One truly annoying thing about the resume screening process is that even a great resume gets rejected now and then. And that probably happens a lot more often than most employers might think.
Before a resume even has a chance to be seen, the dreaded resume screener enters the scene, either human or automated. And in either case, someone decides on a set of criteria or rules that get “unqualified” candidates booted — or at least their resumes. The candidate never actually gets seen. And a potentially good match may get lost in the process.
To be fair, people who create those rules for resumes (and cover letters) think they’re doing a great job. Or at least they don’t stop to think about that job seeker who might have been a wonderful fit and who they’ll never get to meet. They just want to find the best candidates and reject unqualified or so-so candidates — at least as they see it.
My less-traditional approach when I screened resumes
As a screener, I liked to think of that person that might get missed by standard screening techniques. One with a lot to offer, but who may not have presented themself perfectly to a hiring process designed and operating in a way an outsider wouldn’t understand.
I always made an effort to keep myself open to possibility — digging a little deeper. And finding some really terrific hires in the process.
Unfortunately, you can’t count on this being the way most hiring managers operate. Because for the most part they don’t. And so a resume gets rejected — even a potentially good one.
The many layers of made-up rules
Companies often design cover letter and resume screening rules to help simplify their decision-making. It’s hard for anyone to tell exactly who the real person is behind a resume. But a screener has to try to quickly figure out who will best match both the job and the company.
And when you receive hundreds of resumes, help comes in the form of human-created rules and, more and more often, automation (reliant on keywords and phrases). So when a resume gets rejected, sometimes it’s more about the rules (things you’ll never know) than your ability to actually do the job. Not exactly fair, but that’s just how it is.
Some of fixing that potential match miscommunication is on you. And some on the company. Still you’re the only one you have control over. So we’ll talk about the part you can play in maximizing your chances. But first, a few of those (often arbitrary) rules to give you the idea.
Some (good & bad) reasons a resume gets rejected
- Any typos or grammatical errors at all? Eliminate the resume. (This one is a biggie for many.)
- Cover letters that start with or use a phrase the screener finds trite or boring. (Seriously. This one you can’t control. You can just try to be original.)
- Resumes that might fit the job, but don’t clearly show a great match. (Usually using keywords / phrases from the job description can help.)
- Any number of personal preferences / screening criteria that a screener may think of, even if not the best way to find true gems.
- Any gaps? Toss it! (Luckily not as much the rule now. But it still happens. Gaps can be filled with volunteer or freelance work. Maybe even directly-related study. Or explained in a cover letter.)
Now not all companies are that strict. And some of these rules really do aim to zero in on employees who take the time to submit well-crafted applications. So that’s reasonable … this is a quality that reflects on the care you take when you work.
But the whole of an employee may be greater than the sum of their individual parts. And so companies can “rule out” some potential stars by setting their criteria too tightly. A real shame.
Still a bigger shame in my book is when this is all done just to make things easier for the screeners. I’ve had the job, so I know it’s difficult. Often frustrating. And so you develop short-cuts to help.
But whether they admit it to themselves or not, some of the rules are just easy ways to avoid the hard work of opening the oyster, scraping off the sand, and finding the pearl. Just my opinion. Based on many pearls I took the time to find.
When a resume gets rejected by automation
Many companies rely on automated resume screening now. Again, an easy way to receive, screen, and process resumes. And an easy way to eliminate truly bad or inadequate applications.
But potentially good candidates also get screened out at this point. Never even getting to the next part where human eyes get to see what you have to offer. The only humans that play a part in your rejection are the ones who program the screening criteria into the computer.
Not a foolproof method for sure. Yet companies have come to rely on automated resume systems, unaware of — or willing to overlook — the problems that come with the convenience. (Refer to article linked above about who screens resumes. Similar imperfections can apply here too.)
How to overcome the screening obstacles
While no one can tell you every single rule and quirk some screener might apply, you can make a strong effort to create a resume and cover letter that gives you a better shot at being selected.
Some things that may help:
- Make sure your resume and cover letter are grammatically correct and typo free.
- Use your cover letter to bolster your resume’s strength in proving how great a match you are. Emphasize things you’ve done and transferable skills that speak directly to the new job.
- Lead off your cover letter with an interesting opening and not some boring “I saw your ad in ___” Maybe a person you have in common. Something you read or did that might connect. Be creative — but still professional.
- Target your resume to the new job — future not past. And use keywords and key phrases that the automated system (or human eyeballs) will be looking for. Let the job description and / or listing guide you.
- Use a summary section at the top and bullet points under the various jobs to highlight strengths, skills, and major accomplishments (numerical increases / targets met where appropriate) that apply to this new job as best as you can.
- Both cover and resume need to look neat, attractive, and easy to focus in on your strengths, especially those that fit the job.
If you can … avoid the obstacle course altogether
Eventually, someone is going to want to see your resume. But having someone open the door for you is your best bet for avoiding all the screening drama and missteps. And that means networking.
Try your best to find someone who knows of a job — or knows someone who knows of a job — to recommend you directly to the company. Yes … they’ll eventually ask for a resume. But at least you’ll have made it past that initial obstacle course. And then the rest is up to you!
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