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Writing a Scanner-Friendly Resume

According to Holly Tullis, EDS's Staffing Manager in charge of electronic resume scanning, " (resume) image and sorting systems will be "the way" companies screen applicants in the future." When you take a look at the numbers, you can understand why she says this. In mid 1994, Jim Caraway, EDS's Director of Staffing, said the company had 12,000 resumes in its Resumix database and was hoping to eventually accumulate about 100,000. As of fall of 1995, EDS had almost 200,000 resumes in its electronic filing system and was adding new applicants at a rate of 20,000 per month. To keep the number of resumes at a reasonable level, the firm has to purge all but the most qualified technical candidates once per year and the non-technical ones every six months.

Without a very sophisticated automated tracking system, there is no way EDS can possibly make the resumes of 200,000 people available for matching as new positions become available. From Tullis's and Caraway's perspective Resumix is an incredibly useful tool for both their company and its applicants.

What is Resume Scanning?

Electronic applicant tracking is a system used to scan your resume into a computer so it can be accessed at a later date. It may be stored exactly as you submitted it, in a computer language called ASCII, in an extracted summary which focuses on predetermined key words to capture the essence of your skills and experience, or in some combination thereof. Specifically, here's how it works according to a brochure from Resumix, one of the more sophisticated programs used in resume tracking, " Your resume is scanned into the computer as an image. Then OCR (optical character recognition) software looks at the image to distinguish every letter and number (character) and creates a text file (ASCII). Then artificial intelligence 'reads' the text and extracts important information about you such as your name, address, phone number, work history, years of experience, education and skills."

Because this process is still in its infancy, organizations that scan and store resumes do it with varying levels of sophistication. While EDS might easily scan just about any resume, including those with italics and underlining, another employer's software might be totally baffled by even the slightest differences from plain text such as bolding.

The Good News about Resume Scanning

While job seekers may have an initial aversion to the thought of being chosen or rejected by a machine, there can be some pluses in sending your resume to a firm that has an automated tracking system. Here are some of them:

  • With continual downsizing and the advent of "the executive with portfolio", it's important to keep your credentials in circulation. Resume databases can help you do this.

  • They can also give you a vehicle for automatically updating your resume if you make the effort to contact your key databases every six months to a year.

  • Just as online service providers can offer employers access to qualified applicants around the world, they can also provide you with a gateway to thousands of opportunities you would never have heard about even a few years ago.

  • Using a resume database service is much more time and cost effective than a direct mail campaign.

  • Often it's difficult to move to another department within a corporation or government agency because your manager is blocking you or you don't know anyone outside your own arena. Fortunately, internal tracking systems contain resumes from people throughout the organization. If your credentials match with an available position, you'll get an interview.

And the Bad News.....

It goes against human nature to accept being screened by a machine. After all, computers aren't nearly as smart as people, nor are they as discerning when it comes to identifying the human factors or personality traits that set apart the people who can do the job from the ones who will and want to. Even the most sophisticated sorting programs have a long way to go before they possess the insight and finesse of a skilled recruiter.

Because of its heavy reliance on key word searches, resume scanning will generally put any career changer out of the running. Think about an officer who's retiring from the military and moving to civilian life. Even if he has had years of highly regarded experience leading an elite corps of paratroopers, can he make his background fit with the specific key words a corporate computer is looking for? It's most unlikely. Yet this individual may make a exceptional manager in any number of situations where he can apply his seasoned leadership skills and quickly learn the special knowledges needed for the job.

While one often reads that businesses are looking for professionals who can wear many hats and possess good communication skills, computers programmed to pull only those resumes with very specific key word matches haven't been given this message. As far as they are concerned, generalists need not apply.

The same can be true for college graduates with liberal arts degrees. If these articulate, broadly-educated first time job seekers don't have a good internship or two on their resumes, they may be rejected for lack of technical expertise, even though they are brilliant, quick learners.

And Yet, There's Hope!

Remember that a resume is not the most likely way for you to get an interview. Most interviews come through networking contacts. Fortunately generalists, career changers and liberal arts graduates tend to be pretty good a developing rapport with other people. And it's people who make the hiring decisions. If your experience isn't suited to a key word search, make a habit of going directly to the managers who can say yes.

Dos and Don'ts for Writing Scannable Resumes

When you are writing a resume that will be read by a computer, there are two main issues you need to keep in mind: format and key word content.

Tips on Scanner-friendly Formatting

Format deals with how a resume looks. It includes elements such as white space, font type and size, paper selection, bold or underlined titles and a variety of other elements that make a resume pleasing to the eye and easy to read. Unfortunately, what is most attractive to human screeners may drive computers crazy, slow down the entire scanning system and result in a bunch of stored gibberish. To avoid becoming a tracking system statistic, keep these things in mind when you are formatting your resume:

  • Select a printing grade of white or some other light-colored paper. Print only on one side of 8 1/2 by 11 inch sheets.

  • Use either a laser or a very good quality ink jet printer.

  • What they used to say on the old key punch cards still applies, "don't fold, staple or mutilate" your resume unless you want to sabotage the system and end all hope of getting a job with ABC company.

  • Use a standard type face in a ten to fourteen point font size.

  • Always put your most important data: your name, address, and phone numbers on their own lines at the top of your resume. Otherwise the scanner is likely to run them all together. Also include your name at the top left corner of every subsequent page. This can save confusion should a page accidentally be orphaned somewhere in the process.

  • Give the scanner lots of white space to separate one important element of your resume from another. Go to a second or even a third page instead of opting for one or two pages of cramped text.

  • Confine yourself to ALL CAPS or boldface type when delineating major section headings from less important items because the majority of scanners can read both of these. Don't use italics or underlining.

  • Keep your format simple. Employing boxes, shading, graphics, hollow bullets and other intriguing elements only serve to confuse computers.

  • Because it is so difficult for many scanners to read degraded (faxed or copied) text, always send a hard copy original of your resume.

  • Always include a cover letter with your resume. While the computer may pay little attention to it, it will record a text image. Then, if you make the initial screening cut, the hiring manager may want to look at a copy of your actual letter and resume to get a better feel for your style and personality.

  • If you are replying to an ad on the Internet, it is best to send it in an ASCII (computer language) format, rather than typical text. If you don't use ASCII your resume may reach its destination as an assortment of interesting hieroglyphs instead of the brilliant prose you intended.

Tips on Scanner-friendly Content

Once your resume makes it through image scanning, it is translated into ASCII language and automatically searched for pre-designated key words. A key word is a noun or noun phrase that specifies particular types of experience, education, professional organizations, certificates or licenses or number of years in a given role. Some typical key words for a Human Resources professional might be: Salary and Benefits Administration, Training and Development, Affirmative Action, Executive Compensation, Union Liaison, Recruiting, Salary Survey, EAP Program, Downsizing, Reengineering, Health Care Cost Containment and Government Reports, among others. Note that these are very specific descriptors for learned bodies of information. Transferable skills such as planning, organizing, creating, and listening rarely become key words, even though they might play an equally important role in the position for which the resume was written.

For the computer to select you as a likely candidate for a particular job, you must make liberal use of the key words commonly linked with that position throughout your resume. You are actually playing a numbers game where winning the selection lottery will depend upon how many times you've hit on the key words a potential employer has decided are either critical, useful or nice to have in a qualified applicant. The people with the most "hits" get the chance to talk to a real person. Those who have made no effort to tailor their resumes don't.

Below are some tips for enhancing your chances of appealing to the computer:
  • State a specific objective. It will be your first key word.

  • Use a Key Word Summary after your objective to highlight the most important assets you have to offer an employer.

  • Stress accomplishments and results rather than duties and responsibilities.

  • Use the same sections and headings as you would for any resume. The key word summary is the only exception.

  • As with other resumes, you must be truthful and concise. However, you can change buzz words to match industries and careers. For instance, a teacher hoping to move into corporate training can substitute words such as "training" for "teaching" and "program design" for "lesson plans" and possibly have enough key words to make the interview stack. Whether she can convince an HR recruiter, who wants only trainers with corporate experience, that she deserves the position may be another story.

  • Give dates of employment using specific numerical years, not words, or delete dates altogether. Example: Use 1993-1996, not "three years" when you are talking about the time you've spent in a position or activity.

  • Use synonyms if a key word might be described in more than one way. If you aren't sure what the specific key words for a particular position are, then use more than one name to describe an activity.

  • Be careful of acronyms and abbreviations, unless you are confident the ones in your resume are the ones everyone uses. When in doubt, spell them out.

  • Specific degrees, universities, leadership programs, professional licenses, certifications, trade organizations and honors can all be key words used to pull a targeted group of resumes for further action.

  • Send only one resume to a company with an automated tracking system. When every resume goes into the same computer database, a person with more than one in the system immediately looks desperate, sneaky or forgetful.


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