In my work as a career, executive and leadership coach for women, we often engage in the process of developing stronger resumes and LinkedIn profiles that stand out, as well as identify strategies for networking and applying for top-level roles that represent significant advancement and growth.
A question that frequently comes up has to do with the role of artificial intelligence in screening resumes, and how candidates can craft a winning a resume that will pass the bots and the system and get into human hands.
To learn more about this, I caught up with Dr. Jon Christiansen, the Chief Intelligence Officer of Sparks Research, a company that conducts primary market research and business intelligence to help executives make data-driven decisions in all areas of their business models, from hiring and onboarding, to customer service and product pricing.
Christiansen serves Fortune 500 firms in the Banking, Automotive, Retail, Healthcare, and Energy industries, to name a few. He was trained in Computational Analytics at Carnegie Mellon, and holds both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Economics, and a PhD in Higher Education from Clemson University. Christiansen is also certified as a Senior Professional of Human Resources (SPHR) and a SHRM Senior Certified Professional (SHRM-SCP).
Here’s what Christiansen shares on writing your resume so that it passes the AI test with flying colors:
Kathy Caprino: Jon, how exactly do recruitment and screening algorithms work?
Jon Christiansen: Very similar to how SEO works for websites, Application Trackers and like programs use natural language processing to sift through resumes. Doing this, a program can score a resume according to a candidate’s fit for the job. The program does so largely by searching for keywords and linked phrases within the resume itself.
You will often find these keywords within the job posting. These keywords are usually the knowledge, skills and abilities a company is looking for in the ideal candidate, and often include the duties of the job. Most commonly, the most important keywords are found within the job description.
The reason for that is that HR folks are trained to defer to the job description in determining which candidates are qualified for an open position. The algorithm will sift through resumes to find matches within a resume to match against the keywords in the job description. Then, the program will look for job specifications (often called „requirements,“ although these are often not „required) – the qualifications necessary to be able to perform the job. This is experience, training, education, licenses and certifications. Obviously, if you are applying for a job as a CPA, you want to say you have a CPA license or certificate. If a firm is looking for a CPA with experience in working with small businesses, you want to emphasize your experience here.
From here, a program commonly scores a resume according to the number or percent of matches within the resume and will rank candidates according to match. Often, hiring managers can emphasize an order of magnitude for knowledge, skills, and abilities. So, one skill might have a greater weight in whether a candidate is a fit for the job.
Additionally, the more sophisticated programs out there can actually use the dates from a job in a resume and calculate the length in the role. So, if it wants four to six years, that program will do the calculation to see how close a candidate is to that window of experience.
Caprino: What does it mean to “algorithm optimize” your resume?
Christiansen: Just as I mentioned how the program works in searching for keywords and phrases, a candidate will want to write a resume tailored to the job itself. Ensuring the resume contains the terms that are showing up in the job description, specs and competencies. Make sure a resume hits on these keyword items.
Does the company want an individual highly competent in a specific software? Make sure to have a section that speaks to that. In my industry, there tend to be very specific skill sets within a skill cluster (multiple regression, econometric modeling, cluster analysis, etc.). They could roll these up and call them „statistical modeling,“ but they don’t, because they know these are the core important techniques. So a candidate will want to match this tit-for-tat. You’ll want to say, „Experience in statistical modeling, specifically in____ (insert the specific ones you asked for).“
Caprino: Where are the keyword clues most often found in an online job posting?
Christiansen: There are a few things to look for. The first is the surface-level attributes, which are usually found in the job requirements. Usually the length of experience (which often includes a specific emphasis of experience), educational background desired, licenses, and other related skills. This usually shows up in the Job Specifications/Job Requirements. These are usually more observable, measurable items about a candidate. I can tell you I have a degree in Economics. It’s hanging on my wall. You can call Clemson University and verify it. But you can’t easily measure how I have lead teams or managed complex processes.
The next key clue is the background – does the candidates background match what we are looking for? Have they demonstrated an ability to write surveys, conduct analysis, report to senior management, etc.?
Third, there tend to be skills that are less tangible, but are highly important. Things like „people management,“ „project coordination,“ or other phrases that suggest something about an ability to execute a task. A job description might say they want a candidate to „manage a project from initiation through completion.“ So you want to hit on how you have produced work from end to end. More sophisticated programs will have different ways of linking text to determine this is what is being communicated.
Finally, there is some level of expressed magnitude for a skill or task. This usually shows up in the form of adverbs or adjectives – some emphasis on the desire for a skill, ability, or experience. An adjective might be terms like „significant,“ „strong,“ or „compelling.“ An adverb might be „successfully,“ „effectively,“ or „efficiently.“ This also shows up in emphasized nouns, like „mastery,“ „proficiency,“ or „competency.“
Caprino: Cover letters: how important are they nowadays?
Christiansen: Highly. The job of a smart resume is to speak to the job description, job requirements, etc. The cover letter is often the product that a hiring manager will see once a candidate gets past the screening process.
The cover letter is the opportunity to speak to the job in more intimate detail in ways a resume cannot. A candidate can speak to those intangibles through experiences and stories. And speak to why he or she is a fit for the company. It is an opportunity to speak directly to the hiring manager, get noticed, and is often the key talking points when folks get in a room and decide who to bring in for an interview.
Some companies use algorithms to sift through cover letters, but the algorithms tend to be more open ended. It is less about keywords and more about sentiment, enthusiasm, and some sort of fit characteristics. These are rare, however, because a good hiring manager is going to want to see the cover letters of the top leading candidates.
Caprino: In your experience, what’s the biggest mistake job seekers make when submitting their resume digitally?
Christiansen: The first mistake is the obvious one: sending a generic resume that does not speak to the specific job. Sending out the same generic resume is a sure way to get called by a bunch of jobs that are just looking for warm bodies. Not exactly the ideal job. In terms of passing the AI test, candidates that go too far against the grain on a resume will make an algorithm throw up. Any artwork or images won’t do well with a computational model. Unique fonts, while cool, won’t translate well in the machine. A candidate will want to use a pretty standard template when formatting a resume. Use bullets and indention instead of tables.
Also, keep in mind that many job postings are written and search for more generalizable terms. Having a bachelor’s degree that sounds unique or a job title that was a bit creative („Brand Guru“) won’t do well passing the AI test. Candidates can go on to O*Net (www.onetonline.com) and search for their job title. If the job title isn’t listed anywhere, consider whether to use it. You can find one similar to use, and in doing so, make sure to open the job and check the summary report to make sure it works.
Lastly, a candidate’s LinkedIn page is becoming increasingly important, and should be consistent with the resume. If someone in HR or the hiring manager sees two different looks in a candidate, it’s a red flag.
Caprino: Are there are any red flags you’d highlight for job candidates when looking through a job posting?
Christiansen: When looking at a job posting, you need to read it as if this came directly from the individual you would be reporting to. If it doesn’t, then you might not want to go down that road. It’s a red flag for you. A company that doesn’t put thought into a job posting likely doesn’t have the culture to care about that job.
If a job is seeking certain criteria that seems off, it probably is. For example, I just pulled up a job posting in a field similar to mine, and the job wanted a candidate with a bachelor’s degree in marketing research. In looking into the degree, one doesn’t even exist. This tells me the hiring manager doesn’t really have a lot of experience in the field, or let HR come up with the job posting on their own, and they got it wrong.
Caprino: Any final thoughts for job seekers?
Christiansen: To all those job seekers out there, don’t get discouraged if you don’t meet all the requirements. As I noted, these are often not „requirements“ as much as they are preferences. The key is to look at the job description. If you look at it, and it fits you, then you can do that job. It doesn’t matter if they’d like a college degree and five years of experience. Companies rarely get everything they want out of a candidate, so if you don’t have 100%, that’s OK.
Use your cover letter as an argument for why you would fit. If you don’t fit the observable traits, use your cover letter to tell that hiring manager how you would be a great fit for their team, the company, and an active part of their culture. Often, postings will include details about why that company exists. Speak to how you could be an asset to making the company’s heartbeat. I’ve known folks in my field with two years of experience that is the equivalent of ten and others with twenty years experience doing the same thing for the last fifteen. Which one would you want to hire?
For more information, visit Sparks Research.