Digital Job Hunting: Getting Through HR Screening Software and Other Tips

As a relatively recently minted freelancer and job hunter, I have had to come to grips with some fairly radical changes in the whole job-hunting song and dance. I’m not talking about the effect of economy per se, but rather how the networked nature of information and communication has changed what the job hunter has to do.

So herewith, offered for the benefit of other job hunters, a list of nine tips I’ve learned. Some of these I can personally vouch for; others are reasonable hearsay, and a few are hunches. If you have tips (or corrections) of your own please share.

Tip #1: Optimize your résumé for assessment by a computer program.
Human Resources departments often use software products to screen the first round of applications for a position. Leaving aside the debate about whether this is good or bad, it’s here to stay and there are things you should know about and can do that may improve your chance of making the cut. These programs “read” your application, and score it. Only those receiving a certain score are forwarded on for additional consideration. (An HR director I know told me that she is happy about these programs given the reality of hundreds of applicants for positions at her firm at the same time that cutbacks have meant that there simply aren’t enough humans in the HR office to do this work anymore.)

Given this, it’s useful to revise and focus your résumé so that it is tailored to the specific job description of the position you are applying for in a way that a computer will recognize. (I, perhaps like many, have been making the cover letter do this work. Bad idea, the cover letter may not even be screened by the software.) Your résumé should reflect the keywords and language of the job posting exactly. No fancy writing, and no holding your nose about terms like “change management.” Use the posting’s terms in your submission, and use them frequently. This means revising your résumé for every job you apply for, otherwise you risk not getting through the initial computerized screening.

That’s just how it is.

My guess is that the algorithms that the HR software uses aren’t radically different from those used in search engines, so “thinking like a search engine” is one way to approach this, and may help your chances. In fact, you can use the web to help give you a leg up. Paste the descriptive copy from the job posting that you are applying for into a web site that calculates word frequency. Here’s one,, but I’m sure there are others. (There may be one specifically for this task, but I haven’t found one yet. It would probably be a successful product.)

Check the frequency results, and use them to focus your résumé. This list will show you the words that should be prominent (meaning in your first few lines) and also repeated in descriptions below. If the most frequent terms are, for example, “program management,” or “FileMaker,” or “PMP Certification” use them, not synonyms, or generic terms. Don’t vary the applicable descriptions or paraphrase in order to make the writing lively. The computer isn’t reading for style, just for “a score.” (Yes, this is true even for editorial jobs, which boils my blood a bit as a writer and editor, but our computer overlords don’t really care about Strunk and White.)

Tip #2: Your Linked in photo really matters. Use an image that reflects you at your best, and is appropriate for the type of position you are seeking. But don’t wait for the perfect picture, either, as leaving it blank is a real negative: it may make the difference between you and another person with roughly equal qualifications.

Tip #3: Be as specific as possible about your skills on your Linked in page.
Coming up in Linked in search results is key to job leads. Specific terms may improve your chances of coming up in searches by recruiters.

Tip #4: Join professional forums and groups on Linked in and participate in the dialogue.  
Although some people do get “cold calls” via Linked in that result in interviews, many, perhaps most, do not. Simply putting your résumé up and linking is generally not enough. Go on the site regularly, participate in forums, post updates, become part of the community. This increases the chance that an opportunity will turn up for you.

Tip #5: Cultivate “weak links” on the edge of your network. It’s natural for your first connections on Linked in to be close colleagues; in network theory these are termed “strong links.” These are great, but close colleagues often know the people you already know, and are less likely to be connected to new leads. Some research suggests that opportunities often come via “weak links,” that is, not direct colleagues or classmates, but the people at three degrees of separation (or more), the “edge” of your network. One approach to bringing these into your network is to look at the bottom of your “people you may know” list, people with only one or two shared connections with you, and to link to them when appropriate. They in turn may open up other connections, employers, and positions you would otherwise not encounter. Yes, it sounds like the “tax tip from a taxi driver” thing, but it might work.

Tip #6: Don’t ignore social media for job hunting. Probably needless to say given everything above, but HR professionals start with Linked in now. If you are not on it and using it regularly, you will be invisible.

Tip #7: Don’t apply for jobs via Monster. Monster and other such sites are a great resource for researching positions, but HR departments do not like applications that come through Monster. (I’m not sure why this would be, but I’ve heard it from multiple people.) If you find a job you want to apply for on Monster, go search for it on the relevant company’s site and apply through that site.

Tip #8: Write your Linked in profile to reflect the kind of job you are seeking and would be most likely to succeed in. As somebody with a varied career (libraries, journalism, media company, digital production, arts, editorial, technology), for me, Linked in is kind of a straight jacket. I’m sure I’m not alone in this, as people typically do move jobs through their career, learning new skills, and perhaps entering new industries. One approach is to put everything in, but this results in a profile that is unfocused, and not specific enough to work well for recruiters. It’s potentially better to focus your profile on the sweet spot combining the job you want with skill areas where you have the most to offer a potential employer. If there is something you can do, but no longer particularly want to do, don’t automatically put it in your profile for the sake of completeness. (Although don’t leave out your most marketable skills or the bulk of your experience either, even if you have thoughts of doing something entirely new.)

Tip #9: Don’t take it personally when you don’t hear. For better or worse, limited (as in automated emails) or no response to applications seems to be the norm now for candidates who are not selected for interview. Of the many explanations, I favor the most innocuous that it’s just a numbers problem, too many applicants to contact directly. (That’s easier to live with that the callous HR dept. explanation, or worse.) Granted, this is super frustrating, as you don’t know on what basis you were rejected, whether perhaps it was just a technical glitch and your application didn’t even get through. But a certain amount of stoicism in this market probably will serve you well, and with any luck the tips above might help get you a face-to-face interview, with a live person.

2 Replies to “Digital Job Hunting: Getting Through HR Screening Software and Other Tips”

  1. Arthur, these tips are right on (and #9 is depressingly true.) An additional use for LinkedIn is to research the people/companies you want to work for, and see how you might be connected. When you do get that interview, and you will, know everything there is to know about the org, mention their website, and research your interviewer – who knows, you may have had the same French professor in college! 😉

  2. Arthur, one further comment regarding #1 and #9. Many large companies outsource their HR, as well as the first round of candidate identification and screening. I think this adds a whole other layer of “impersonalness” to be aware of.

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