How to Beat the Applicant Tracking System, with Brandon Laws

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Find Your Dream Job, Episode 236:

How to Beat the Applicant Tracking System, with Brandon Laws

Air date: March 25, 2020

Mac Prichard:

This is Find Your Dream Job, the podcast that helps you get hired, have the career you want, and make a difference in life.

I’m your host, Mac Prichard. I’m also the founder of Mac’s List. It’s a job board in the Pacific Northwest that helps you find a fulfilling career.

Every Wednesday, I talk to a different expert about the tools you need to find the work you want.

At many companies, a computer, not a human being, reviews and ranks job applications.

Here to talk about you can beat these applicant tracking systems is Brandon Laws.

Brandon is the marketing director at Xenium HR. He’s also the host of the weekly leadership and HR podcast, Transform Your Workplace.

He joins us today at the Mac’s List studio in Portland, Oregon.

Well, Brandon, let’s get right to it. What is an applicant tracking system?

Brandon Laws:

The applicant tracking system is a great system for hiring managers, HR professionals to cut down on the time it takes to find good candidates. I mean, that’s the simplest way I could put it.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, when I talk to job seekers and I know you talk to job seekers all the time…

Brandon Laws:

All the time.

Mac Prichard:

People worry that applicant tracking systems are stopping them from getting jobs they might otherwise qualify for. What do you say to people who have that concern?

Brandon Laws:

That is the reality, right? They are being filtered out and it’s because there are higher and better uses for HR professionals and hiring managers. They don’t have the time to go through stacks and stacks of resumes, so as long as we understand, as job seekers, that that is actually happening, you are being filtered out through whatever tools and filters that they’re setting up, that’s there’s a way to beat it, too. There is a way to cut through and most people are making lots of mistakes about it.

Mac Prichard:

I want to talk about those ways to get past the system. Just to be clear, we’re talking, when we speak about applicant tracking systems, about a piece of software, not actually some mechanical robot.

Brandon Laws:

Yeah, a lot of people probably thinks it’s like some robot, AI system but the reality is that what it is a cloud-based software tool that sits on the browser that you had access as a manager, you’d see all the candidates that are applying for your position and you can put job postings out there and it’s a really nice tool. I recommend most employers have it but there’s a good way to use it and a not so good way to use it.

Mac Prichard:

How about use? Are most companies today using applicant tracking systems or is this something that you’d find at big corporations? Are small companies using them, too?

Brandon Laws:

Yeah, I mean, it’s really all companies are using them. I don’t know the exact number but I think enterprise-level organizations are most certainly using them but small businesses are really starting to use them too because the cost to have these tools on a subscription model is affordable now. And I think that people are realizing that we’re spending way too much time on basic administrative things and so now, herein lies the issue that we have.

It’s not really an issue, it’s the fact that we have this great tool that we need to make sure that we’re finding the right candidates and we’re not filtering out the ones that would actually be a good fit for our organization, so it goes both ways. There are issues on the candidate side but also the employer’s side, so, I think people are going to get a lot of value from this conversation.

Mac Prichard:

What’s happening here is the old manual methods of reviewing and ranking applications has been automated.

Instead of having, perhaps, an administrative assistant go through piles of resumes by hand, it’s being done automatically by a software system, and by doing so it’s saving managers time and money. Is that right?

Brandon Laws:

That’s exactly right. I mean, Mac, you’ve hired plenty of people in your time. Do you remember a time before the applicant tracking system where you were just literally going through paper resumes and finding the best ones? Or do you…you still don’t do that?

Mac Prichard:

We don’t do that. We actually do look at every application but I should be candid, we might get 4 to a dozen applications, and hiring for us at Mac’s List is an event that might happen once a year. So, I have sympathy with employers who are hiring dozens of people in the course of a year and maybe get hundreds of applications.

Brandon Laws:

Yeah, and the positions that I’ve seen, I’ve hired several people over the years and when you’re getting 50-100 applications for one position, it’s really hard to go through those resumes and basically compare them side by side and the system does that for you. Now, as a hiring manager, making sure that you see the right information that you need for the position, that’s really the key to it all. And hiring managers are really going through and setting those filters that they’re looking for but on the candidate side, they’re not quite sure what the manager’s looking for other than what they see on the job posting.

Mac Prichard:

Well, let’s talk about that. You mentioned filters, these are…what do you mean when you say filters, Brandon? Because that sounds like…

Brandon Laws:

It sounds daunting.

Mac Prichard:

Yeah.

Brandon Laws:

Yeah, so filters meaning key attributes that you would have on the application; it could be years of experience, it could be a number of years in one particular role. Let’s say I’m a marketing director, so if I’m applying for another marketing director role, how long have I been in this role?

And with applicant tracking systems it’s literally like a database of a bunch of data and text, so running reports is really easy for a hiring manager so they can look through those things.

Degrees, it could be education, anything that you’d want to filter for.

Mac Prichard:

It’s experiences, it sounds like it’s also skills might be filtered as well.

Brandon Laws:

Yeah, skills is a great example.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, any other important qualities or experiences or…I mean, we’ve talked about skills and experiences, anything else that might qualify as a filter?

Brandon Laws:

Yeah, I mean, just anything that you’d put on the application, cover letter, perhaps, but that’s more text-based. So, I would say individual skills that you see on an application would be reportable and filterable.

Mac Prichard:

Good point. So, how do managers pick these filters? Because sometimes it might be clear what a filter is, you mentioned fields in an online application, but sometimes you may not know. Maybe it’s X number of years of experience. How, as an applicant, can you understand what filters matter most?

Brandon Laws:

That’s a great question. I would say look to the job posting, and not every employer’s great about this but I’d say if you see the job posting list skills and requirements, I’d say that in your cover letter or on the application, you need to have those because that’s what they’re likely filtering for. If I’m hiring for a marketing manager role, I probably want to know that they have hired people, I’d probably want to know that they have experience in the Adobe Creative Cloud suite, and those would be that I could easily search for.

Mac Prichard:

You would say all of those things in a job description.

Brandon Laws:

I would, I personally would. I would try to be as clear as I could on the job posting about, one, what the experience is going to be like, but also what skills I’m looking for. And if somebody is then submitting the application that doesn’t have any of those things, then it’s likely that they’re not going to make the cut.

Mac Prichard:

You work for an HR firm.

Brandon Laws:

I do.

Mac Prichard:

In your experience, do you see your colleagues at other companies and HR directors at other firms follow your advice?

Brandon Laws:

Well, I mean, it’s not just my advice, it’s just best practice. It’s what I’ve seen and so I’m sure hiring managers all over treat it a little differently. I’m just generally speaking about what hiring managers are likely doing organically. I don’t know if people are really following…there are probably laws associated with all of these things. I’m not the expert in that, I’ll tell you that upfront but what I’ll say is just the tendency that I’m seeing with all the hiring managers and I mean it makes a lot of sense. We want to find the right fit. Also, from a soft skill, hard skill, and also a culture fit, and if those aren’t represented in an application, resume, that’s submitted, there’s no way they’re making the cut.

Mac Prichard:

You mentioned, we’ve been talking about technical skills, things like skills and experiences, education, you mentioned soft skills. Are there filters for soft skills that candidates should be aware of?

Brandon Laws:

I would imagine that it’s kind of like when your basic needs are met, that you have all the extras. What I mean by that is, as long as the skills that you’re looking for, the technical skills are met, then I think that’s when employers or hiring managers might start diving into, “Okay, well, are they going to be a culture fit? Do they have the soft skills that we need to be successful through the organization?”

I think that’s only going to be represented through the cover letter or anything else that might be out there digitally. And what I mean by that is, a lot of people now, with the web, they have personal brands and I…when I’m talking to people, especially people who are like, “I want to do an informational interview with you. I’m seeking a job, I’m getting out of college.”

I always say, “You need to build your personal brand outside of…in other words, you need to think like a marketer.” That is what I’d want to hit home is that the only way you’re going to be able to represent what soft skills you may have and whether or not your values align with the organization is by having all of those things out there in the community and on the web.

Mac Prichard:

We’re talking about applicant tracking systems, these are online forms and there’s an algorithm that’s reviewing and ranking applications based on how people respond. What difference can a personal portfolio or a personal brand make when an algorithm is making that first choice?

Brandon Laws:

Yeah, I don’t know if it’s so much of an algorithm other than a hiring manager likely searching for certain attributes. And so here’s an example, I’ll just walk through how I might do it. With an applicant tracking system, and most of them do the same thing, I would, let’s say I have thirty resumes and applications. I might filter based on a couple of key attributes that I need. I mentioned…I’ll just stick with the marketing. I’m looking for an Adobe Creative Cloud suite, I’m looking for somebody who has edited podcasts before, for example.

If I return 10 resumes or applications back with those things, then as a hiring manager, I’m going to filter the pool down a little bit and I can…it’s manageable at this point. So I can start diving in, looking at the cover letters, looking at…you can really go down the rabbit hole of, “What do their social profiles look like?” And all of that, because I really want to see if people are involved in the community, especially if you’re hiring for an HR person who’s supposed to like people and support their employees, I’d want to see that they’re volunteering and involved in some nonprofits and things like that. And I think you’re only going to get that if number one, they’re talking about it in their cover letter or maybe on LinkedIn it’s represented. Things like that.

Mac Prichard:

The first cut is that online application and a ranking comes out of that and then the manager typically will look at the cover letter, LinkedIn page, maybe a personal website that might be linked to in the online application, is that…

Brandon Laws:

That’s exactly right and what I’ve done in the past, and I know a lot of hiring managers do, is you go through and there are literally star ratings on some of these applicant tracking systems where you can either have it automatically filtered based on their attributes that you’re looking for, or you could manually go through and click, “Okay, this candidate; probably 5 stars. This one’s a 4, this one’s a 2.” And if you wanted to go through manually, you could do it that way and then that way you’re filtering them.

“Okay, I want all of my 5 stars. I’m going to start with them first.” I might have a phone screening done with them automatically just because their resume is such a great match, so these tools are great because it cuts down on the time it takes to hire people and seemingly you don’t want to miss anybody and so these systems and the tools can automatically filter it for you so you don’t have to spend all of your precious time doing it.

Mac Prichard:

I’ll glad you explained the system. When we come back, I want to take a quick break, I want to talk about how to get clear about those filters and perhaps keywords, we can talk about that and then another question that I know that has got to be on the mind of a listener is, “Well, what if I don’t have 100% of the qualifications listed in the job posting? Should I still apply?”

Stay with us. We’re going to take a break and when we come back we’ll continue our conversation with Brandon Laws about how you can beat an applicant tracking system.

It surprised me to learn from Brandon that many people don’t fill out every field in an online application.

Why would you give up a chance to tell an employer about yourself?

Here’s something else hiring managers say that also surprises me: many people come to job interviews unable to answer behavioral questions.

How about you?

Do you have your answers ready?

If not, go to macslist.org/questions.

You’ll get our free guide; it’s called, 100 Behavioral Interview Questions You Need to Know.

We’ll take you through four steps you can use to answer any behavioral question. You’ll also get a list of the most common questions of all.

Go to macslist.org/questions. It’s free.

Results matter more than promises. That’s why employers ask behavioral questions.

Because a good answer requires you to show how you’ve solved problems, not talk about what you might do.

Don’t make up your answer on the spot.

Go to macslist.org/questions.

Now, let’s get back to the show.

We’re back in the Mac’s List studio. I’m talking with Brandon Laws. He’s the marketing director at Xenium HR. He’s also the host of the terrific podcast called Transform Your Workplace.

Brandon, you did a great job explaining why HR managers use applicant tracking systems and how that system works and the importance of filters. And one of your tips, which I really appreciated was, start with the job description. Figure out what matters to the manager. It’s hiding there in plain sight.

What would you say to a listener, though, who thinks, “Gosh, I’ve only got 70, 80% of what this manager wants. Should I still apply?”

Brandon Laws:

I think the answer is yes. If you think that you can do the job and that you’re a great fit for the organization, I would say, look past the skills and attributes that are on a normal application and you can make all of that up in the cover letter. Because I think even though hiring managers may be filtering out for certain skill sets, I would say that if I see a really thoughtful cover letter that’s explaining their experience, how they might be a great fit, all the things that they’re doing in the community, and things that they’re building outside of work, I might say, “Wow, they’re a great fit.” And you can see an alignment there because, with these applications and these forms that are going into an applicant tracking system, they’re so stripped down in their fields, right? So it’s hard to see what kind of person they are, so I would say most hiring managers are probably, even if they’re an 80% match, they’re probably still going through some of these, like, “Did they at least do a cover letter.” I mean, I give them the benefit of the doubt.

I usually always do. I look through those at least. I mean, in some cases where it’s a 50% match on skills, then I’m probably not even looking at it altogether but…

Mac Prichard:

I’ve got to ask, is there a magic cut-off? Is it 60%, 70% or what do you recommend?

Brandon Laws:

I mean the thing is…

Mac Prichard:

I’m talking about the percentage of qualifications.

Brandon Laws:

Yeah, absolutely, I mean in the roles that I’m usually hiring for, these skills can be learned. So, I can look past the qualifications. And a lot of the time you’re paying a lot of money for someone with the exact match of qualifications, so I do like people who have room to develop and I think that’s what I’d want to get across to a candidate is, don’t be scared that your qualifications don’t match even 80%. I would say, if it feels like a right fit, I would say go for it and there’s a way to showcase yourself to make it look like you’re a good fit but it also has to be a genuinely good fit.

You don’t want to get in on a situation where you’re not going to last.

Mac Prichard:

How do you showcase yourself to show it’s a good fit? You mentioned the cover letter, talk more about that, and maybe other opportunities a candidate has that might only have 70, 80% of the qualifications.

Brandon Laws:

Mac, you’ve probably seen this quite a bit but especially with younger folks, they are looking for a great work experience, they’re looking for values alignment, and so it goes both ways. Employers want to find people who are going to be a good culture fit and not just literally the perfect skill set. They want both and candidates want that as well. They want to be able to work for an employer that shares the same values as them, so I’d say that the cover letter is an important piece.

You want to be able to talk about why you’re going to be a good fit and why you see the world the same way that they do. And I think for a hiring manager, they’re going to eat that up. It’s got to be genuine though. It will be teased out in an interview for sure.

Mac Prichard:

We’ve talked about filling out online forms, we’ve talked about the cover letter, often applicant tracking systems, almost always, ask for a resume. Do you recommend customizing a resume?

Brandon Laws:

I recommend customizing every aspect of the resume, cover letter. Will people go through the hoops of doing it? I don’t know. I mean, I’ve seen people who…

Mac Prichard:

Why does that help an applicant, to tweak the resume?

Brandon Laws:

Shows they went through the effort and that they genuinely want the job. I’ve seen people submit the exact same resume, exact same application, for 5 different jobs in the same organization and that just, to me, seems lazy. I don’t know what your feeling is on that but to me, it means that you didn’t go through the effort, and maybe you’re doing that for other employers as well, so I don’t like it.

Mac Prichard:

I’ve talked to job seekers who sincerely do that because they think, “Well, if I apply for a large enough number of positions, eventually I’ll get a call.”

Brandon Laws:

The law of large numbers, yeah.

Mac Prichard:

Yeah, and people believe this, authentically. What would you say to a listener who’s following that strategy? Is that going to work?

Brandon Laws:

It possibly could work. If you’re blasting them out, you’re bound to hit on something. It’s no different than like what I do in email marketing. You send out 10,000 emails, you’re likely to get a sale or 2 from something you sent. What I’d say though, is if you think it’s a perfect fit, like, you remember going to college, right? Filling out an application, how long did it take you to fill that out? Probably a couple of hours, right?

You had to customize it, you had to write an essay. You can’t write the same cookie-cutter essay and send it to every college. It’s the same with job seekers. You really have to put a lot of thought into it and it comes through. People will sniff it out.

Mac Prichard:

We haven’t talked about keywords, and I think we touched on that when you mentioned filters. Again, going back, looking at the job description, identifying the things that matter most to a hiring manager. How important are using keywords? These phrases that pop up frequently in a job posting.

Brandon Laws:

I would say, yeah, when a hiring manager’s crafting a job posting, if they’re going to search and use filters within an applicant tracking system to pull back some resumes and candidates, I truly believe that they’re going to be looking at the ones that they put in the job posting. So, it would be to their benefit if they used a lot of the same language that the job posting is using and that’s really as much as I have to say about keywords. That’s what’s go to.

Mac Prichard:

Do you see applications, I’ve heard this from other hiring managers, where keywords are just used almost robotically. In other words, they’re just repeated again and again and again in the hopes of raising a review score.

Brandon Laws:

Yeah, I see that a lot and on the marketing side of the world too, like with search engine algorithms, right and I think employees or candidates are really starting to figure that out. That if you use a bunch of the keywords over and over again, then maybe you have a chance to be at the top.

Mac Prichard:

Does that work?

Brandon Laws:

I don’t know. I don’t hire enough to know if I’ve seen my own tendencies that, “Oh, I see this one popping up because they’re using this keyword over and over again.” I don’t really believe that but I think you need to use some keywords in their so that you do show up, at least.

Mac Prichard:

You talked about letting your hiring managers know about your interests outside of work. Why is that going to help you get past an applicant tracking system?

Brandon Laws:

I don’t know if it’s going to get you past the applicant tracking system. What I think it does is, as long as you have made a cut, it’s the only other way you’re going to be able to showcase yourself, outside of being in front of a hiring manager in the interview. I’d say the applicant tracking system is great for, at least, putting your skill set down and giving hiring managers a sense for who you are and giving them the resources to find it out for themselves.

What I can’t stand, Mac, is when I’m hiring for a position and all I see is a resume with all the fields filled out, which is fine, but maybe no cover letter and maybe no links to LinkedIn or their own personal website or their own portfolio. I like seeing all of those extra things because it might save me time long-term, asking those things in the interview, asking them to show me some of their work. If I can see it all up front, it’s saving me tons of time.

Mac Prichard:

It’s because it’s saving you time that that appeals to you or…

Brandon Laws:

Absolutely.

Mac Prichard:

Yeah.

Brandon Laws:

Yeah, and I think…I like to do my own research. We’re in this age of the digital world where most buyers, and I think of this in the same way, most buyers are doing 95% of their education on a product or a service prior to even engaging with the salesperson and I think candidate experience is no different. As a hiring manager, I’d want to do all of that research upfront so that way in the interview process, if they’ve made the cut, I can ask them really meaningful things, like behavioral-based questions and culture-based questions and I think that’s what we’ve come to. As long as you’re meeting the needs and the skills and the soft skills and the hard skills, we want to know who you are as a person.

Mac Prichard:

One mistake that you’ve seen applicants make in trying to get in front of a hiring manager is not including a cover letter when dealing with an applicant tracking system. What are some other mistakes that you and others in the human resources field see that candidates can avoid when working with an applicant tracking system?

Brandon Laws:

Mac, this will seem so basic, but what I see a lot, grammatical errors, missing fields…

Mac Prichard:

What’s a missing field? I don’t think…

Brandon Laws:

Meaning if there’s not a required field but it’s an open field that should be filled out and it’s just missed or something.

Mac Prichard:

It may look optional to the candidate…

Brandon Laws:

Yeah, email address or LinkedIn profile. Anything, like years of experience in a position…

Mac Prichard:

Why is that a problem, Brandon? I mean, candidates are busy, they may be applying for several jobs. How is that going to help an applicant, to fill out all the fields?

Brandon Laws:

For me as a hiring manager, I put myself in those shoes, when I see that missing field, I have to either do the work to find it out. Or I will notice that they weren’t paying attention to details and so then I’ll filter them out immediately.

Mac Prichard:

But it wasn’t required. I’m just thinking about the listener who thinks, “Well, my time’s valuable too. Why do I need to do this?”

Brandon Laws:

You know, that’s a good point, and so you could flip that on the employer’s side and say, “Well, then, make every field required.” You don’t want to put too many hindrances on people to fill out an application but I get that perspective. It’s good push back.

Mac Prichard:

Yeah, but again, what I’m hearing you say is, if you want to stand out, you have an opportunity by completing those fields.

Brandon Laws:

Yeah, if you want to stand out, fill out the fields, make sure that they’re accurate, make it personalized. I mean, if you can find out the hiring manager’s name and who this is going to and customize it based on them, that’s even going to set you apart.

Cover letter is an obvious one. There’s a lot of things that I’d say people can do to rise to the top but the mistakes are many. There are grammatical errors and missing fields and no cover letter and those sorts of things.

Mac Prichard:

What about follow-ups? So many people I talk to say they’ve sent in an application and they haven’t heard back, but is there an opportunity? Do you recommend that people actually contact the company?

Brandon Laws:

I do. The things is though, the hiring manager and HR people will all have a different perspective on this. Some people are very friendly and expect a follow-up and a written card or something. An email, perhaps a phone call. Some people are the exact opposite. Sometimes they use the applicant tracking system because they don’t want to have any communication except for on their own terms. So, I’d say try to judge your audience if you can. Figure out who the hiring manager is.

I’ve also seen some people back door in through other employees, which is a decent strategy. I think you need to tread lightly on that but I’ve seen someone operate through somebody and say, “Brandon, who’s the hiring manager for this position at Xenium?”

Because maybe I’m connected with them or somebody they know on LinkedIn and so I do like that strategy. It shows that they’re going through the effort and they’re thoughtful about it. Versus just, blasting the recruiter or HR person or a general email inbox. I think that’s not going to be responded to very well.

Mac Prichard:

If you follow up, you may get no but a door might open as well.

Brandon Laws:

I think a door could open, very much so.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, well it’s been a terrific conversation, Brandon. Now, tell us, what’s next for you?

Brandon Laws:

What’s next for me? Well, in my role at Xenium, as a marketing director, I host a podcast, Transform Your Workplace. It’s been going on since 2012. It’s geared towards HR professionals and small business leaders and we’ve got weekly shows. I’m interviewing some great authors on leadership and communication, and it’s an exciting show but that’s just one sliver of what I do.

I’m doing all the digital marketing for Xenium inside of an HR consulting company and I’m going to keep at it. It’s a lot of fun.

Mac Prichard:

I know people can learn more about your podcast by visiting xeniumhr.com/podcast.

I’ve really appreciated your tips here today, Brandon. What is the one thing, however, that you want a listener to remember about how to beat an applicant tracking system?

Brandon Laws:

I think that candidates need to think like a marketer, and what I mean by that is that they really need to get inside of the employers’ heads, cater to the audience that they’re trying to attach to, and do all the things that I suggested. Build a personal brand, showcase your personality and what you’re doing in the community experience and for sure do not make any dumb mistakes.

Mac Prichard:

After you get past the applicant tracking system, you still need to ace the interview.

And you can count on the hiring managers you meet to ask behavioral questions. Do you have your answers ready?

Get your free copy today of 100 Behavioral Interview Questions You Need to Know.

Go to macslist.org/questions.

On our next show, our guest will be Susan Joyce. She’s the publisher of Job Hunt Dot Org. It’s a terrific job search advice site.

Susan says one of the biggest mistakes job seekers make is wasting time on job boards.

She and I will talk about dead ends to avoid when you use job boards. And we’ll discuss the best ways to use your time when looking for work online.

I hope you’ll join us. Until then, thanks for letting us help you find your dream job.

The likelihood of an applicant tracking system reviewing your application rather than a human is steadily increasing. How can you beat the applicant tracking system and ensure that your resume rises to the top and doesn’t end up in the trash? First, you need to pay attention to the job posting, says Find Your Dream Job guest Brandon Laws. Use the same language the employer uses to showcase your skills and experience. Brandon also highlights the need to build a personal brand online that matches the skills you mention on your resume. And watch those typos; applications with grammatical errors almost always get tossed without a second look.

About Our Guest

Brandon Laws is the director of marketing at Xenium HR, where he has spent the last 11 years of his career helping transform workplaces. He also hosts the podcast Transforming Your Workplace.

Resources in This Episode: