Let’s talk about applicant tracking systems. Rail against them, complain about them, point out their many flaws, but the reality for many modern job seekers is that getting your resume in front of a human being means getting it past an applicant tracking system (ATS) first.

Used for collecting, storing, and processing data about job candidates, the value of applicant tracking systems may depend on your point of view.

For employers and recruiters, the ATS is a time-saving device that helps them eliminate unqualified candidates from their potential job pool. For job seekers, the ATS can seem more like a fickle gatekeeper, arbitrarily locking them out of potential opportunities. But, if you understand how applicant tracking systems work, you can create a resume that will unlock that gate. The secret lies in finding the key(words).

How employers screen candidates using their ATS

One of the many roles performed by an ATS is that of a human capital search engine for companies seeking to fill open positions. Much like using any other search engine, a recruiter or hiring manager enters the search terms--a job title, experience level, and/or set of desired or targeted skills--into the ATS search feature and the result is a list of candidates that meet that criteria.

If you want to land the job the talent manager is trying to fill, these search terms are your keywords.

To make it through to the next level of screening, you’ll need a resume that communicates these keywords in a way that the ATS understands.

So, let’s take a look at how you can convert the skills and accomplishments listed on your resume into the targeted keywords for the job you want.

6 Steps for Converting Your Job Skills Into the Keywords That Unlock the ATS Gate

Step 1. Start with the basics.

If you are applying for a specific position, then begin your search for the keywords to include in your resume in the text of the job post itself.

Speaking with Glassdoor’s Isabel Thottam for the article, The Best Way to Add Keywords to Your Resume, resume experts Wendi Weiner and Amanda Augustine advise job applicants to read through the job post and make a list of each skill or qualification that the employer mentions. Weiner and Augustine also recommend that you note which job skills are required and which ones are preferred as you make your list. Use the resulting tiered list to prioritize the skills to include in your resume.

Step 2. Do some research.

Even though a company’s job post is a good place to start when selecting keywords, don’t stop there. To get a full understanding of the skills needed for a particular career or job, check out the Bureau of Labor’s Occupational Outlook Handbook, writes Richard Blazevich in his Interview Prep Playbook: College Student Edition.

Also, look at similar job postings from other employers to get a broader sense of the terminology commonly used by talent managers in your field. Take advantage of all the sources of information available to you. Look at the LinkedIn profiles of people within the organization you are targeting to see how they describe their jobs. Checking out a company’s online presence is a great method for learning about the company’s culture, too.

Tailor your resume. Figure out the qualifications and requirements needed for a job.

Step 3. Add some variety.

As you read the job description and as you search elsewhere for relevant keywords, think about synonyms for the words you find and create a list of keyword variations to use in your resume. Not every hiring manager or recruiter will use the same terminology when conducting an ATS search.

Additionally, don’t use acronyms in your resume unless you’ve also used the complete term advises the team at TechRepublic in the article How to get your resume through an applicant tracking system: 15 tips.

Step 4. Match things up.

Once you have a list of targeted keywords, it’s time to do a little matchmaking. You need to match your existing experience, skills, and accomplishments to the keywords on your list. Select the best matches from your professional experience and other information, then create statements and descriptions that incorporate the keywords you’ve identified.  

Step 5. Filter your data.

The final step to converting your skills into language that the ATS will love is to place your keywords into your resume. From among the totality of your professional data, you’ll want to narrow the information you include in your resume to the skills, experience, and accomplishments that best fit the job posting’s keywords and criteria.

This process of refining may require some tough choices, but it will be worth it. A resume that solidly indicates your core skills will serve you better than one that attempts to cover every possibility.

Step 6. Format for machines and humans.

Keep in mind that after you clear the ATS hurdle, your resume will be seen by a person. So, don’t try to fool the ATS by using strange fonts or other tricks to hide keywords in your resume. Instead, distribute a selection of quality keywords throughout your resume.

Place the most important keywords where they are most likely to be seen by that person--at the top. Then, add synonyms and secondary keywords throughout the document to continually remind the reader that you have the skills they want for the job.

Don’t let the algorithm lock you out

One of the criticisms lobbed at applicant tracking systems is that they allow qualified candidates to slip through the cracks. Without the right keywords, a candidate who is perfect for a role may miss out. But you don’t have to be that candidate. With a little research and time, you can identify the targeted keywords for the job you want and ensure that your resume includes them. To get past the ATS and through the door to opportunity, you just need to have the keys.

Learn how to use Carmen's Skills Benchmark tool to quickly figure out the right keywords to help you get closer to landing the job you want – https://carmen.co/skills-benchmark