How to Write a Resume That Appeals to Robots and People, with Virginia Franco
Applicant tracking systems (ATS) are a prevalent hiring tool, used by a vast majority of employers. If you want to get your resume past an automated system and into a hiring manager’s hands, there are some specific steps you can take. Keywords are important, but Find Your Dream Job guest Virginia Franco says you should avoid keyword stuffing so that your resume makes sense to both humans and computers. Virginia advises job seekers to use their networks to bypass the ATS and to write resumes that can be read easily on mobile devices.
About Our Guest:
Virginia Franco is a multi-certified executive resume and LinkedIn writer, coach, and storyteller who helps job seekers to land interviews.
Resources in This Episode:
- To learn more about the membership site that Virginia is working on, and take advantage of your free offer, go to jobsearchsecretweapon.com.
Find Your Dream Job, Episode 221:
How to Write a Resume That Appeals to Robots and People, with Virginia Franco
Airdate: December 11, 2019
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.
Here’s advice you probably hear a lot during your job search.
First, to get past an employer’s applicant tracking system, use keywords in your resume.
Second, tweak every resume you send to catch the eye of a human being.
But how do you write a resume that appeals both to robots and people?
Here today to talk about that is Virginia Franco. She’s an executive resume and LinkedIn writer, coach, and storyteller.
She joins us today from Charlotte, North Carolina.
Well, let’s get started, Virginia. How often do robots, not humans, decide if a candidate gets a job interview?
Well, ideally, I always recommend that my clients try and bypass the bots at all costs as the first point of entry. So, when people do that and go about job search through networking and outreach with real human beings, then the robot really doesn’t have much say. All you need at that point is a resume that can get through the system, but it really doesn’t matter if the resume bubbles up to the top or goes down to the middle of the pack.
What do you say to a listener, Virginia, who has found a job that they’re very excited about on a website? There’s a deadline, it’s tomorrow perhaps, and they need to apply, but they don’t know anyone inside that company. How can they do both?
When time is of the essence, then your options are a little bit more limited, so in that case, I say go ahead and apply, but then go to your LinkedIn profile and see who you might know that knows someone and try to make a rapid introduction.
If that fails, then I would say try to use LinkedIn to connect with who the likely decision-maker is in that role and try to send them a connection request. If they accept, then send them a note and say, “Hey, I saw this role, this is why I think I’m great, happy to discuss further.”
So, at least it gives you your best shot of having a human at the other end of the system, you know, looking for your resume.
Let’s talk about automation. Why do companies use applicant tracking systems to review resumes?
I’m not in HR but in talking with so many of my colleagues who are or who were, ATS, or applicant tracking systems came about as a way to help organize the job search process, to allow recruiters and screeners and decision-makers a way to file away all the different people that were applying online.
What happened…so, it was done with the best of intentions but what has happened now is that the systems are swamped because people can apply from all over the world for any job. The systems are inundated, and so now we’re faced with a situation where the system does its best to screen out, but it makes the process a little bit harder, it takes a little bit longer, and as a result of that, human beings are doing what they always did, which is when someone has a job that they need filled, the first thing they say is, “Well, who do I know?” Or, “Hey guys, who do you know?”
And people are then coming into the pipeline through that system, while at the same time people are posting online. And because people tend to hire people they trust or they want to hire people that they know through other people they know, it’s more than likely that that referral network is going to get someone to the top of the pack versus through the traditional online application process.
I want to talk more about those human forms of networking. I do want to dig in a little bit about applicant tracking systems and you mentioned the unintended consequences that resulted from creating these systems; it actually sounds like they’re creating more work than planned and they’re making things, in many ways, worse. But how common are these systems, Virginia? Do you only see them at big national companies?
Not anymore. You know, seven or ten years ago I would have said yes, but they’re much more affordable and they still do serve the purpose of being able to organize all of the applications on the other side. And so I see that they’re becoming more prevalent. I would say, probably startups don’t have them but medium and large-sized companies all have them, certainly all of the multinationals, the Fortune 500s, so they’re common. And there’s almost, I think it’s 300 different systems. They all work pretty much the same way, but there’s a lot of them out there.
As an applicant, how can you tell whether your material’s going into an applicant tracking system?
Usually when you submit online, if the system…once you hit submit, it sort of looks like it translates it into gobbledygook where the formatting is lost and it looks very different than the format that you first received, then that’s probably your first sign that, yeah, it’s gone through a system.
But then what it does on the other end is it reassembles it to look more similar to what you first submitted. But it breaks it down, strips it of all the formatting, turns it into what is sort of a plain text, and then it scores and parses accordingly and puts it back together for human consumption.
How do you write a resume or a cover letter or other application materials that are going to appeal to these tracking systems?
I always say, look, first and foremost write for human beings because, at the end of the day, that’s who you need to impress the most.
There are…and especially if you’re trying to bypass ATS as the first point of entry, you certainly need to write for human beings. But the main sort of things that you have to keep in mind to make sure that the resume works well for people and can be read appropriately by ATS.
Number one, ATS systems cannot read anything in a header or a footer, so if your contact information is in the header, it’s not going to see it. So, make sure that you put that below the header.
It can’t read anything inside of a text or a box, so if you have put in a table or, you know, sometimes people like to use graphic elements, sort of like a magazine article where they’ll say, “Here are some highlights,” or, “Here’s a list of my skills.” If it’s in a textbox, it cannot be read. So, what you need to make sure is if you’re using those because they’re appealing to humans, make sure that that information is contained somewhere else in the text.
Other tricks I see on resumes that are very appealing to the eye are pull-quotes or rules.
Yeah, all of that cannot be read. And then the last thing I think is very important, I see it happen all the time…so, when you have multiple jobs within the same company, what a lot of people will do is, they’ll list the name of the company and then they’ll list the role and the date, the role and the date, the role and the date.
But when ATS reads it, it will only score the one title that it associates with the company name, so you might not get credit for all of the earlier roles that you held with that company, if that makes sense. So, what I do when I’m writing it is, I will…so let’s say Bank of America…I worked as an account manager at Bank of America and then I became a Senior Account Manager and then I became a VP of Account Management.
What I will do is, I will write “Bank of America,” then the first role and the dates. And then the second role, I will put the name and the dates, but then the company name I will actually put…I’ll put it in there but I’ll put it in like white text, so that…or white font, so that the reader doesn’t see it but the machine can read it. So, it’s sort of hidden text to direct the software to count the years of experience that I want to make sure it counts. Does that make sense?
It does. We’ve talked about format rules and pull-quotes and headers and footers. What about the text itself, Virginia, when people are thinking about their application going through an ATS, how should they write that text?
Do not keyword-stuff it, number one. Putting a bunch of keywords in there might get you to do well on the ATS, but when a human looks at it, they’re going to throw it out.
Write in the way that appeals to someone who’s reading it on the other end. Make sure that what you write is achievement-focused versus a laundry list of what you do day in and day out. In terms of the font you use, stick with Microsoft fonts for now. Google fonts are super cool and Mac fonts are great, but not all ATS are trained to read them.
In terms of ATS, those are sort of the main things that I want to make sure to keep in mind. And maybe we’ll get to this later, but the other thing that is so important to consider is, people now are facing a unique challenge that they have to write for people and machines. But then people are reading on lots of different devices, and so you have to take into account whether someone’s printing it out, or if they’re looking at it on their desktop or on their mobile, and so that impacts how you write as well.
I want to talk more about that. A question that occurs to me as we talk, however, is should a candidate really write two sets of application materials if a position is posted on a website? One for the applicant tracking system and the other, say, for an in-person meeting with a hiring manager or a contact inside the company?
Some people will say yes, and I used to do that, but now that ATS has gotten…ATS has gotten very advanced and it does a really good job of taking your resume, breaking it down for the computers to read, and putting it back together. You know, eight to ten years ago, it didn’t do that very well, so then I would actually create one and say, “This is the one you use when applying online and this is the one for people.”
Today, as long as you keep in mind those tricks around, pull out anything in text, anything in headers or footers, et cetera, then you’re probably good with one version.
I want to press you a little bit about keyword stuffing because I hear that a lot from job seekers who think that’s the answer to their problems, or that’s the way to get by the computers. You mentioned that eventually real people do look at this text. Why are they turned off by keyword stuffing?
Because it just doesn’t sound like human beings speaking. It looks like gobbledygook, it doesn’t make any sense, and the person will…you know, we’ve all seen sentences that have just so many buzzwords in it that you don’t even really understand what you’ve read.
So, if, in terms of putting keywords in the right places, the best place to put it is to create a skills section that appears below your branding paragraph and before you go into your experience section, and that’s where you can put all of the hard skills that you have identified in the job posting. Usually they turn up in the qualifications section in the bottom of the job posting.
Put a section in there, you can keyword-load, and what that also does is it allows that human being, when they’re reading, to do a quick scan for keywords. Think about that first level HR screener that maybe doesn’t know the ins and the outs of the job the way the hiring manager does, they’re trained to look for those certain words, and if they have it all in one section, then you can sort of move on. And what happens naturally when you are describing your stories, you know, you have a challenge, then an action, and then this is the result; keywords tend to come organically, they tend to appear organically in those sentences.
Make it natural, don’t force it.
Very natural, yeah.
Okay, this is terrific, Virginia. We’re going to take a break and when we come back, I want to talk about, and you touched on this already, how to write the resume for human beings, because it’s clear you’re, in most cases, writing for two audiences. An algorithm and an actual person.
Stay with us and when we return, Virginia Franco will continue to share her advice about how to write a resume that appeals to robots and people.
Have you ever served on a hiring committee?
Then you probably remember your group had a stack of resumes. Maybe there were 50, 75, or even 100 applications.
And your job was to choose five to ten people for interviews. How did your committee do this?
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Now, let’s get back to the show.
We’re back in the Mac’s List studio. I’m talking with Virginia Franco. She’s a certified executive resume and LinkedIn writer, coach, and storyteller.
Virginia, before the break we talked a lot about what kind of resumes appeal to applicant tracking systems. Let’s talk about that other audience. The actual human being who eventually is going to see your material.
How do you recommend a listener approach preparing a resume that’s going to catch the eye of that hiring manager or even that entry-level Human Resources reviewer you mentioned before the break?
That’s a great question. I approach resume writing using the same principles that I learned back in the very beginning when I was first trained to write for the news. Because what I’ve learned is that when people are in a rush, we all tend to read the same way, and people in a rush tend to read resumes the same way that you and I read the news when we have a few seconds on our hands and we want to quickly know what’s going on in the world.
Whether you open up a newspaper or you open up a news site or Twitter or something like that, you’re going to look at headlines, and then if a headline grabs you, you’re going to read that first paragraph that follows. And usually that’s all you look at because that’s all you have time for but those two sections tell you what the story’s going to be about and hopefully compel you to want to earmark it to read more when you have more time.
Because the same goes for resumes, I bring those two components over into my documents. So, the headline in the resume is the career title, and this is where you tell the reader, “I’m an astronaut.” “I’m a chef.” Whatever it is, that’s what you put on there.
The paragraph that follows, that lead paragraph, in resumes today they call it the “branding paragraph,” but basically, it’s a brief, summary section that tells the reader, “This is how I’m the perfect fit for the role.” And you write that, and you basically give the reader a sense for what your story’s going to be about by weaving in details about you together with information that they have asked for in the job postings.
As you describe that, it sounds very similar to a LinkedIn summary statement.
Those are the same components in the LinkedIn headline and the summary section. It’s the same.
Okay, it’s first-person and often in present tense, I’m guessing.
Well, no, the resume is more formal in nature; it’s not conversational the way LinkedIn…but it has the same themes. In the about section on LinkedIn, you actually have more room to go into more detail. The resume section is much more brief. I mean, think about that first paragraph in a newspaper article. It’s four or five lines max.
Writing headlines sounds easy but I know coming up with a great headline takes a lot of effort. What’s your best tip for a job seeker who needs to come up with a great headline about themselves?
For resumes, it pretty easy. You attach the title that they’ve asked for, and you can swap it out and I recommend customizing it accordingly, based on the roles that you’re targeting. We talked about LinkedIn, LinkedIn’s a little different, you can’t change the headlines based on what the reader’s looking for.
So, what I always recommend is, think about the kinds of words that a hiring manager would type in to search for talent like you, put two or three of those in there, and then add a little fragment of a sentence or two fragments of a sentence that tells the reader about what kind of bottom-line outcomes do you bring to the role that you’re targeting.
We talked about headlines and that opening branding statement; let’s talk about formatting.
When you’re appealing to a human reader…give us some tips, Virginia. I’m thinking about things like density of text, bullets, what do you recommend here?
The challenge is that you have to write a resume that looks just as great on a mobile device as it does when someone prints it out.
Right now with resumes, almost 100% of first-time reads happen on some kind of a screen and then printing occurs, but usually not until later on in the process. Why that’s so important to understand is that we read differently online.
Luckily, everything designed for online looks great when it’s printed out, it’s just that the reverse isn’t true. When we’re reading things on screens, we tend to have a very hard time digesting dense text; so, you know a bunch of one-line bullets all crammed together, or a five, six line paragraph is really, really hard for us to read on a big screen, and it’s even harder on a small screen.
That’s why those service agreements that you see on websites, they blind your eyes. They’re just too hard to read because it’s too much text.
Almost by design, I imagine, too.
I mean, exactly. You just say, “Click. I agree.”
But, luckily, it’s really easy to overcome this, and you just keep your bullets and paragraphs to two to three lines and add a little bit of white space. You know, at .5, if you’re using Microsoft Word or Google, and that little space makes all of the difference and that’s a technique you can use to facilitate a skim read of anything. From a PowerPoint deck, to an email, to your resume, and LinkedIn too, because LinkedIn is exclusively online and over half of our readers are using the app for it.
The other thing that we do differently, that you need to take into account, so, when we read in print, our eyes tend to start top left of the page and then we go left to right, top to bottom, all the way down, no problem. But on screens we’re jumpy.
We start left because that’s what we’re used to, but then our eyes dart all over the place, depending on whatever it is that captures our attention at the moment. So, what that means for me when I’m writing is that, you know, I’ll use some design elements, like bold and color and things like that to draw the reader where I want them to go, but then when I’m writing a sentence, I make darn sure that whatever the most important thing that I’m trying to convey, I make sure that it appears at the beginning or the left side of the sentence, rather than what I could do in print, which is sort of set the stage and then say, “And this is the result.” Because when it comes to online reading, there’s just no guarantee that the reader is ever going to get to the end of that sentence.
We’ve talked about the format, and it’s eye-opening to me that most resumes and application materials are first seen on a screen. As you say that, it makes sense.
There’s another fact out there, I see different variations of it but I know you’re familiar with it, which is, hiring managers might spend 7, perhaps 10 seconds looking at your resume, and whether it’s 7, 10, or 20 seconds, it’s not a lot of time.
What else can people do besides some of the advice you’ve shared so far to engage a manager?
It’s a blank. Luckily, in my experience that first-round read tends to be the shorter, you know, the 6, maybe 10 seconds if it comes through a referral, but by the time that it gets to the hiring manager you might get 20, 30 seconds, so that to me is a little comforting.
What else you can do is, again, think about how people read the news, have a headline, have a paragraph.
There’s a lot of debate out there about length of documents.
If someone has less than five experience as a general rule, I would try to keep it to one page, more than that, I’d try to keep it to two. Sometimes I’ve gone over into three, but I recognize it, the hiring managers are really busy and they might get overwhelmed if they see a three-page resume, unless it’s like their very best friend. And so, be respectful of their time and try to keep it to that.
Again, when you are thinking about what you’ve done in each role, think about what you’re proudest of and lead off with it. And then, you know, try to stick to…five bullets is plenty to tell your story. If you have many more, break them up into subcategories. That eases the eye, it facilitates skim reading.
The other thing, and I should backtrack, when people are reading these, after they look at that headline and that paragraph, then they start jumping around to when and where you worked, and because they’re pressed for time, if they’re looking at the experience section, and that first job has five bullets, they’re probably going to only look at that first one on that first read. So, you better make darn sure that it’s impactful.
Then, ironically, even though you’d think if someone had more time they’d go to the second bullet, when people are reading on screens, they tend to jump to the bottom of that section and save the middle stuff for later down the road. So, I make sure that whatever I put at the bottom of my list is secondarily impactful.
In your experience, Virginia, I’m curious, when does someone sit down and really carefully read a resume?
Honestly, I’m not even sure if my own mother would take the time to read my resume with a fine-tooth comb but I think it happens towards the very end, but I’m not even sure it really does happen.
From everything I’ve learned, all the people that I’ve talked to, what I would say is, most people are hired after a series of interviews, and so, aside from those top sections, I would say people read different parts of the resume. And so, maybe everybody in coalition has read all of it but I don’t know that anyone but you goes in and reads every single bit of it.
But the resume isn’t going away. You still need it to get the interviews and the meetings.
It’s a marketing piece. I liken it to a brochure about a resort and when people, one of the things that I speak to when people really are struggling to not want to put every single thing they’ve done on it, I always say, “Look, if you were exploring a hotel destination, are you going to open up a brochure that shows you every single thing on the room service menu, plus every single thing that’s in the hotel bathroom? Probably not.” Instead, you want to see the high-level highlights.
That’s what your document needs, it is a career marketing…a piece of career marketing collateral. It’s your brochure.
It’s one tool that you use as an overall effort.
Yes, one of many. You need a resume, you need a LinkedIn profile, you need a networking strategy, you need to have really strong interviewing skills. It’s all part of the puzzle. It’s not a magic bullet.
Right, I’m glad you brought that up because I think for some applicants, particularly early in their career, their resume is kind of a Hail Mary pass. They send it out and they think that it’s…they’ve got all their hopes in that one document.
Yeah. I mean, look, if you were the CEO of Coca-Cola, maybe that would be the case. Everyone else? Probably not.
Okay. One other thing I want to touch on is the principles we’ve talked about in creating documents, both for applicant tracking systems and for the actual human readers who will eventually look at them, they apply not only to resumes but also to cover letters, and work samples, too, don’t they?
Why is it important to keep that in mind?
To keep the principles in mind that I spoke of in terms of resumes?
Listen, people read the same way, it doesn’t matter what the documents are. We read the news, magazines, cover letters, resumes, LinkedIn the same way. It’s a skim read.
What I always say is, make sure the same themes are prevalent throughout. Remember that people might be looking at it on their phone or they might take the time to print it out, and so the same principles resonate no matter what the material is you’re writing, or whatever the vehicle is.
Well, Virginia, it’s been a great conversation, Now, tell our listeners, what’s next for you?
Gosh, well, I am very, very excited. I’m partnering with four other career experts to launch a new membership platform called Job Search Secret Weapon and it is the industry’s only job search membership platform that features the insights of five career experts.
So we’re going to have articles, templates, Facebook support, video, you name it, and it’s going to be a very low monthly cost. It will be going live in January but we do have a page up now, at jobsearchsecretweapon.com and there is a little freebie there that can help you further your job search if you go on and sign up now.
Terrific, and I know people can learn more about you and your other services by visiting virginiafrancoresumes.com.
Now, you’ve shared a lot of great advice today, Virginia. What’s the one thing you want our audience to remember about how to write that resume? One that will appeal to both robots and people.
It can be stressful thinking about what screen, what system is going to be looking at it and what I always say is, look, at the end of the day, what’s most important is that this is a process where people are talking to people and people are reading about people, so keep that in mind. Think about how you read, how you would like information to be sent to you, and repeat the favor.
I enjoyed that conversation with Virginia. Here’s my big take away: keyword stuffing – don’t do it. Because as Virginia pointed out, you’re not only writing for computers, you’re writing for human beings.
As you prepare your application materials, you also want to avoid common mistakes in your resume.
We’ve got a guide that can help you learn those errors and avoid them. It’s called Don’t Make These 8 Killer Resume Mistakes.
You can get your copy today by going to macslist.org/resumemistakes.
When you hear the word “sales,” you may cringe.
But good salespeople know how to listen, focus on a customer’s needs, and only approach the companies they can help.
Our guest next week is Matt Youngquist. He says job seekers can learn a lot from following these and other practices that the best salespeople use.
Next Wednesday, Matt and I will talk about five sales mantras you should follow in your job hunt.
Until then, thanks for letting us help you find your dream job.