Your resume: Getting past the screening machine

Experts say following a few simple tips can help get your résumé past applicant-screening software.
(April Bartholomew / The Allentown Morning Call)

Question from readers, everywhere: How do I write a resume that will get me hired?

I have a confession: The shame of my first resume — savaged by an academic advisor for its bloated, clumsy prose — haunts me to this day. Also, it’s been years since I submitted a resume with a blind application or reviewed any to fill a position. So while I know the basics, I have no idea what makes a resume stand out today.

But after five years of dodging your resume questions, I’ve decided to seek out professionals who live, breathe and love this stuff.


“Oh my gosh, I hate resumes,” laughs Diana Funk, senior consultant with Human Capital Strategic Consulting in Washington. “They’re so stressful to write ... and they do not receive the same level of scrutiny that you have to put into [writing] them.” But, she adds, “there’s no other way” to present your bona fides to prospective employers.

Even Lauren Milligan, who makes a living writing resumes as chief executive and founder of Chicago-based ResuMayDay, says the goal is to need no resume at all: “Network, network, network so the resume and application become nothing more than a formality.” But even as a formality, it has to represent your best face: “There’s no time when you can skate by with a subpar resume.”

In most cases, before your resume reaches a human, it will have to pass muster with a machine. An increasing number of employers are using applicant-tracking software to winnow hundreds or thousands of applications down to a qualified handful. According to Milligan, a surprising number of resumes are kicked out for reasons having nothing to do with the applicant’s suitability for the job.

Milligan lists three factors to help keep scanning software from rejecting your resume:

Keywords: Applicant-tracking software is programmed to select resumes that contain certain keywords relevant to the job opening. Milligan recommends that you brainstorm for those keywords, including software and skills — the job ad itself probably contains clues — and write your resume around them.

Format: Not only should you submit your resume in the requested file format, Milligan says, but you should also make sure that it has a scanner-friendly layout. Text boxes — including page borders — may be eye-catching, but they can also cause the software to overlook your carefully curated keywords.

Headings: Stick with the standards the software has been programmed to recognize, Milligan advises: “Work History” and “Education” rather than “Milestones” and “Matriculation.”

Those tips will help you get past the robot guardians.

Pro tip: If you’re writing a resume for a sales job, Milligan says, one vital keyword to include is a dollar sign. Awards and client testimonials are great, but employers want to see that bottom line too.

Miller writes a column about work dramas and traumas for the Washington Post.