someone in the office uploads the resume. If the job application asks you to email it in a specific format, make sure you do, otherwise you won’t be considered.

Once your resume is in the system, the recruiter searches for it by keywords. If your resume doesn’t include the correct keywords, it won’t show up. This is one thing that makes it difficult for first-time job hunters to land a position — after all, you don’t have 10 years of experience, explained by numerous keywords. But the one thing you can do is load your resume with choice terms.

This is not to say your resume should be laden with jargon. But you can improve your language by taking cues from the job description. Follow these steps:

1. Print out a copy of the job posting.

2. Go through the job description and highlight everything you are qualified to do.

3. Take your resume and change the language to match the highlighted part. For instance, if the job requires “forecasting” and you have “statistical analysis” written down, change it to read, “statistical analysis, including forecasting.” This way, when the recruiter searches by keywords, you don’t get skipped over.

4. Once your resume is customized to this job, have someone review it for errors.

5. Upload/enter your resume into the applicant tracking system.

By doing these things, you’ve increased the probability that your resume will rise to the top.

Now, the dreaded Skype interview. If you’re looking at jobs that aren’t down the street from you, most companies want to do a pretty thorough phone or video interview prior to spending the money to bring you in. This is beneficial to you as well. Companies often reimburse for plane tickets, but almost never for the hour-long drive or parking.

Here’s how you win the on-camera interview:

1. Dress just like you were going in for an interview — business attire. And yes, your lower half has to be properly covered. You don’t want to accidentally stand up and reveal your paint-splattered yoga pants.

2. Check your background. You are applying for a professional job, so you want to look professional. Find a white backdrop, a bookshelf or a wall with a nice, conservative painting. No posters, no mess, no beds and above else, no other people. No roommates, no moms, no little brothers, no cats, no dogs. If you wouldn’t bring them to a job interview, they should not be around during a Skype interview.

3. Practice! Check your camera height. You want it angled so you don’t look weird. Ensure the lighting is good and doesn’t make your face look purple.

4. If you want to take notes during an interview, write them down rather than typing them, as typing will make clicking noises on the recipient’s audio.

Recruiters want you to apply through their systems so they can control the process, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find another way in. You graduated from a big name university. You have an alumni network; use it. If you can get directly in front of a hiring manager, you increase the probability of landing that job.


James Hu (not verified)February 5, 2015 - 2:44am

Great post Suzanne. I faced the same automated rejection when I was job searching. So I built this tool called Jobscan (www.jobscan.co) to help me identify keywords from job descriptions and compare them against my resume.

Jobscan has since helped a few thousand land their jobs. Perhaps it'd help your readers too.

Amy (not verified)February 10, 2015 - 8:33pm

I have had this problem for a while, so thanks for putting this together. I'm going to try JobScan soon and see what happens. Nothing else has worked--what have I got to lose???

Stew (not verified)February 9, 2015 - 6:27am

Or copy and paste the JD into the first page of your resume. Keyword scanner will let you through and then eventually a real person will look at your resume.

You can even put:

[Ignore first page if you are human]
Job Description:

Page 2
[Actual Resume - thank you for putting the H into HR]


Visitor (not verified)February 9, 2015 - 8:58am

Perhaps that is how most Application Tracking Systems work, but ours does not have any sort of keyword search, so it's not right to say it is universal.

ArtK (not verified)February 9, 2015 - 7:35pm

While I understand the motivation, I think that these systems end up hurting companies if they're too picky about keywords. Case in point: I applied for a job where the posting had been specifically written for me. The hiring manager and I went over it carefully so that I would get through. I got rejected because he had chosen "Bachelors -- Engineering" and I chose "Bachelors -- Mathematics" because that's what mine is. If you use one of these systems, how many qualified candidates are being rejected because of one word?

S (not verified)February 10, 2015 - 4:22pm

Another issue with these systems is the way they invalidate all the time and effort I put into formatting my resume. As a .pdf, my resume looks great--all the information is presented in a clear, readable, attractive, and unique way. Whenever I have to enter my info into an ATS, I spend ages and it still ends up totally butchered. Plus, more than once I've gotten about halfway through filling out one of these forms only to lose my work, and been too demoralized to continue. I really wish I could get my PDF or paper resume in front of more people rather than relying on these awful things.

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