Last updated: January 13

Will Your Executive Resume Pass the Test? 

Recently I worked with an executive who is with an international consulting firm. He had been approached by the SVP of Research and Development and encouraged to apply for an upcoming senior-level vacancy. My client is brilliant, ambitious and clearly on the fast track. Both of us were feeling confident that he would ace the competition. After all he was tapped by the SVP and encouraged to apply. Our enthusiasm was quickly dampened when he discovered that he, like the other 200 applicants, was required to apply through his firm’s applicant tracking system.

Interestingly, and in perfect time, I attended a Career Directors International Conference in Orlando with 100 of the world’s most esteemed career thought leaders and practitioners. Amidst the plethora of career topics arose one particular theme that is still creating buzz in this international community: Applicant Tracking Systems.

The promise of applicant tracking systems (ATS) is an alluring one: Apply the principles of technology search to the complicated hiring process, allowing recruiters and hiring managers to have access to a search system like the one that exists online with Google, Bing, Yahoo, and other search engines. Type in what you want and voilà! The perfect candidate appears. Applicant tracking systems allow companies to determine which candidates may be a match for a particular position, based on their résumé.

Re-tooling the hiring process

Applicant tracking systems fulfill two purposes: to manage applications for positions (especially where there is a high volume of applicants), and to screen out candidates who lack the minimum required competencies for the job.

The goal is to help hiring managers and recruiters more easily identify candidates with the skills, education and experience that are most desired of candidates. Just as you want the most relevant search results returned when you type a query into Google, the hiring manager doesn’t want to sift through hundreds or thousands of résumés to find the handful of people he or she really wants to talk to. So if you focus your goal on ensuring you are the best fit for the types of positions you are seeking, the things that will make you findable in applicant tracking systems will already be in your résumé and cover letter — because they are critical competencies and experience for the type of position you are seeking.

How does it work?

When there are a large number of applicants for a position, the ATS allows the hiring manager to screen out low-ranking résumés, saving valuable time. In this instance, the applicant tracking system works a bit like your email spam filter. It screens out résumés it doesn’t “feel” (based on its algorithm) would be relevant for the position being filled. Like a spam filter, it recognizes content that might not be important. It also recognizes content that matches the description.

The appeal of an ATS for those doing the hiring is clear. Looking for a candidate with specific skills? Type those skills into a database and receive a targeted list of candidates with exactly those skills.

Unfortunately, the reality hasn’t quite panned out that way. These applicant tracking systems are limited by the information they acquire from jobseeker résumés. If the résumés aren’t structured in a way that fits the applicant tracking system, they can enter a black hole. Success on the hiring side depends on tooling the ATS with the right keywords, specifications and competencies (from the job description) to draw out résumés that are the best fit for the position.

However, even if you are the perfect fit, if the résumé doesn’t work well with the ATS, the recruiter or hiring manager won’t find you!

ATS Compliance

According to Preptel (sadly no longer in operation but was an authority on this topic), 75 % of résumés are not compliant with applicant tracking systems. If you can’t bring your résumé into compliance, you need to find another way to get yourself in front of the hiring manager. This is how in-person networking and LinkedIn activity can help you; by uncovering the hiring process and connecting with key people in your targeted organization. Employee referrals remain one of the top-yielding strategies for job seekers.

Understand your targeted company’s process

Keep in mind that some companies do not allow hiring managers to accept a résumé unless it is submitted through an applicant tracking system — and that policy applies even if the candidate networks his or her way to the hiring authority or connects through social media.

Although gaining in popularity, they are not yet pervasive. The simple fact is that most résumés are read by people, not machines. So appealing to human readers remains priority number one — especially if you are targeting a company with fewer than 100 employees, for now anyway.

The adoption of applicant tracking systems is growing quickly and understanding this emerging technology will help you successfully navigate today’s complex labour market.

My client’s firm is global with more than 300,000 employees. With good planning and a keen understanding of how ATS operate, his resume complied with his company’s ATS, was keyword rich and exceeded the role’s minimum requirements based on the job description.

I fully expect to hear that he will one day be his firm’s CEO.

Make sure your resume is fully ATS-compliant to guarantee your success.



We look forward to welcoming you into the Westgate Family of success stories.

About executive resume writing author 

Westgate - Maureen Farmer, helping C-level executives step up or step out.

Maureen Farmer is the Founder & CEO of Westgate Executive Branding & Career Consulting Inc., an international personal branding and career consulting firm delivering premier executive branding and career consulting services for high-profile leaders. Author of The CEO Script Vault: Job Search Scripts for Busy Executives, Maureen believes that when we’re doing work aligned with our values, everyone wins. Using the law of attraction to identify quality employers utilizing the hidden job market is a cornerstone of her career management strategy.

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