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Write For Humans, Not Machines

By Gerald Walsh ©

We just finished a series of four job search webinars for newcomers to Nova Scotia who are registered in the Halifax Partnership’s Connector Program.

In one of the webinars, we had several questions about applicant tracking systems such as how they might change the way applicants prepare their resumes or how you can “beat” these systems.

Here’s my guidance on this question:

Prepare your resume as if a human being—who doesn’t know much about the job—is reviewing the resumes and selecting candidates to be interviewed.

Companies that use applicant tracking systems are companies who receive hundreds (if not thousands) of resumes for job postings. When that occurs, there’s no time to sift through them all. That is why some organizations rely on applicant tracking systems to conduct the initial review of resumes. Theoretically, hiring managers will then only see the most qualified candidates.

But remember, these machines are only doing what humans would do. They read resumes and select candidates to be interviewed. So, whether resumes are being vetted by a human or a machine, here are a few points to keep in mind.

Use a simple, clean format.

This means no images, charts, tables, or multi-columns. They are confusing to both the human eye and the machine. You should also select a font size (either 10, 11 or 12 point) and use it consistently throughout your resume.

The same principle applies to typeface. Sans serif typefaces like Helvetica, Arial, Verdana, or Calibri are best.

Sound boring? Good. Boring resumes that contain relevant information are best for the human eye or the machine eye.

Apply keywords intelligently.

When preparing your cover letter or writing your resume, you must make it clear that your education, skills, and experience align with what the company is looking for. The job posting or job description (if you can get it) should be your guide.

If you see specific skills and experiences listed in the job description, make sure that you weave it in your resume in the same form.

For example, if the job description says they want expertise in “MS Office”, it’s possible your resume might not get selected if you say you have experience in Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, and OneNote even though those are programs contained within MS Office.

Hopefully that will not occur, but you cannot take the chance. Make sure you insert “MS Office” somewhere on the resume.

In general, you should strive to have a resume that is straightforward and doesn’t require any guesswork.

Don’t forget, a human will eventually read your resume.

Whether resumes are vetted by an applicant tracking system or someone in HR, they will be passed along to the hiring manager where they will still have to pass the human test. This means you should still use proper sentences, good grammar, and correct punctuation.

As I’ve said many times before, people worry too much about their resumes. Keep it simple, clear, and relevant to the job. If you follow these simple principles and have faith in the process (whether machine or human), you should get selected for interviews for jobs for which you are qualified.


Gerald Walsh is an executive recruiter, career coach, public speaker and author. During a 30 year career, he has interviewed more than 10,000 job candidates, completed hundreds of successful searches for a range of organizations and guided many individuals – from young professionals to senior executives – to successful career change. He is the author of “PINNACLE: How to Land the Right Job and Find Fulfillment in Your Career.” You can follow Gerry on Twitter @Gerald_Walsh and LinkedIn.