The Ugly Truth about Online Job Applications – Part 3

Young woman looking at a laptop computer and appearing very frustrated.In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, you read how many employers today use an Applicant Tracking System (ATS) to automatically screen and filter the online job applications they receive.  In Part 2, we discussed Kayla, a fictional job applicant who was about to apply online for an Accounts Payable Specialist position with the equally fictional Humongous International (HI) company.  You saw an excerpt from the HI online job posting detailing the duties of the position as well as the requirements each applicant must meet in order to be eligible for consideration.  Finally, you – unlike Kayla – were privy to the notes taken by the HR analyst after discussion with the hiring manager, and you know what key words and criteria will be programmed into the ATS for use when reviewing applicants for this position.  In this final installment of this series, we will follow Kayla as she submits her online application and attachments, which are then reviewed by the company’s ATS.

Kayla creates an applicant account on the HI job website and enters her name, address, email address, telephone number, and all the usual information.  Next, the system asks her to answer a series of questions relating to her education and work experience; you may recall that Kayla has a bachelor’s degree in accounting and has been working 3½ years at a small company performing duties in the areas of both accounts payable and accounts receivable.  As shown below, she answers the online application questions accordingly.

Excerpt of three questions from an online application regarding education level, degree major, and years of experience.

After answering the list of questions, Kayla attaches a cover letter and resume as directed by the HI online application software.  Shown below are excerpts from her cover letter and resume.

Excerpt from a cover letter.Excerpt from a resume.She also must complete a number of entries providing details regarding her former employers, including addresses, telephone numbers, names of supervisors, etc.  Finally, she is asked to answer several EEOC-related demographics questions about her race, gender, etc.; although these are optional, she is nervous about appearing uncooperative, and so responds to each accordingly.  Once everything has been completed, she clicks the “Submit” button and begins the process of anxiously waiting for a reply to this application, hopefully with an invitation to interview for the position.

Kayla waits to hear something back from Humongous International regarding her application; she waits a few weeks, and before long, two months have passed.  Nothing.  As you know from reading her credentials, Kayla is indeed very qualified for the position and would likely be a good applicant for further consideration for an interview.  So what happened?

Unfortunately – like most other unsuccessful applicants – Kayla will most likely NEVER find out why she was not contacted for an interview; however, here are four possible reasons, any one of which could account for her failure to land this job or even secure an interview:

  • Internal Issues. For any number of reasons within the company, issues such as budget, reorganization, personnel reassignment, job consolidation, hiring freeze, human resources issue, etc. may have caused the opening to be unexpectedly delayed or even cancelled, and perhaps no one will end up being hired for this recruitment.  The specific position may or may not be posted again at a later date.
  • Considerable Competition. There may have been too many other candidates who were simply much better qualified with significantly more experience.  It happens.
  • It Was an Inside Job. Company policy or union rules may have required that internal candidates (current employees) receive preference over external candidates.  Sadly, “posting the job” publicly may have been nothing more than a token formality.
  • ATS Rejection. The ATS software may have reviewed Kayla’s materials and deemed her to be a poor match for the position, thereby excluding her from the filtered list of top applicants.

Many applicants may not know about or have even considered the first three reasons; however, these things do happen, and unfortunately, you as an applicant, have no control over them.  Also, as stated previously, it is unlikely most applicants will ever find out what really happened and why they were not considered further for the position.

But wait!  Regarding the last reason, we know that given her education and work experience Kayla should have been a good match for this position.  Why would the ATS rank her low causing her to not make the cut?  Remember, what the ATS knows about Kayla depends strictly on what Kayla chooses to tell it, and the system is basically designed to perform a matching task between the information she provided and the factors it was told by HR are important.  Let’s take a look at Kayla’s application materials again, but this time as viewed by the ATS application.

Table showing comparison of ATS criteria and question responses by applicant.Kayla has her bachelor’s degree with a major in accounting which would put her on the upper end of the educational requirement; although various combinations of education and experience are acceptable as a minimum requirement for consideration, employers will sometimes look for and filter the database for applicants who have the highest educational credentials.  Also, Kayla fits into the “3 to 5 years” category with respect to work experience; therefore, while she clearly meets the minimum requirement, if the employer filters applicants for the greatest length of experience, she would fall into the second-best category.  In other words, if the employer happens to filter the database to find applicants with “More than 5 Years” of experience, Kayla would not appear.  Fortunately for her, this should only happen when the employer is lucky enough to receive a large number of very experienced applicants (> 5 years) and therefore needs to limit the number of persons considered, which might be rare.  So far, so good.

Now, let’s look at how the ATS likely evaluated Kayla’s cover letter and resume attachments.

Table showing comparison of ATS criteria and applicant attachments.It should be immediately clear that Kayla did little or nothing to customize or tailor her attachments for this specific job posting; instead, she tried to save some time and effort by simply using her pre-written, usual, one-size-fits-all resume and cover letter.  In the “old days” when humans read all application materials, she might have squeaked by, if the HR person happened to know the accounts payable tasks well enough to recognize that Kayla had performed these duties.  However, when the words selected by Kayla for use on her documents do not match the words used on the job posting, even a human may not know they mean the same thing.

For example, you may recall from Part 2 of this series that the hiring manager indicated to the HR analyst that “3-way matching” was very important and applicants must have performed this task.  Although Kayla wrote “Ensure PO and signed packing slip agree with invoice information” in her materials, the HR person may not be aware that this is the same as “3-way matching” in the accounts payable (AP) world.  If a human cannot recognize this fact, an ATS certainly will not, unless it is designed to recognize such alternate wordings.  What if you happen to work in a very technical or jargon-oriented field?  Suppose you work in a medical field; do you think the HR person or ATS will understand that a “blood pressure unit” and “sphygmomanometer” typically refer to the same thing?

As you saw in the above table, Kayla’s choice of words to describe her experience and duties is a poor match with the job posting.  The hiring manager considered experience in using Excel for “pivot tables, formatting, formulas, and chart creation” to be critical; however, if Kayla has these skills, she certainly did not mention it in her application materials by using those words.  If you have any experience with Excel yourself, you already know that merely “using” Excel certainly does not necessarily mean you are competent in the use of pivot tables or in writing complex formulas, skills the manager was specifically seeking.

On the plus side, Kayla did mention how her experience made her ready to assist other areas of the Accounting Department; unfortunately, no one will ever read about it.  Remember, it was not a specific attribute which was included for comparison by the ATS; the manager merely planned to discuss backup support an interview – an interview which Kayla will not receive.  In fairness to Kayla, she did not know, and could not know, which specific aspects the ATS would filter on and since she read it in the job description, she thought to include it in her cover letter.  Good for her!

By now, you have probably figured out that you are at a real disadvantage here; since you do not know exactly which words and phrases found on your materials will be evaluated by the ATS, you do not know which items to emphasize or which words to necessarily select.  You DO, however, have clues: read the job posting – carefully.  Take notice of the words, terms, phrases, and other details used.  These are your best guess as to what HR will ask the ATS to evaluate.

Because all these systems each work a bit differently and are operated by HR people with varying skill levels – and don’t forget the quality of your competition varies with every recruitment – there is simply no guaranteed way to ensure the ATS will rank you as a top candidate.  Unless you know someone inside the employer’s organization who can help ensure your application will be seen and read, all you can do is prepare your materials carefully based on what you have learned about how an ATS operates, and you will have done your best.

Here are a few final thoughts regarding jumping the ATS hurdle:

  • Again, choose your words carefully – speak their If the job posting reads “charts” then say charts, not “graphs.”  If the posting indicates you need to be “proficient with XYZ Software” then do not say “experienced with XYZ Software.”  If the posting requires you to “develop and create complex spreadsheets for data entry” then use the words “develop and create.”  If instead, you write that you have “used complex spreadsheets,” not only are these different words, but it also does not clearly indicate you personally developed and created the workbooks themselves; someone else may have actually done all the hard work and you simply entered data into the spreadsheets which they created.  Some reviewers, whether ATS or human, can be very fussy about this not-so-little difference in words!
  • Be careful with acronyms and abbreviations. If the posting requires you to be proficient in the use of a “digital multimeter” do not simply use the abbreviation “DMM,” even though everyone in any technical field probably knows they mean the same thing.  Be sure to use both the words and the official (or most common) abbreviation.  Similarly, when describing a degree or credential, use both the words and the abbreviation; for example, Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) degree, or Certified Financial Planner (CFP).
  • Don’t bother trying to totally saturate your application and documents with all the buzz words and phrases found in the job posting in hopes the ATS will rate you higher; it won’t. Any decent ATS is likely designed to detect such “tricks” and instead rate you lower.  Yes, use the key words and phrases as appropriate for your materials, but absolutely don’t overdo it.  Besides, let’s say you happen to make it through the ATS hurdle; if a human reads your documents and they are obviously overly crammed with buzz words to the point of sounding stupid, you will look stupid too, and your application will simply get tossed.
  • I shouldn’t have to say this, but don’t fib. Yes, believe it or not, people do sometimes answer the ATS application questions in a blatantly dishonest manner in an attempt to “game” the system in the hopes of getting an interview.  They may electronically check the box for “5 or more years of experience” when they really have had only 6 months of experience.  They mark every answer which will be considered the most favorable, regardless of whether or not it is true.  Their flawed logic goes something like this, “If I can just get my foot in the door for an interview, I will certainly impress them with my exceptional skills and charming personality!”  Yeah, don’t bet on it.  I have personally had to interview candidates selected and sent by HR because they made it through the online application system by lying (but HR was unwilling or afraid to challenge them); I can assure you that your lies WILL be found out, and you WILL make an impression, but it will definitely NOT be a good one!  Interviewers tend to remember dishonest applicants without integrity who waste everyone’s time.  Would you want to be remembered in that way the next time a job opening comes up at that organization?
  • Follow the application instructions and keep your materials simple. If the directions read “submit your cover letter and resume in Word format” then do it.  If you instead choose to submit your attachments in PDF format – and their particular ATS happens to be unable to read PDF – then the system will not be able to score you.  Regardless of the file format used, keep the fonts used and layout format of your materials simple.  Remember, your documents are going to be read by a dumb machine, not evaluated by an art critic.  If you use fancy, non-standard fonts, have weird bullet points, border scrollwork, or other cute but unusual items in your materials, you are drastically increasing the risk of the ATS being unable to successfully read and interpret your submissions.
  • Finally, if you can completely skip the ATS altogether and communicate directly with the hiring manager (usually your new boss), that may give you an edge. If the hiring manager becomes interested in you and knows your name, he or she may be able to tell HR to include your application in the pile of applications to be considered.  The operative word here is “may” because in some very rigidly structured organizations, HR will often even control who the hiring manager gets to see.  Also, sometimes identifying that hiring manager and then finding their email or physical mailing address can be surprisingly challenging.  Some organizations have online contact or personnel directories accessible to the public which are very helpful, while others sometimes appear to take great measures to insulate their managers from receiving communications or even conceal their identities.  Sometimes, the job posting materials themselves may identify to whom the position reports; in other cases, you will likely have to spend considerable time trying to find the needed name and contact information by doing online searches of industry-related articles, websites, newsletters, media reports, etc. using your online detective skills!

There you go; now you know the truth about online applications!  While there probably is an ATS lurking behind that online job application form, at least you now have an idea of how these systems work, placing you in a much better position to successfully navigate the application process towards the immediate goal of securing an interview!


Featured image courtesy of  Jerry Bunkers- flickr


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