A Skeptical Eye Toward “Scannable” Resumes

//A Skeptical Eye Toward “Scannable” Resumes

A Skeptical Eye Toward “Scannable” Resumes

The other day, I had an interesting disagreement with a friend of mine.  We had gone hiking on a beautiful summer day, and when finished, I pulled out a bottle of water from my car and started to drink it — at which point my friend yelled at me to put it down, insisting he’d read somewhere that one could get cancer from drinking out of water bottles that had been left in the sun too long.  I honestly didn’t have a clue what he was talking about, and thought the whole notion was ludicrous, but agreed to address the concern in true “21st century” fashion.  You know, by googling it.  And after a few quick searches, it turns out my healthy skepticism was validated, since the whole matter turned out to be a urban legend, of sorts, sparked by some college student’s hypothesis from years ago that was later debunked by numerous reputable sources.

In some respects, this incident reminds me of the long-standing claim that every job hunter needs to create two entirely separate resumes — one for human audiences and a separate one for submitting to the ATS (applicant tracking systems) certain companies today use when screening applicants.  You’ve heard this advice, right?  Insisting that unless you contort your resume in certain ways and adjust the language of the document “just so” to make the machines happy, your materials will get completely overlooked?  If not, and you want a quick briefing on the topic, simply click here and review some of the many articles you’ll see listed.

Personally, however, after two decades of working in the resume field and reading hundreds of articles discussing the issue, I’ll confess, my instincts tell me this advice is massively overblown.  Here’s my reasoning:

1. Even today, I see articles suggesting that modern scanning systems are ridiculously primitive.  Various articles claim that they can’t recognize bold text, or understand what an acronym like “MBA” actually means, or won’t be able to parse your job history unless you specifically include a header titled “Work Experience” — versus other common alternatives such as “Professional Experience” or “Employment History”.  My common-sense reaction?  These exact same claims have been swirling around out there since the mid-nineties and if today’s resume scanning systems truly haven’t evolved one iota since that time, and haven’t solved these basic problems, somebody out there who is a software programmer needs to go into business with me and we’ll make millions.  It simply defies logic that such limitations, even if they once existed, haven’t been largely addressed by the marketplace in the last 20 years.  So much of the literature one sees on this subject, I suspect, tends to be just mindless and uncritical repetition of advice from decades past.

2. Additionally, almost every article on the subject implores job hunters to construct an ATS-friendly resume that’s loaded up with all the right keywords — and possibly sneaks even more terms into the file as “white text” hidden from human view, but detectable by a computer scan.  And yet, it’s already common knowledge that ANY effective resume needs to be loaded up with the right keywords and language today, regardless of whether it’s designed for a computer system or for review by a real person.  So I don’t really see the distinction here.  If a buzzword is important to your career role or industry, you’ll want to feature it on any resume you construct, not just your “ATS” one.  And if it’s an important term, why hide it in white?  Assuming, again, that scanning systems haven’t figured out how to detect that trick by now after 20 years of job hunters attempting it.

3. Third, I’d remind people that ATS usage isn’t nearly as common as most of the “experts” on this subject seem to suggest.  I’ve seen some articles claiming that 90% of companies today use scanning systems, while others say the number is more in the range of 60-70%.  Given that over 85% of companies today (according to government data) are relatively tiny, however, having less than 20 employees, it seems preposterous that the percentage of ATS system usage could be as high as claimed UNLESS one is only considering the largest employers in the market.  For example, ask yourself how many small business owners you know personally, and how many of them you suspect have gone so far as to invest thousands of dollars in a resume scanning system.  Think the number is anywhere close to 90%?  Um, no.  So let’s not forget that these articles are mainly talking about employment at Fortune 500 organizations, conveniently ignoring the vast number of jobs that are filled at small-to-mid-sized firms.  At the end of the day, it’s still far more than likely in most cases that your resume is going to be read by an actual human being, versus a robot.

4. Lastly, the aspect of this topic that makes me the most skeptical of all is the fact that almost every article on this subject seems to be written by resume services, job boards, and other organizations that have something financially to gain from catering to job-hunter insecurities.  For example, in a recent review of dozens of related articles, I can’t remember ever seeing this advice coming from an actual developer of the ATS systems in question or from a legitimate employer whom, one would imagine, would be motivated to help the right talented people “be found” in their system.  Instead, the people who seem to be most insistent that a standard resume doesn’t cut the mustard — and that a separate “software optimized” version is necessary — are the same folks who just so happen to charge hundreds of dollars for the creation of such documents.  So while I’ll admit this observation isn’t conclusive proof in its own right that the ATS issue is largely overblown, I do think it’s somewhat telling.

So there you have it.  My own subjective collection of thoughts on a subject I get asked about constantly by professionals convinced their resume must be somehow inadequate or missing the boat.  So while sure, there are some basic guidelines that any good resume today must follow, I urge job hunters to not get too drawn into the notion that there is some arcane set of “trickery” needed to ensure their document will scan well in computer systems.  If you’ve already put the time into designing a good resume that captures the facts of your background accurately, doesn’t incorporate goofy graphics, and contains a healthy smattering of keywords in your field, you’re likely going to do just fine.  And if you want to make absolutely sure that your layout doesn’t end up causing a problem, simply open up MS Word and use the “Save As” command to save your resume in text-only format — which strips out any tables, lines, graphics, or other elements that could conceivably cause a scanning system to choke.

Beyond that, as the old song goes, don’t believe the hype.  The line of patter on this topic hasn’t changed much in 20 years and despite the temptation to believe your resume must be missing some secret sauce, this issue can easily become a distraction that prevents you from focusing on the things that are truly important in your search — such as networking, target company research, and effective interview preparation!

By | 2016-10-20T17:37:25+00:00 August 23rd, 2016|Resumes|2 Comments

About the Author:


  1. Vitaly August 24, 2016 at 9:01 pm

    There are no one-size-fits-all solutions, and there is a very good case for having two versions of resumé. Many ATS parse standard chronological resumés and populate work history and education forms. If ATS fails to parse the resumé, a candidate will have to do this time consuming work manually. If the resumé that sells you is a functional one, or has multiple role within one company, most likely ATS will not parse it. As job search is a game of numbers, the more application a job seeker fills in, the greater a return. So a machine-readable resumé is a must. Nearly all the time, there is an option to attach a file – this is where a resumé for human consumption goes.
    ATS are bad at importing event such structured data as LinkedIn profiles, none of them being capable to import every field correctly. The only exception is ATS used by Ultimate Software, likely that is their own product.
    ATS vendors and corporate users will never admit to issues that cause excessive screening of candidates, because the purpose of these systems is screening candidates away, not bringing in talent. Corporate HR and recruiters are fine with that, as that places them in a unique role of a gatekeeper, gaining clout. The dirty secret is that their role can be replaced either with good software (see example above), or by using a different, outsourced process.
    If you’d look at how Indian companies that resell technology professionals on the US market operate, you’ll see that they prefer to err in favor of assuming a candidate can do the job, rather than not. Instead of waiting for candidates to submit resumés, they reach out to everyone who might be qualified, and on the market. It is candidate’s choice whether to ignore these invitations, or to speak with a human, and find out what actual requirements are. This is an inclusive process, not an exclusive one employed by corporations. The reason is simple – companies that trade in humans make money off these humans, so they see them as assets, not expenses like employers. Any US corporation willing to implement the same recruiting process would save at least 25% on labor costs that otherwise goes to the middlemen. However, working with humans requires a candidate to write a customized resumé for each opportunity, especially if one has a long professional experience. A possible way to do that is to have standard paragraphs highlighting each of skills and experiences, and remove those not relevant to a particular role from a “master” resumé as needed.

    • Matt Youngquist August 24, 2016 at 9:34 pm

      Vitaly: Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this subject and I don’t disagree with any of the points you raised — or that yes, a person should still have a separate resume they use for ATS systems and online applications. And you’re right, while I perhaps should have emphasized this, I agree that somebody who uses a highly unorthodox resume format (e.g. a functional resume or one auto-created from a LinkedIn profile) will encounter more parsing issues than the 98% of people who use a “standard” type of resume. But as stated in my article, I still don’t think the difference between a “normal” resume and a “scannable” one is as great as most people think — or that the process is as complicated as most articles and resume experts would have them believe. With a quick “save as text format” step in MS Word, most people can get their document where it needs to be, versus spending hundreds of dollars on the process. So I think we’re on the same page here. I’m not saying these kinds of resumes AREN’T needed to some extent, just that the importance and complexity of this issue is greatly over-hyped by most sources out there. Thanks for chiming in…

Comments are closed.