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8 tips to beat the online job application system

The battle between humans and machines isn’t just happening in movies. If you are a job hunter with an account on any online job application system, you are playing that game right now without being aware of it. And in all probability, you have been losing it and getting increasingly frustrated about losing your CV in the black-hole.

Thanks to the use of sophisticated online job application systems or applicant tracking systems (ATS), the resume that you so lovingly prepared and embellished with nice fonts, boxes and shading is consistently getting rejected.

Read on to understand how the resume screening software works within an online job application system and what you can do to improve your chances of getting called for an interview.

Online job application systems FAQ

What is an online job application system?

In the earlier days, the primitive versions of the online job application system performed a few simple tasks. All the paper CVs received by the company were scanned and stored in a central database. The entire journey of a candidate from screening the job application to tracking the interview status and finally sending out the appointment letters was managed using the ATS.

Modern day applicant tracking systems are far more complex and are being trained to mimic human behaviour. Scary!

They not only store resumes, but rate them as well based on many parameters including special skills, number of experience, past employers, qualifications and more. You are already ranked within the ATS along with millions of other candidates, as you wait patiently for some tender care and loving from a human being working in the esteemed HR department.

Why do companies use online job application systems?

According to estimates by IBM, a leading provider of online job application systems, over 90% of large (Fortune 500) companies use online resume filtering software tools. Despite the high costs involved in installing and maintaining these systems, companies feel there’s a solid commercial reason to do so.

These companies recruit tens of thousands of employees each year. Often the database of resumes that they tap into, host millions of resumes. Apart from using their own internal databases, they also reach out to job portals that enthusiastically broadcast the new opportunities.

It only takes a click for applicants to submit their resumes even if they lack the basic qualifications and skills for the job. To make matters worse, there are online tools that enable job applicants to upload and post their CV to hundreds of job sites. Imagine the amount of junk floating around in the virtual jobsphere.

The responsibility of filtering the barrage of resumes is not very different from finding a needle in needle-stack. Another HR consulting firm puts the average cost of hiring a new employee at over $3500.

How online job application systems work

Infographic Source: Wall Street Journal

How to increase your selection chances on online job application systems?

Most of the leading online job application systems rely upon a few basic principles to extract data from your resume and compare it to the job opportunity. If you are aware of them, you can tweak your resumes before submitting them to companies to get a leg up in the race.

Here are some tips to increase the chances of getting your resume selected by recruiters that use online job application systems.

Tip 1: Speak the employer’s language

Identify the keywords used in the job description and use them in your resume. If possible, show your compatibility with the firms culture as well. Their websites should give you an idea of what traits they value.

Instead of blindly flooding your CV with these words (i.e. it’s called ‘keyword stuffing‘), use them intelligently and naturally. Remember that it would also be seen by a human at some point in the process. It’s important for you to keep both (the machine and the human) happy.

Tip 2: Design your CV for semantic search, not just text search

Apart from using words and phrases used in the job description, also think about including the relevant industry terms.

For instance, if you are applying for a management consulting job, mentioning the name of a market leader (like McKinsey, Bain, BCG) that you might’ve worked for will get you brownie points.

Ditto for related skills (like strategy frameworks) and industry exposure (FMCG, Retail) relevant for the job.

Tip 3: Don’t get creative with the CV formatting

Avoid boxes, margins, cute images, smilies and any special character that may throw the resume reading program off the track. Don’t embed your profile photograph either.

Make it easy for the program to scan your resume and transfer the relevant components in the right database fields.

Tip 4: Go easy with the fancy fonts in your resume

Stick to commonly used fonts like Arial that are commonly available on the internet and decipherable by machines.

Keep in mind that the jazzy font you’ve used in the resume might exist only on your computer, but not on the server that’s dissecting your CV.

Tip 5: Skip the long paragraphs

Stick to short and crisp bullet points that use the high priority keywords specific to the job you are applying to.

The resume parser (the software that reads the raw data and fills up different database fields) could get confused when you throw too much text at it.

Tip 6: Create a different resume for each job

It’s so easy to have a single resume that you can blast off using the simple tools that job portals provide. That’s exactly what your competitors are doing and accelerating the speed by which they end up in the black hole. Don’t do it!

Painful as it may sound, take the trouble to customise your CV for every single job that is going through a company’s online job application system.

Tip 7: Apply as early as you can

Even if you design and post the most compatible CV for the job, the HR department might stop looking for more candidates if the first few candidates that the CV screening software has discovered meet the requirements of the company.

But in the race to be higher in the list of selected CVs, don’t compromise on the earlier tips.

Tip 8: Don’t try to cheat the applicant tracking system

Making your resume compatible with the advertised job is different from trying to game the system. The former is fine (and in fact encouraged), but the latter could get you in a soup.

Despite all the dependency on online job application systems and resume screening software, it would still be a good idea for you to create the resume keeping humans in mind and then tweak it for the machines. The automated robots are only the first stage of your fight for that dream job. Ultimately, you’d have to convince the people who’ve deployed the filter.

There you have it. Simple when you know the logic behind online job application systems, right?

But don’t assume that you’ve cracked the code by understanding how these online tools works.

Focus on the basics as well. If you are looking for a job or career change, there’s a lot of work to be done before you start sending out your CV.

Ask yourself all the introspective questions first about the following aspects:

  1. Timing: Is it the right time to look for a career change or too early/late?
  2. Relevance: What kind of jobs should I target that’ll help me achieve my long term goals?
  3. Capability: Do I have the technical and non-technical skills for the job? What can I do to strengthen my profile before applying?

If you need help with the introspection and preparatory aspects, you might find our careeer counselling service beneficial in validating, aligning and executing your career plan.

Play fair. Play smart. Good luck with your job hunt!

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Sameer Kamat
About Sameer Kamat
Founder of MBA Crystal Ball. Author of Beyond The MBA Hype & Business Doctors. Here's more about me. Follow me on: Instagram | Linkedin | Youtube

18 thoughts on “8 tips to beat the online job application system”

  1. Hi Sameer,

    I have completed B.Tech (CSE) in the year 2011. Even though i got placed in HCL Tech in my college campus selections i have opted for Postal Dept for security and family reasons.

    Since then (2011-2014 continuing) i have been working as Postal assistant …… I am not at all satisfied with this job… and now i have decided to enter software world again…. but i have no experience and not want to put any fake certificates for experience…..
    There are no openings for 2011 passouts now..
    What should i do now where to start and which course will be useful for my entry into s/w company???
    Is there any chance of me getting a job in IT sector now??? (as 2011 pasout with 0 experience)
    Please advise me

  2. @Moin: Kudos to you for putting family above career. I’m sure it wasn’t an easy decision at all. The good news is that the IT industry is still growing and has enough capacity to absorb talented people.

    After a 3 year stint in an unrelated field, it may be difficult for you to convince the big IT companies to employ you. But you could reach out to the smaller, mid-sized firms that are looking for niche roles (like testing) that don’t need sophisticated programming skills.

    Good luck!

  3. Hi sameer,
    This is bhavani.i have done my MBA with finance and mktg specialisation in an university affiliated college and I got a job in an mnc company as a financial analyst and this is the past story means 3.5 years back story a still I am working over there so now I want to change my career path. I know I am too late to take this changing decission 🙁 but i dont know in which way i will go? Literally I am in a dilemma and I don’t have any guidance. In monetary benefits wise my company is so so… but I want to make my financial strength to be high so can you please please advise me shall I move to any software courses or any finance related tools ???? And presently Iam working in Finance and administration department.

  4. Hi

    I have completed my B.Tech (Computer science & Engg.) in 2008 and build a career in Telecom Sector. But i am not satisfied with my career. I want to change the filed. So please suggest which career is good for me. Can i build career in Hotel management? Please suggest what to do for it.

  5. @Surya: You can still change your career path. But before that you need to be clear about which direction you want to take it. You’ve mentioned 2 options (software & finance) which are as different as chalk and cheese.

    Read up on what finance careers entail and how they are different from software jobs. Then take the next steps of evaluating the qualifications and skills needed to be successful in that area.

    @Ashwani: It won’t be appropriate for you to base your career change strategy based on blog suggestions. Hotel management is a completely new domain, considering your qualifications and experience. Are you sure you want to ignore all that you’ve done so far and start life afresh?

  6. Hi I am Arun I am maths graduate and done MBA in marketing from Mumbai university and worked 3year in marketing and sales but now I am feeling I can do better in finance And not satisfy in sales and I love to read finance but how I get job in finance don’t know. I try so many places but everyone demand commerce background how to enter in finance don’t know. Can you suggest me what to do now. I have so many responsibility to fulfill. And I can’t go for 2 year full time MBA in finance. But want to enter in financial sector and my age is now 30 years. What I can do now pls suggest me.

  7. I have started my career with hotel sales as a asst sales manager (2yrs approx.)and then moved to Admin & Secretarial profile (2 yrs).Current working as a secretary to President but I am not happy with this job profile and wants to go back to corporate sales.But I am not getting good company to be worked in as have experience in 2 different sectors and current experience in secretary profile. Currently pursuing PGDM in Marketing from reputed firm.

    Also in secretary profile growth and money is less.

    Request you to suggest on my query.


  8. HI,

    As i have done B.COM & MBA ( TRAVEL & TOURISM ADMINISTRATION) also worked with leading travel Co. with 2-3 yrs. As i have taken break due to my daughter .Now am looking for Pre Agriculture Test is it beneficial to me . Now my Interest is in Government Sector .Please guide me .

  9. @Arun: Getting the right degree in the relevant field would be the best way to break into a new area. But if that isn’t possible, you can look for roles where you can still re-use your skills. e.g. sales role in the finance industry.

    @Dimple: Why not ask your boss to give you back the same role that you started out with? Better than chasing new companies, right?

    @Shweta: Your earlier qualification (MBA) should be good enough if you want to move into the Government sector. Why do you want to spend more time in a classroom?

  10. hi
    I need your advice.
    I am a graduate and done a diploma in clinical research.I have 2 years of CR.but I want to do cat but now I have a gap of 4 my work exp.I am 32 right it possible to do cat at this stage..please guide me.

  11. dear sir, my self ashok soni,30 year old from indore.i have done,b/com tax from there.and i am also donig job in pharma comapny with total experience of 5 years,now i want to do somthing differnt which enhance my carrer…so please tell me which course i will chouse for my better carrer…give me suggestions

  12. Great article, quite informative. I also found another really great website called [snip] that will help you get your resume noticed and get you past the ATS plus it only takes a few seconds. Worked for me and I got many more interviews because of jobscan. I definitely recommend the website to anyone who is looking for a job or preparing their resume. Good luck on the job hunt and the resume!

  13. @pratimahi: I’m not familiar with CAT rules and policies. Sorry.

    @Ashok: If you are looking for a generic degree, then MBA might be something to think about.

    @James: Nice try, buddy!

  14. Hi Sameer, I am Suman. I liked your post on the science behind online job applications. Thanks for the post!

    Basically I am writing to you as I am in a soup now and I need your help and guidance. I have done my MBA from one of the new IIMs in 2013 and had completed my Telecom engineering. Post my MBA, I joined a pharmaceutical company in a Marketing profile. But the reality turned out different and I figured out that my role is very company specific, does not involve any marketing, has got very less learning and no element of latest marketing technologies. Now, I have spent 1.5 years and I am very actively looking for change to a different industry (pref in IT or online marketplaces). Tried through referrals, company websites, customized resumes, reaching HRs, but trust me, despite applying for around 1000s of jobs in 6 months, I am not able to change my industry. Despite being an excellent performer throughout (both academics and profession), I am not able to switch my job. Not even startups are calling me. Can you suggest me how I can be escaped from drowning?

    Thanks a lot in advance!


  15. @Suman: You’ve been pursuing all the relevant channels (online, offline, emails etc) to reach out to recruiters and connectors. But seems like you’ve been overdoing it.

    If you’ve applied to 1000s of jobs in 6 months, it means you’ve been sending out 10-20 jobs every single day. With those kind of volumes, it’s practically impossible to be able to do any indepth research on each opportunity and create an effective strategy for each application.

    For online jobs, there are lakhs of professionals trying out the machine gun approach. And as you’d have learnt from the blog post above, that’s hardly the best job hunting strategy.

    I understand how eager you might be to change your line, but it may be a good idea to slow down a little and re-think on your application strategy.

    Keep doing what you’ve been doing, but with more focus, research, tact and patience.

  16. Hi,

    I am 45 years old. As Executive Secretary, I have had 16 plus years experience. In between, for more than 1 year, I was unemployed. Inspite of best efforts, couldn’t get a good job. I did land up with one however there were issues there so had to give up so was without job for a month or two. That is when a job opportunity as a Data Analyst (Administrative) in a Company came up. I compromised much on my salary (which I feel wasn’t a good decision as financially, I am not too secure because of the earlier unemployment state) but did it thinking it will help me get out of the Secretary tag and help me learn something than the usual. However, the role there was not exactly data analyst, it was more administrative and that too on a more lower level. In the meanwhile, my health issue cropped up and have been at home on medical leave since. Not sure, whether I can still go and what I should be really doing. At graduation level, I did my BA (Economics) and some years back did a 2 year Counselling & Psychotherapy distance learning course of which I do not have practical experience. My dilemma is I am a single mother of a teenager who is still studying and hence finance is a major problem, my health issue because of which I am doubting whether I can do a full time job, a current job which I am not very fond of. Can you please help me in understanding and advising the best possible solution?


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