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Applying for Jobs But Getting Rejected? You May Need to Get Your Resume Past the A.I.

To be considered for a job you need to write an effective resume, recognize that AI is likely being used to screen resumes, and apply AI to beat the AI.

We all hear about how desperate organizations are to hire people, how the unemployment rate is at an all-time low, and how the market now favours people looking for work. Yet some of us, who would be great hires, find that our resumes get rejected over and over again. In many cases these resumes are getting rejected by artificial intelligence (AI)-based screening technology that is in common use by employers. This post provides a three-step process for increasing the chance that your resume/curriculum vitae (CV) will make it through the AI gauntlet to the human decision makers.

1. You Need to Write a Good Resume

Before we lay the blame on our future AI overlords, we need to recognize that we need a well-written resume. Here’s my advice:

  1. Be clear. Your resume should describe your relevant job experience and background in an understandable and unambiguous manner. Don’t force the reader, either people or AIs, to guess what you’re trying to get at.
  2. Tailor your resume to the specific job ad. If you want the job, then spend a bit of time tailoring your resume to ensure that it addresses at least some of the key requirements of the job.  In most cases you don’t need to fulfill all of the requirements, particularly if the job ad provides a laundry list of potential skills, but you do need to match some of them. A simple update can be to use the same terminology advertisement uses. For example, they may use the term Senior Scrum Master whereas you prefer Agile Project Manager. You may be right, or not, but it would behoove you to weave the term Senior Scrum Master into your resume and thereby increase your odds of acceptance.
  3. Be honest. Although tailored, your resume must still be accurate. Playing up the value of your past experiences is one thing, claiming that you did something or were responsible for something that you had nothing to do with is another. 
  4. Ensure that it can be quickly read. People will want to quickly scan a resume to first identify if you might be a good fit, so make it easy to identify your main points. For example, look at the style that I’m using in this list. Each key point that I make is concise, action oriented, and presented in bold. You can scan the list quickly and get the gist of it, and then determine for yourself if you want to read the detailed description behind a given point. And yes, this is important: A 2018 eye-tracking study by Ladders Inc. found that recruiters spent on average 7.4 seconds doing an initial read of a resume before moving on to the next one. 
  5. Ensure your resume is AI-readable. Screening performed by the AI will likely focus on the text, so you don’t want to rely on graphical images. A few months ago a friend of mine asked me to review his resume because it was being rejected for jobs that he was clearly well-suited for. What he had done was list his certifications, which were critical requirements for the jobs he was applying for, as graphical logos/badges. That section looked great to humans, but it likely wasn’t being processed by the AIs. As a result the AIs didn’t recognize his certifications and were likely rejecting him for not being qualified.
  6. Get help. Ask your friends and family, and better yet people in hiring positions for the types of jobs your looking for, to review your resume. There are also online services, discussed below, to consider. NOTE: This is not an open invitation for people to send me their resumes unless they are friends or known colleagues, my apology.

2. Recognize Where Artificial Intelligence (AI) is Applied in the Hiring/Recruitment Process

When organizations post an advertisement for a job they are likely to get dozens, and often hundreds, of resumes submitted for the position. It often simply isn’t possible to process all of these resumes by hand, or more accurately employers are choosing not to do so manually, so the resumes are scanned into an Applicant Tracking System (ATS). The ATS market in 2021 was $2.14 billion USD, growing at a compounded rate of  6.2% a year.  Increasingly, an important feature of these ATS are AI-based screening software. The idea is to narrow down the multitude of applications received to a handful of candidates that are then considered for potential interviews. 

This process is depicted in the following diagram. In this case your resume (or CV, or application) is potentially queued up (although in many cases these days processed immediately) for processing by an AI screener. The AI screener compares the contexts of your resume – and optionally other information gathered about you from online sources such as social media, financial institutions, and law enforcement – with the needs of the job. Based on the criteria set by the employer, it makes a determination whether the resume represents a likely candidate to be considered for an interview. Otherwise, the resume is rejected and the candidate (hopefully) informed of the rejection. Interestingly, if you receive a rejection fairly quickly, say within a few hours or a day, it may be a sign that an AI screened it out of consideration.

AI in the hiring process

In addition to initial screening of applicants, AI is commonly used to automate other aspects of the hiring process:

  • Automated communication. Much of the straightforward communication with potential candidates can be dealt with via technology. Automated email responses have been in place since the 1990s in some cases, and for the past few years chatbot technology has been applied. Although the chatbot AIs have struggled with complex interactions up until now, we’re seeing very interesting results with chatbot technology. Generative AI like ChatGPT should thrive in a domain like recruitment where the types of conversations are much narrower.
  • Candidate sourcing. AI technology is being used to identify potential candidates for a job so that employers can reach out to likely candidates rather than wait for candidates to apply. This is how many of the “free” resume review platforms, discussed below, make money. You submit your resume for review and then they include it for consideration for their customers who are looking for potential hires. And of course there are professional job platforms, such as LinkedIn, that put candidates and employers together. 
  • Interview scheduling. AI technology can be used to schedule interviews with potential candidates. You may think that you’re emailing back and forth with a person to schedule the interview, but these days can you really be sure? More importantly, does it matter?

3. Apply AI to Beat The AI

The idea is that you use resume review services that put your resume through the same sort of AI-based screening technology to help you to improve your resume. The following diagram depicts how this works. You first work with the resume review service to improve your resume.  You submit it to the service and you’re given feedback that you act on to improve your resume. You may need iterate through this process a few times until you get to the point that you’re willing to submit your resume to the potential employer. The goal is to increase the chance that your resume makes it past the AI screening software and into the smaller queue of resumes that are then considered for the position you are applying for. 

Getting past the AI hiring screener

There are many “free” services that you can work with, such as TopResume and Ladders, that can easily be found via a simple search.  I put the word free in quotes because you are likely to be bombarded with job ads after you’ve submitted your resume because they’re usually offering candidate sourcing services to potential employers as I mentioned above. Some people consider this to be a huge benefit because it helps them to identify a greater range of job openings.

Another option is to use a paid service, such as Jobscan. The great thing about this site is that you submit your resume and the job advertisement and it gives you specific advice to improve your resume for that job. A friend of mine used this service recently and he described it as a life-changing experience.  Once again, you can find these sites via a simple search.

Some organizations will even provide you with advice for how to format your resume, or even go so far as to provide a documentation template, so as to increase its compatibility with their ATS software. They’re doing their best to help you to be successful, so accept that help.

Parting Words

I hope that this blog post has given you some food for thought.  Remember, your resume gets you the interview. It will be how you do in the interview(s) that get you the job. 

I wish you the best of luck.

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3 Responses

  1. Thanks Scott. I have a question. Shall we include voluntary work experience in the resume if it aligns with the job requirements?
    I had this discussion with some recruiters and everyone has different opinion. Some say they really consider only paid work. Others say it is ok to put that up. Could you pl throw some light how AI takes that up?

    1. That’s a great question. The quick answer is that it depends. My advice is that if that’s the only experience that you have, then definitely include it. If you have similar paid experience, then focus on that although you may also want to mention your voluntary work in your cover letter if you have one. Furthermore, if you’ve done significant volunteer work in something that is clearly called out in the job ad then I would certainly include it. So, there is no one single rule here.

      As far as the AI goes, it depends on how the employer has trained it. Many organizations value voluntary work, so if they’ve taken that into consideration in their previous hires then the source data that they’re using to train the AI likely reflects that value.

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