Whether you’re lucky enough to be employed or currently out of work, it’s no secret that landing a job in 2020 is harder than ever before.
And while it’s easy to blame coronavirus and wallow in our job-seeker sorrow—and believe me, I’m not ignoring the very real challenges of our current economy—my research suggests there’s more to it than that.
A friend of mine had been applying to jobs prior to the pandemic, and he hadn’t landed a single interview.
I thought I’d have the solution to his problem in all of five minutes (I used to be pretty good at applying for jobs online), but it turns out he was already doing everything “right.”
His resume listed quantified bullet point after quantified bullet point. The formatting looked good. He tailored his cover letters to the position descriptions. His online presence is superb; he owns the front page of Google results for his name. And LinkedIn rated his profile as an “All-Star.” Oh yeah, he’s also gainfully employed.
You might be thinking, “Well, if he applied through job boards, that’s his first problem.”
And I’m thinking, “He used to apply through job boards and land interviews more than 60 percent of the time just a few years ago, so what’s changed?”
Turns out, A LOT. And I would’ve never known if it wasn’t for my friend stumping me with his seemingly simple quandary. I’m flabbergasted by how out of touch I was with the modern job hunt, which is why I couldn’t not write this post.
With the average job tenure lasting just one year on average, it’s extremely likely you’ll need to understand why in the near future.
I wrote this post to demystify the modern recruiting process and help qualified candidates figure out how to apply for jobs online. So if you’re ready to make it past the initial resume screening process and score an interview—and ultimately land the opportunity you deserve—then keep reading.
TLDR: ATS help recruiters/hiring managers collect, sort, and organize a large number of applications.
Most Common ATS Features
Rather than manually reviewing each resume, recruiters and hiring managers search for resumes based on keywords, or have the system filter or automatically rank applicants.
In many cases, recruiters use the technology to do a first pass of resumes, meaning you can be removed from consideration by an algorithm without ever being reviewed by a human.
While there hundreds of ATS on the market, most of them list the same features. Understanding them is key to landing an interview. Here are the big ones that will determine whether a human ever sees your resume.
Automatic Applicant Ranking/Scoring
Many ATS provide an automatic “match rank” or score for each applicant. The system will take and parse the information from your resume, and compare it with the job description, looking for specific keywords, then provide a score from 0 to 100, or one to 10, that tells recruiters how qualified a candidate is for said job, based on the criteria set by the hiring manager.
They’ll also score you based on the answers you submit via the online form, aka “knockout questions.”
For example, job posts that ask for your location are likely using that information as a filter that will alter your overall qualification score.
Comprehensive Candidate Profiles
Many ATS will automatically create a comprehensive, wildly detailed profile of you based on your digital footprint and other “public” information. All they need is your email address to populate every piece of available content about you online.
According to Workable, aggregating candidates’ public information is a way to “humanize” the process, and they list it as a must-have feature for today’s ATS. Here’s how they describe it:
“I want to see faces dammit. And tweets. And maybe other stuff that humanizes this record.”
“Pipl’s identity resolution engine cross-references global data from the Internet, public records, listings, directories, archives and exclusive sources to show the connections between people and the world.”
ZoomInfo is more for B2B data enrichment. Check out the screenshot below to see how they collect your information.
Pretty scary, huh?
This is sort-of a feature of the “Automatic Applicant Ranking/Score” section, but it’s also important to mention on its own.
Resume parsing refers to how ATS extracts and organizes your resume into “structured data,” so they can do stuff like rank/score you automatically.
This means that many times submitting a PDF, or using creative typography, will hurt you, because the ATS can’t read the data well, if at all.
Even if you’re rejected for a position, the ATS will store your resume in its system, because every time there’s a new role to fill, they’ll start with searching their databases to see who might be a match, which leads me to the next feature.
Search and Filters
ATS allows hiring managers to search by any keyword, and often with Boolean search, which connects keywords using AND, OR, NOT and NEAR.
Some tools will even let you filter by those it labels “not job hoppers,” etc.
Filters may include the job seeker’s location, application source, age of your profile, and whether or not you’re an employee referral.
Recruiters’ dirty little secrets
Backchanneling / Backdoor references
If the recruiter actually sees your resume and is interested in interviewing you, she’ll likely visit your LinkedIn profile to make sure everything checks out.
She may even message any mutual connections you have to see what they’ll say about you. This is illegal but it happens all the time from what I read.
“This phenomenon is even more prevalent in the last five years or so because of LinkedIn’s growing popularity. Even if you choose not to give anybody there as a reference, backdoor references can reveal the skeletons in your closet. Backdoor references can be especially common when you’re looking for a job in sectors like tech.”
Another potentially discriminatory and sometimes illegal practice includes cyberstalking you.
“A lot of recruiters—most that I know—will Google candidates who make it pretty far [in the hiring process], and then use Google image results, and also blog posts, tweets, and open Facebook accounts to judge someone’s character and credibility.” (Source)
Whether it’s subconscious or downright discriminatory, hiring managers usually have a preconceived picture of what the perfect candidate looks like, which often is based on stereotypes.
Bias 1: Being overweight
Weight bias is still especially prevalent, according to one recruiter, who says being overweight can make people think the person is lazy or lacks motivation.
Bias 2: “Diversity”
“Diversity in Silicon Valley’s mind is the picture of Phylicia Rashad,” (the actress who portrayed Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show), said another recruiter via the same article.
According to the post, she sees African-American women considered more readily for roles as diversity/inclusion chiefs, while white men more often lead the pack to head up sales teams.
Another recruiter bolsters her experience:
“There’s a penchant to see more diversity, but the definition is narrow,” typically reduced to race and gender; it was common to tout a candidate for being a “visible minority.” “It’s the only way to highlight that for the client on a call,” he explains, since “we can’t put it in our documentation.”
Bias 3: Looking “too young”
The same recruiter from above said he also sees a lot of ageism in the hiring process.
For example, there’s kind-of a sweet spot in terms of age for C-level positions, he said.
“My boss would say things like, ‘Did they have enough gray hair?’—not literally, but are they seasoned enough, do they have enough experience where they could be credible?”
There were occasions when recruiters would nominate younger, well-qualified candidates for senior leadership roles, Mark recalls, but “I’d say 20% of the time they’re open to meeting with that person.”
Bias 4: Expensive degrees
At the beginning of the recruitment process, recruiters are dealing with so many resumes that they use a prestigious degree as a quick way to filter down the candidate pool.
According to a recruiter from that FastCompany article I mentioned earlier:
Recruiters “go to lower common denominators,” he says: “Who are all the Ivy League–school grads? Who are the McKinsey folks? Who is from a brand or company who we know and love?” As Mark points out, that leaves a candidate pool that’s only as diverse as those elite institutions. “We wouldn’t eliminate people for not having these things,” he says, “but we would prioritize people who did have Harvard credentials, for instance.”
The only workaround here is an employee referral, which supersedes a lot of things usually, depending on who it’s from—but you can guarantee if someone’s referred by, say, the CEO, their resume is definitely being screened.
Creepy interview tools
Some companies are relying more on video interviewing. For instance, a company may require every job applicant to submit a one-minute video, in which they share more information about themselves.
The creepy part is there are tools that will read your facial expressions via the video to predict who you are as a person and if you’d fit into the culture.
How to land a job interview in 2020
Once I understood what job seekers are up against behind-the-scenes for that initial resume screening, I was able to research ways to strategically play the game.
Here’s what you must know before applying to jobs today… in no particular order.
Job Application Tip 1: Audit your LinkedIn connections
One thing I didn’t cover is the importance of cleaning up your LinkedIn connections. By “cleaning up,” I mean you should remove any connections who might say something not positive about you if a recruiter/hiring manager messaged them on LinkedIn.
This will hopefully prevent any negative and illegal backdoor references. Aside from the post I mentioned above, I highly recommend this articlethat showcases phenomenal LinkedIn summaries, explaining why they’re good.
If you’re younger, try uploading a headshot that makes you look older—not too old—the sweet spot for finding a job is between the ages of 28 and 35. During this time, you get a +25.1% hireability boost over everyone else. Up to age 28, your hireability is increasing by +9% every year. After age 35, your hireability drops by 8% every year.
My private information is protected and monitored, I’m alerted when my information is uploaded to the dark web, and I benefit from improved Google search results, along with social media audits/monitoring.
I like the dark web monitoring because it makes it super easy to get your private information removed, and the information on here could be sold to data brokers that recruiters use to create a more comprehensive profile of you.
The social media audit checks your connected social media accounts for bigotry, profanity, alcohol/drugs, sex, bullying, crime and polarizing content, and then lists them in the dashboard, where it links to the post in question for an easy removal process.
BrandYourself only checked my Twitter and Facebook, so you may have to audit your other profiles on places like Instagram and LinkedIn manually.
In addition to BrandYourself, consider creating a professional Instagram account if you don’t want recruiters to find your private, personal Instagram account. Recruiters are starting to look at candidates’ Instagrams, and they’re turned off when they find private accounts.
Also, if you blog or have had a blog, written guest blogs, or have created any other content online, you should also go back and audit your work. If possible, remove any posts that may alienate prospects.
Job Application Tip 3: Use AI to create the perfect resume
During my research, I found two legit tools that allow you to efficiently personalize your resume to any job description.
They’re freemium tools, but I purchased the premium version to give them a test drive.
First, you’ll upload your resume and your LinkedIn profile (by saving it as a PDF and via URL for LinkedIn). Then you’ll copy and paste a link to the specific job description you’re applying to.
Finally, the tool will scan your resume and give it a score, which tells you how much your resume matches the job description, based on a variety of factors.
If you pay for premium, you can easily create a bank of bullet points, and save different resumes for different types of positions. This is a huge time saver, and I love it.
Lastly, it also rates and reviews your LinkedIn, giving you specific-to-you optimization tips to improve your profile.
By now, you’re probably wondering what these tools are….
ResumeWorded has a much prettier, more modern interface, and JobScan has a lot more valuable, original content. ResumeWorded curates really good content instead.
I think they basically use the same technology and probably have similar methods for spitting out your score/recommendations—in my experience, anyway—so sign up for free trials with both and see which one you like/trust more.
ResumeWorded Pro is $49/month or $19/month, if you pay annually, and JobScan Premium is $49.95/month or $89.95 per three months.
Job Application Tip 3.5: Understand resume best practices
There is an overwhelming amount of content on the topic of “how to create a resume.” But much of it lacks any substance, e.g. real-world, data-driven answers about what makes some resumes way better than others.
Enter TalentWorks, which does just that. It’s a must-read for job seekers. These are its key findings on resume best practices.
Resumes must be ATS friendly
Your resume must be ATS friendly, and as I mentioned before, each ATS is different, so what might work for one ATS may not work for another. Solve this problem by finding out what ATS each job site/company uses, and google something like “how [insert ATS name] scans resumes.”
You can find out which ATS they use by looking at the URL. I’ll let JobScan elaborate:
The job listing or application URL is one of the easiest ways to spot a specific ATS.
Something new I learned about ATS while researching this post is it’s usually better to submit a Word resume than a PDF due to many resume parsing features.
Don’t list jobs you stayed in less than nine months
American hiring managers are suspicious of job applicants who left a job in less than 15-16 months.
More specifically, there was a big difference between leaving after 6 vs. 9 vs. 18 months. People whose shortest job was 9+ months were 85% more hireable than people whose shortest job was 8 months or less.
Objectively speaking, your hireability is still severely affected if you leave after 12 months. Staying 18 months fully protects you from future employer suspicion.
Ask others to review/edit your resume
It’s easy to make dumb mistakes, like misspelling something or forgetting your email when you’re the only one editing your resume.
To prevent this from happening, ask someone to check your resume.
Only include your 3-4 most recent jobs
TalentWorks recommends only listing your three to four most recent jobs and summarizing the rest in a key skills or employment summary section.
The only exception was for recent college graduates. For job applicants with less than one year of work experience, listing an explicit objective garnered seven percent more interviews.
There are some exceptions to the rule.
And if you’re gung-ho on providing an objective, make sure you feature CONCRETE skills.
Quantify your achievements
According to TalentWorks, every three sentences, you should feature at least one number to demonstrate concrete impact. Job seekers who did this saw a 40.2 percent boost over their competition.
Don’t list the word “collaborative,” or insinuate it
The most “collaborative” candidates get penalized by 50.8 percent by hiring managers.
TalentWorks uses the following example to explain why. Based on the three bullet points below, which candidate would you want to interview?
Owned, analyzed and delivered on-time financial reports for business sub-unit A to management team on monthly basis.
Collaborated with full analyst team to create monthly financial reports for management team.
Assisted management team by creating monthly financial reports as a supporting member of the analysis team.
No. 2 and No. 3 provide no insight into the work you did (instead of hint toward free-loading off your team). Many collaborative, team-oriented words have passive, subordinate, weasel-word undertones. Beware of that.
Dos and don’ts
No personal pronouns
People who used even one personal pronoun (“you,” “he,” “she,” “me,” etc.) in their employment section had a 54.7% lower chance of getting an interview callback from a hiring manager
15-20 hard skills
You should add 15-20 skills, buzzwords, and acronyms to your resume. This is associated with a +58.8% boost in hireability on average.
In practice, we suggest including a Key Skills section where you can include common buzzwords from the job posting.
Action verbs start a sentence
If you start a sentence describing what you did with an action verb, you’re off to a strong start. And if you describe the different things that you did at that company with different action verbs, you finish strong too.
Short > long
Densely packed 1-page resume
Job Application Tip 4: Apply to the right jobs
Here are the big takeaways:.
Apply on Mondays. It increases your hireability by 46 percent.
Don’t apply on Fridays or Saturdays.
Apply to jobs within four days of posting. Applying early gets you a +64.7 percent boost over your competition on average.
Apply between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m. It gives you an 89.1 percent boost over your competition.
Apply if you meet at least 50 percent of the requirements. You’re as likely to get a job interview meeting 50 percent of job requirements as meeting 90 percent of them.
Apply to jobs within one to two years of your experience level.
Apply to mid-level jobs after five years of professional experience.
Apply to 150 to 250 jobs. It can take up to 90+ days to land a job in America today.
Job Application Tip 5: Make yourself stand out
In addition to submitting jobs the traditional way, I’d consider picking a few really exciting jobs that were recently posted, and applying creatively.
By creatively, I mean making a specific website/portfolio for the job and addressing the hiring manager, recruiter, or company (if you can’t find the hiring manager/recruiter’s name).
Of the more than 20,000 talent professionals who responded to a LinkedIn survey in 2015, 86 percent said their recruiting organizations focused “very much so” or “to some extent” on passive candidates.
Since then, that number has likely grown. So a great way to get a job interview is by essentially not needing one. Being employed makes you more highly sought after.
While branding yourself is a long-term play, it’s important if you want to always be employed today and have recruiters/hiring managers coming to you.
More than 3,000 words later, you should know everything you need to know about the modern recruitment process in the U.S.
Is it unfair? Definitely. Is it biased? Most of the time. For job seekers, the odds aren’t in your favor. Job searching is difficult, complicated, and more competitive than ever—for a whole bunch of reasons.
We don’t know what the rest of 2020 holds (or even 2021, for that matter.)
The good news? We can put our time and energy into the things we can control.
Take my advice and beat the odds. Maybe your “Season 2” is coming sooner than you think.