The Ugly Truth about Online Job Applications – Part 2

Someone typing on a laptop computer.In Part 1 of this series, you read how many employers today use an Applicant Tracking System (ATS) in an effort to efficiently process the ever-increasing number of online job applications they receive.  If you have not already done so, please go back and read Part 1 now.  You will recall that the ATS software scans the application, cover letter, and resume of each applicant, calculating the degree of fit for the job.  This is done by examining the answers provided through the online application, and searching the electronic cover letter and resume files for key words, phrases, and other criteria.  No longer does a human resources analyst or technician need to perform the manual task of painstakingly opening and reading every single application and associated document files received to determine whether an applicant is qualified.  Instead, the ATS does the initial tedious and time-consuming review work, places the resulting information in a database, and flags those files which the human resources person may wish to examine closer.  The concept sounds great, except that as you learned in Part 1, ATS systems do have their weaknesses as well, which makes the overall online application process far less than 100% perfect, creating potential frustrations for both the employer and applicant alike.

Think of the road to an interview as a series of two hurdles; first, you have to successfully jump the “ATS hurdle” in order to get your application materials into the hands of a real human (such as the human resources person and/or hiring manager).  Second, you have to successfully jump the “human hurdle” by convincing that HR person or hiring manager that you are qualified and desirable enough to be offered an interview.  This second hurdle is jumped by using the usual job search tactics of having a well-written cover letter, resume or curriculum vitae (CV), and being sure to include any additional documents required at the time of application (copies of transcripts, licenses, certifications, etc.).

But what about that first ATS hurdle?  Since an ATS is a piece of software, essentially a machine, it doesn’t care how well-written or convincing your cover letter and resume may sound.  So, what can you do?

At the end of Part 1, the famous quote “Know thy enemy” was mentioned.  In order to beat a machine, you have to think like a machine, and that begins by knowing how an ATS thinks.

I am sure at some time you have performed a data matching exercise.  It may have been a “match the correct answer” type of question as part of a test or examination, or perhaps you had to “match the celebrity to their most famous character or role” as part of a game or online challenge.  In any event, the task involved correctly matching up two or more items.  Similarly, an ATS takes a set of criteria established for each job posting (such as a required degree, years of experience, specific job duties, required license or certification, and other parameters) and attempts to match each of these elements to those found on an applicant’s materials.

Of course, every ATS works a bit differently and has different degrees of automation.  Some systems still utilize significant human involvement while others attempt to automate everything as much as possible.  The general idea in a more fully-featured system is to examine the answers submitted by a candidate to the questions found in the online application and see how well they match the established job criteria.  Additionally, the ATS electronically “reads” the resume and cover letter, looking for specific key words and phrases which match up with the criteria.  The matching information extracted from the application and additional attached files is placed in a database and analyzed, with the resulting number and degree of matching providing a score as to how qualified each applicant is for the position.  The more matches found, the more “qualified” the applicant appears.

Since a recruitment could result in hundreds of applicants – a number likely to be considered impractical for individual review and interviews – the human resources department uses the ATS to identify the “most qualified” individuals (i.e., most matches to the criteria), and these are the folks considered for an interview invitation.  This is not a bad approach in concept; after all, in fairness to the employer, if you personally had to spend hours and hours interviewing applicants, you would only want to see the most qualified people, right?

So, how might this all play out?  Let’s follow a fictional individual named Kayla who is looking for a position in an accounting-related field.  After looking at a number of online job postings, she has decided to apply to Humongous International Inc. (also fictional) for an Accounts Payable (AP) Specialist position, using their online application.

Kayla has been employed full-time 3½ years at ACME Supply, a small, local, and family owned company, working as a clerk alongside the company accountant in both accounts payable and accounts receivable.  She has had an Associate’s degree in accounting for several years, but was enrolled in college part-time and just received her Bachelor’s degree in accounting last month.  Although Kayla really likes her current job and the people at ACME, Humongous International offers much higher wages, great benefits, and most importantly to her, significant opportunities for future growth, promotion, and advancement in the area of accounting.

Shown below is an excerpt from the posting Kayla found on the company job website.

Fictional online job posting for an accounts payable specialist position.

Because it is large, Humongous International (HI) always has numerous job postings running concurrently and receives thousands of applications.  The HI Human Resources (HR) department utilizes an ATS to help efficiently manage its recruitment process.  Although about a hundred individuals are expected to respond and apply to this posting, the Accounting Manager has limited available time and therefore only wants to see the top 10 most qualified applicants.

Before the posting was placed on the website, the HR analyst met with the hiring manager and discussed the AP Specialist position recruitment, and together they decided on which keywords and criteria from the planned job posting will be used by the ATS to examine applications and rank applicants (see their highlighted notes below).  Finally, based on their discussion, the HR analyst made the necessary entries in the ATS software and the posting went live on the Humongous International website and other popular online job boards.

Fictional online job posting for an accounts payable specialist position showing notes and highlighted key words.Kayla sits down at her computer and completes an online application.  In Part 3 of this series, we will see what she does and how it goes.


Featured image courtesy of Hillary – flickr


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