The Most Common, Least Understood Reason You Get Rejected

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Job-Seekers #1 Challenge / Opportunity – The ATS

ATS is short for Applicant Tracking System.

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Why should you care?

According to CIO magazine,

Error-prone applicant tracking systems kill 75 percent of job seekers’ chances of landing an interview as soon as they submit their resumes, despite how qualified they may be. Job seekers’ only hope for rising through these systems is to understand exactly how these systems work and how best to optimize their resumes for them. (1)

With the ATS eliminating 75% of all applicants what can jobseekers do?

Answer #1: Leapfrog the ATS with your friends

Reach out to friends who work at companies where you want to work.

My Leapfrog

Three years ago, I applied for a role as a Business Analyst with a local Credit Union Services company. In practically no time, I received a message from the company’s ATS system, telling me I wasn’t a good match for the position.

This time, the rejection did not matter. A friend who works there put in a good word with a hiring manager. I interviewed the same day I got the rejection letter.

Bottom line: There was no connection between the ATS rejection and my interview. When I interviewed later that day, the ATS rejection was never discussed.

In other words, the Hiring Manager did not reject me, the ATS system did. While I didn’t land that job, I was a top candidate for a number of months.

Lynda Spiegel’s Leapfrog

In a recent LinkedIn post, Lynda Spiegel shared how she submitted her resume to two different companies looking for a senior level human resources executive with global experience. [2]

Lynda’s experience matched most of the requirements, however within hours of hitting “send,” she received emails from both companies telling her there were other candidates more qualified for the position. [3]

Fortunately, Lynda had used her connections to send her resume to the hiring managers at both firms. Within one day of the ATS rejection, she received calls from these hiring managers asking her to interview based on the strength of her resume. [4]

Not Certain How To Reach Out To A Friend Who Works At Your Desired Employer?

Check out this article from The Muse –

How to Ask a Friend to Put in a Good Word for You at a Job

Answer #2: Leapfrog the ATS through referrals.

According to Quintessential Careers,

It’s best to find a referring employee prior to applying at the employer’s Web site. When you do, the insider can give you tips about applying. You can also include the person’s name on your online application because most large companies have an employee referral process that earns employees cash and other incentives for referring a new hire. [5]

See the Quintessential post for more information on finding the names of people who work at your target company.

How To Find Referrals: While I’m very happily employed today, if I wanted to follow this advice, I would go to LinkedIn’s Advanced Search page and enter these parameters – Area: Tampa Bay; First Level Connections Only; Company of Interest: Acme Products. When I just did this, I found four first level connections I could ask to be a referral.

Why Referrals Are Worth Pursuing

According to Jobvite,

Employee referral programs generate 39.9% of all hires. [6]

Bottom line: Hiring managers prefer someone with a connection to an existing employee over a virtual unknown. A referral is like someone vouching for you. Therefore, strive to get a referral.

Suggestion: If you’d like to send your resume to your referral but they’re reluctant to give their email, say, “I understand how you feel, with Outlook if you don’t want to see emails from someone, mark them as junk mail and they will never appear in your In Box again.”

Answer #3: Leapfrog the ATS through staffing companies

About two weeks before starting my current role, I received a call from SNI ( and met with one of their recruiters. Staffing companies like SNI vet candidates for larger companies so they can focus on their core business. If I had known about this option, my search for a permanent position four years ago would have been significantly shorter.

If you’d like to know if your target companies use a staffing firm to identify candidates, call the HR departments of the target companies and ask them. However, you don’t need to call your target companies before meeting with a staffing company.

When you meet, remember the reputation and long term business relationship between the staffing firm and the companies they serve rides on the quality of the candidates identified by the staffing company.

In other words, be ready to communicate all of your strengths, your achievement stories, everything. This is not a time to be tongue tied. You won’t get anywhere if you don’t.

I actually know someone who is uncomfortable talking about his strengths and accomplishments. I guess he views it as bragging. (There are ways to talk about your strengths without bragging.) Anyway, I referred that person to SNI, they met and the recruiter never called him back.

One more thing, meet with the staffing companies before you apply anywhere. If you’ve applied at a firm, the staffing company cannot offer you as a candidate (and receive their commission) until 12 months after your last application.

Answer #4: Understand how to get through the ATS.

The best way to avoid an ATS rejection is to follow these steps,

A.) List jobs under the heading, “Work Experience”.

  • Labeling it “Professional Experience” or “Career Achievements” or something similar can cause the ATS to never read your “Work Experience” because it wasn’t labeled as “Work Experience”.[7]

B.) When adding jobs to your resume, list your work experience in this order:

1.) Employer’s name;

2.) Your title;

3.) The dates you held the title.

Applicant tracking systems look for company names first.[8] ⁠ Also, use only years. No one needs to know you were out of work from June to November.

C.) Never send your resume as a PDF. Applicant tracking systems easily misread PDF documents because they don’t know how to structure PDF documents.[9]

D.) Don’t include tables or graphics: Applicant tracking systems can’t read graphics, and they misread tables.[10]

 E.) Only use commonly accepted categories. Besides “Work Experience,” use “Summary,” “Education,” “Professional Development,” “Community Involvement,” etc. Straying from these words could result in the ATS system excluding your information.[11]

 F.) Repeat the information in the Summary section of the resume because some ATS systems do not recognize the Summary.[12]

 G.) Use normal fonts like Helvetica or Arial —the ATS can’t read fancy fonts and will reject your resume out of confusion.[13]

 H.) Use both the acronym and the spelled-out form of any given title, certification, or organization. Do this because you never know if the ATS is looking for a Certified Public Accountant or a CPA.[14]

 I.)   Don’t game the ATS. By gaming the system, I am referring to loading keywords at the end of your resume in white font or in Microsoft Word’s Document Properties. Some Applicant Tracking Systems are set to omit a long list of keywords. Some employers may view gaming the system as deceptive and will eliminate you.[15]

 J.)  Remember, cover letters count. Cover letters are also scanned along with resumes.[16]

 K.) A longer resume can help you: The length of your resume doesn’t matter to an ATS. Submitting a three or four page resume enables you to add more relevant experience and keywords which could give you a higher ranking in the system. Only do this if your work experience warrants it.[17]

L.) Customize Your Resume to Get Selected by the ATS

See my post,

The Truth About Quick, Easy And Affordable Resume Customization

Is Additional Customization Helpful?

If the job you are applying for requires skills you haven’t emphasized in your resume, sometimes additional modifications are needed to get the interest of HR and the hiring manager.

While Jobscan captures the keywords, credentials, skills and experience required to get through the HR elimination system, Angela Rose of recommends going through your Summary and removing words and phrases not specific to the position. If possible, add additional strengths to the Summary with the most relevant first.[18]

Angela also recommends reviewing past positions, and extracting skills and achievements pertaining to this position. Update the accomplishments under these positions to make them more relevant to the position. Remove accomplishments not relevant to the position.[19]

More Ways to Customize

If you are looking for additional ways to customize your resume, you might want to consider, customizing by industry, by company, and if you have this information, by Hiring Manager.

The best way to customize by Industry is to go to websites focused on the industry and identify the most commonly used words. This can be done by copying the words from the sites and throwing them into Wordle ( The largest words in the Wordle output are the most commonly used words. Next, find places in your resume to add these words. You could also take the words you threw into Wordle and throw them into the job description screen in Jobscan and your resume in the resume screen. Jobscan could then tell you if you have these words in your resume already.

If you’d like to customize by company, follow the same steps above but copy the words from the company website. If you are experienced in areas important to the company, emphasize these areas in the Summary and in the body of the resume.

If you know who the hiring manager is, see if she has published articles online. Follow the same steps I mentioned above but use the published articles to identify the keywords that are important to her. If you find the hiring manager is very interested in a particular field where you have experience, find a way to emphasize the field in your Summary and if possible, elsewhere in the resume.

[1] 5 Insider Secrets for Beating Applicant Tracking Systems, By Meridith Levinson, CIO | Mar 1, 2012 7:00 AM PT

[2] Lynda Spiegel. Outfoxing the ATS: Can Software Finesse Software? Jul 10, 2015

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] Follow Through: Strategies and Scripts to Keep You in The Interview Game

[6] Jobvite Index

[7] Meridith Levinson

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Is Your Resume ATS-Unfriendly? February 28, 2013 by Kristin Johnson

[12] Ibid

[13] Beat the Robots: How to Get Your Resume Past the System & Into Human Hands, By Mark Slack and Erik Bowitz, September 26, 2013;

[14] Kristin Johnson.

[15] Kristin Johnson.

[16] Mark Slack and Erik Bowitz

[17] Ibid.

[18] Angela Rose, Easy Steps to Customize Your Resume for the Job You’re Applying for Right Now

[19] Ibid.

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Photo by Elaine Casap