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How to put together a resume that can get past the robots

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A full-scale figure of a terminator robot T-800 used at the movie "Terminator 2" is displayed at a preview of the Terminator Exhibition in Tokyo on March 18, 2009.
YOSHIKAZU TSUNO | AFP | Getty Images

Keanu Reeves, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and job seekers have a common enemy: the machines.

Thankfully, job seekers don't need to worry that robots are taking over, a la "The Matrix" or "Terminator." The machines you must contend with if you're looking to get hired are the business intelligence systems employers and recruiters use to find and attract candidates and fill open jobs.

Understanding how these programs work may be the key to getting past them and landing your next job interview.

How employers use robots and A.I. when hiring

It isn't cheap to find and hire a new employee: The average cost of filling one position is more than $4,000, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. That's led many companies to invest in systems to make the process more efficient.

With an applicant-tracking system, a hiring manager will receive a list of qualifications, experience, or skills for a specific position, plug them into the system, and let the algorithm sort out candidates, says Jon Christiansen, chief intelligence officer at Sparks Research. The firm works on business intelligence and analytics systems, including systems employers use to find job candidates.

"The system is going to look for tags, key words, and key strengths — it's a lot like how SEO works," Christiansen says, referencing how search engines like Google rank search results based on relevance. "It's going to look to put those pieces together, and it's going to score the resume." The resulting score, he says, is used to determine how good of a fit a particular candidate is for a position.

The system is going to look for tags, key words, and key strengths — it's a lot like how SEO works.
Jon Christiansen
Chief intelligence officer, Sparks Research

There are more sophisticated systems, too, that "learn over time," Christiansen says. For example, programs can, with practice, identify key skills or strengths that are weighted more heavily when looking at candidates for a given position.

But those aren't in widespread use — at least not yet.

How to make sure your resume beats the machines

From a job seeker's perspective, it can sound like you're at a serious disadvantage if an employer is using A.I. to screen potential candidates. But just as a robotic Schwarzenegger beat the T-1000 in "Terminator 2," applicants can get past hired gatekeepers if you make some tweaks to your resume and anticipate what the program is looking for.

There's no universal trick, says Hannah Morgan, a job search strategist at Career Sherpa. "There are more than 200 different applicant-tracking systems, and none of them work exactly the same."

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To increase the odds that you'll look like an appealing candidate to an applicant-tracking system, Morgan recommends these four tips:

1. Make your resume easy to scan. If your resume is simple to read, and even to skim, software won't get tripped up, so avoid weird formatting or images. Morgan recommends you stick with a plain Word document rather than downloading and reworking a fancy template, and use simple subheds and bullet points to organize information.

2. Incorporate keywords. Weave important terms from the job description into your resume to be sure an applicant-tracking system picks them up. Try using an online keyword tool or analyzer to assess those that are most relevant, and include not just words but phrases related to work process or procedures.

3. Make sure a human can read your resume, too. There's a lot of focus on making sure software can read the resume, but eventually, Morgan says, a "human will need to look at it, too." Make sure your resume reads well to both a robot and a person.

4. Circumvent the robots if you can. Morgan says that your best chance of landing an interview is leveraging your network and getting a referral. That puts your resume directly in the hands of a decision-maker.

Hiring processes have changed, experts say, and job-seekers will need to evolve their methods if they want to keep up. "You can't really send out a generic resume and expect to get a callback," says Christiansen.

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