What is résumé optimization, and how can I improve my résumé or applications so that I hear back from companies?
Q: I’m currently underemployed and looking for a new job. I’ve been applying for multiple positions per day via online job boards. Most of the time I don’t hear back — good or bad — from the companies I’m applying to, even though I know I’m more than qualified.
I’ve started running into the term “résumé optimization,” and I’m wondering if that’s something I need to be concerned about. What is résumé optimization, and how can I improve my résumé or applications so that I hear back from companies? I’m afraid my applications are getting lost in a mass of résumés.
A: Lots of employers now rely on computerized systems that scan résumés for particular terms as an initial step in (drastically) narrowing down which candidates they will consider. “Résumé optimization” is jargon for what has become a routine practice among many job seekers: creating — or “optimizing” — a résumé with this powerful, nonhuman audience in mind.
The practice is not really as complicated as it may sound.
“At its most basic, it means doing what you would do for any job,” Peter Cappelli, a management professor at the Wharton School and director of its Center for Human Resources, wrote in an email. “And that is try to write the résumé around the job description.”
Still, Cappelli, who has addressed the impact of automated applicant-tracking in his book “Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs,” says it is important to understand that such systems are “designed more to cut out thousands of résumés, and less to find diamonds in the rough.” It’s wise to tweak your résumé with this in mind.
Ian Siegel, chief executive and co-founder of ZipRecruiter, a job-listing and recruiting platform used by more than 13 million job seekers a month, has some practical thoughts on this.
“Parsers sound fancy,” he says, but really what they are is pattern-recognition software. So you’ll still want to follow “common best-practice résumé structure,” Siegel says: summary, skills, employment history and so on. But it might be smart to enumerate skills up top, plainly and specifically.
“The first thing employers care about is: Do you have the skill they are looking for?” Siegel says. And be clear about the length of your experience. “If you have a section labeled ‘Skills,’ parsers are really going to appreciate that,” Siegel explains, because ultimately they are designed to extract information in a hierarchy tracked to employers’ needs.
Of course, you’ll still list the companies you worked for and for how long, but add relevant details — the past employer’s size, the nature of the customer base served. And relate this to the position that’s on offer by picking up key terms from the job listing itself. The most common misstep Siegel sees is an attempt to route around specifics with sweeping language that means nothing to machine parsers — or, indeed, to humans.
“I can do everything, I’m a jack-of-all-trades, I’m a Swiss army knife,” Siegel offers as examples. “Nobody is hiring a Swiss army knife. They’re looking for a specific skill set.”
In short, it’s a lot more effective to spend time honing a résumé for specific openings that might really be a good fit rather than spamming hundreds of listings.
“What you want to try to put in your résumé, as much as possible, is explicitly the keywords an employer would use to search for someone with your skills,” Siegel says. “That’s really the game.”
TITLE DIFFERS FROM JOB
Q: My current job title (program coordinator) does not reflect the actual work that I do (grant writing). After two years in this position, I am starting to look for new job opportunities. I would like to continue working as a grant writer. But I worry that companies using automated systems to prescreen candidates will discount my experience as irrelevant because of my title. Can I use my unofficial job title to make my résumé more competitive?
A: This is an example of how applicant-sorting systems intersect with a specific job search. Jane Horowitz, a career coach and founder of More Than a Résumé, in Denver, says she gets questions like this from clients all the time. Someone in this situation, she advises, has some latitude.
“If they’re a grant writer, say grant writer; that’s fine,” she says. “If they coordinate the materials that grant writers create, then they really are a program coordinator — for grants. So get the word ‘grants’ in there.” Getting through the applicant-tracking software means using keywords — “but not just keywords,” she adds. “It’s keywords in context.”
Both Siegel of ZipRecruiter and Cappelli of Wharton say much the same: Tweaking or supplementing a title so that it accurately describes or clarifies your actual job is fine. Could an employer later get cold feet because of a technical title discrepancy? That’s extremely unlikely, Siegel says; it’s most likely to happen if “you are applying to be a top executive at a Fortune 500 company.”
Horowitz adds a vital caveat: You can’t inflate your job title, and you certainly can’t just make up something that reflects the job you only wish you had. Declaring yourself Senior Executive Vice President of Grant-Writing Operations, for instance, isn’t clarity. It’s lying.
And she echoes Siegel’s broader point about thoughtful targeting. Sometimes it feels more productive to apply for hundreds of jobs rather than a few, but that’s often illusory. Think of your résumé as a template that needs to be customized for every job you pursue, she says: “You can’t do that for 500 companies. No way.”
Submit questions to Rob Walker at email@example.com.