By Rebecca Hawk
If you’ve applied for a job in the past few years, you’ve almost certainly encountered an applicant tracking system (ATS). Many employers, including associations, use an ATS because it helps them manage the recruitment process via automated applicant screening and ranking. More than 25 percent of employers who posted jobs to Association CareerHQ between January and August 2018 used an ATS for their search—an increase of roughly 5 percent from the same time period in 2016.
When you’re applying for a job, an ATS might seem like an additional hurdle to clear. But once you understand how to tailor your materials for these systems, you might find that your applications start performing better. Here are five ways to update your application materials in the age of the ATS.
You’ve likely heard that a unique design sets your resume apart. True, but when you’re applying through an ATS, a unique design can have the unintended effect of eliminating your resume from the process completely.
While a hiring manager may appreciate a cleverly designed resume, an ATS likely won’t be able to read it. Your best bet is a classic, sans serif font like Arial or Calibri and a simple layout. Additionally, the software may have trouble “translating” text from PDFs, so make sure the documents you submit are saved as Word or text files.
If you have a resume or CV with an interesting design, save that version for in-person interviews.
You probably already know to tailor your resume to the job you’re applying for. The rise of the ATS makes customization even more important.
The ATS looks for language that aligns with the job description and requirements provided by the hiring manager. Make sure your resume headings and job titles echo that language. If your current or past job titles don’t clearly communicate your role or responsibilities, adjust the language to better convey your job’s primary function and to match the language of the organization you’re applying to. For example, if a job description requires experience maintaining a membership database, make sure you use the words “membership database” in addition to the name of a specific vendor’s technology.
An ATS operates a lot like a search engine, parsing applicants’ materials for specific keywords. Most keywords will appear throughout the job posting’s qualifications/requirements and skills/proficiencies sections. For example, a marketing job description might use keywords like “marketing,” “analytics,” and “email marketing.”
There’s an art to using keywords. You need to include them, but overuse—or keyword stuffing—can prompt the ATS to throw out your application. (If the ATS doesn’t flag this, the hiring manager will.) Try to use each keyword two to three times in your resume, spreading the phrases out across its various sections.
One other ATS quirk to keep in mind: While associations are known for their affinity for acronyms, an ATS might be looking for a spelled-out phrase. If you hold a CAE credential, for example, your resume should say “current Certified Association Executive (CAE) credential” instead of “current CAE.” While it might seem redundant, spelling out acronyms ensures that nothing is lost in ATS translation.
The ATS looks for language that aligns with the job description and requirements provided by the hiring manager. Make sure your resume headings and job titles echo that language.
Many applicant tracking systems will include questions about salary history and requirements, and this may pose problems if yours don’t align. If you encounter this dilemma when applying through an ATS, first make sure it’s legal for an employer to ask about salary history in your jurisdiction [ASAE login required]. If it is, you can proceed a couple of ways.
First, you can be honest about your current salary and your requirements. Alternatively, you can provide a filler answer if your salary history is problematic. For example, you may be at a high salary but planning to take a pay cut, or you may currently be undercompensated and seeking market-rate pay. If the ATS allows it, you can input an asterisk or a row of zeros to decline to answer the salary history question, then explain your response in an additional comments field.
However you choose to answer the salary history question, take care when addressing salary requirements. Do your research on the organization’s compensation as well as general association compensation benchmarks to come up with a reasonable range for your requirements, and prepare to negotiate in person.
In the end, your answers and any documents you submit should be attractive to a human reader. Many candidates make it through an ATS screening, only to be ruled out by the hiring manager due to incorrect spelling, poor grammar, or other signs of a hastily assembled application. Always send a cover letter, even when it’s optional, to convey your professional personality and the soft skills you can bring to the organization.
The ATS isn’t going anywhere, but knowing how to navigate it is half the battle. When you tailor your application for each opportunity and keep in mind both the robot and the human who will review your materials, you’ll maximize your chance to get to the next step in the application process.
Rebecca Hawk is the product manager for Association CareerHQ at ASAE Business Services, Inc. Email: [email protected]