With a solid economy and a record number of open job positions in the United States, one would think prospective job applicants have it made. But as anyone who has actively been searching for a job can tell you, landing the dream job isn’t as easy as you might think.
Once you get past the application process and land an interview, there is a seemingly endless series of hoops to jump through, including brainteasers many major employers use to see how clever, capable, and adaptable prospective hires can be. But as we’re about to discuss, those quirky quizzes are not actually helpful when it comes to matching the right person to the right job.
Even if you are spared from one of these brainteasers, actually landing an interview is still extremely difficult, especially for online job hunters. What should be an efficient and easy way to submit resumes has been made exponentially harder thanks to matching algorithms used by major employers.
That resume you’ve slaved over may enter an electronic black hole if it lacks certain keywords or doesn’t use the right formatting. Figuring out what those keywords are can be an exhausting and time-consuming practice. And how can you make sure your resume actually gets seen in the first place?
We’re about to tell you all the tips and tricks to make sure your resume actually gets to its intended destination and why those quizzes are such a waste of time.
Why Brainteasers Are Bad for Business
Before we dive into how to make your resume algorithm-friendly, it’s worth discussing why brainteasers are such a poor determination of talent.
You know the ones: irritating and bizarre questionnaires asking things like “How much should you charge to wash all the windows in Seattle?” or “Design an evacuation plan for San Francisco.”
“We found that brainteasers are a complete waste of time,” Google’s senior VP of People Operations Laszlo Bock admitted in a 2013 piece for The New York Times. “They don’t predict anything. They serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart.”
Given these teasers have been deemed ineffective, how did they get the green light in the first place? And why are they still being used?
“The general thinking seems to be that they measure how talented candidates are in coming up with creative and critical solutions to abstract problems under pressure,” career coach and resume writer Lalena Kennedy says. “Additionally, brainteasers are considered valid for their ability to evaluate a candidate’s probability for using listening, communication, problem-solving, and analysis skills in the job. However, science shows that these predictions are general at best.”
“The issue is that most of these methods are scored in a hypothetical ‘tricky’ situation, where thinking fast is often more important than thinking well,” she adds. “Also, the scoring of brainteasers is often subjective, especially when measuring for creativity or the ability to make a fair estimate.”
“Lastly,” Kennedy states, “in a market where employers are quick to point to a shortage of talent or competition for good candidates, we should consider that the best talent may be put off by such questions if they recognize their lack of relevance to the position at hand. You may be shutting out your best candidate by testing for a trait not even needed to perform well in the position.”
Weird #interview question: 'What would you do if you were the one survivor in a plane crash?' I guess you need to be prepared for anything?
— Diana Foster (@ResumesByDiana) October 29, 2015
Kim Stiens, founder and CEO of Ranavain, a career concierge and hiring consultant service based in Washington, D.C., says, “Interviewers think that springing surprise questions on applicants is way more important than it really is. They like to ‘see how applicants think on their feet,’ which, again, is not necessarily a piece of information that tells them how you’ll do the actual job you’re applying for. I like to do the opposite; when I’m doing phone screens, I usually give one or two of the questions I’ll be asking to the candidate in advance because I want them to think through their answer and come ready to dive in and talk about the details.”
Crafting the Perfect Resume
So, how can a job seeker make sure their resume reaches the intended target?
“First, it has to be skimmable,” says Stiens. “You can have everything they want to see in there, but if your formatting and design makes it hard to parse the information, hiring managers won’t read it. Use bullets, not paragraphs, make sure there’s plenty of white space, and use bolding and spaces to help guide the eye to the important parts.”
Kennedy’s advice also stresses the importance of highlighting critical information: “Use a summary statement, rather than objective, at the top of your resume to showcase what sets you apart from other candidates. Focus on what you bring to the position, not on what you’re looking for in a job. Don’t list job responsibilities; instead, use action-oriented sentences that describe the impact you’ve had in each position. Include quantifiable achievements using numbers, not words, in writing.”
I sit on the hiring committee at my job and if your resume messy I won’t take the time to read it. You could have graduated from Yale and I wouldn’t know 🤷🏾♀️
— iceburg thicc ❄️ (@_xmoniece) July 3, 2018
Marielle Smith, VP of People at GoodHire, says, “Resumes that stand out from the crowd include references to competency areas, skills, and experiences that the job posting specifically includes—if you can find ways to highlight how your experience and work directly relates to what’s described in the job posting, it will resonate with the recruiter.”
“One important guideline is that it should be in a format that makes it readable by parsing software,” she adds. “Sometimes people like to get creative and organize or design their resume in a format that is not readable by software, and those may fall through the cracks, so to speak, if the company is doing keyword searches.”
If I'm looking for someone with mobile xp, and I've got 100+ resumes, I'll do a keyword search for "mobile". No mobile listed? No call back.
— Resisting JOBCAT (@mistressmousey) May 9, 2016
Steins says, “Finally, write a cover letter. Resumes are fairly rote documents that most people do sort of badly, so the chances are high that yours looks a lot like other people’s. The easiest way to distinguish yourself in a hiring process is to write a good cover letter that demonstrates your voice, personality, and how you operate on the job. …Include a couple of anecdotes about how you overcame challenges in your previous roles, how you approach your work, how you stay organized, or how you innovated.”
One last note: Always try to send your resume in Microsoft Word—PDFs are often unreadable by processing software, meaning no one may ever give your resume the time of day.
Making Your Resume Algorithm and Keyword Friendly
When making your resume algorithm-friendly, Smith’s comment about parsing software is key. The job application process isn’t about making it easier for job seekers—it’s all about simplifying the process for recruiters.
According to ZipRecruiter career advisor Janet Lamwatthananon, “Online application portals largely exist to narrow the candidate pool for recruiters. Job seekers should always remember that their resume will need to impress an algorithm before it can reach a person.”
“The only way to get in front of the hiring manager,” she adds, “is by making your resume AI-friendly. Keep the logic, flow, and design simple. Use standard, web-safe fonts (Arial, Georgia, Courier, Lucida, or Tahoma), and skip special characters (outside of the very necessary bullet point). Stack your content sections vertically—columns are anathema for a machine.”
“And finally,” she says, “strengthen—don’t stuff—your resume with keywords. The algorithm is smart enough to know when you’re treating your resume like a spelling test. You’ll fare far better if you only use keywords when they’re relevant and applicable. Same goes for industry terms, buzzwords, jargon, [and] industry-specific abbreviations and acronyms.”
So, what are some examples of keywords to use for resumes and cover letters? According to a 2018 piece by Alison Doyle for The Balance, “Include specific job requirements, including your skills, competencies, relevant credentials, and previous positions and employers.”
In other words, provide the proper terms that show you’re the most qualified candidate for the job. This means your resume is never set in stone and should be modified depending on the job description of the position you’re applying for.
Jessica Hernandez, executive resume writer, and president and CEO of Great Resumes Fast, says, “Include keywords that represent hard skills and not soft skills. Studies show that employers will actually frown upon the use of ‘team player,’ or other soft skills on a resume. Especially if they’re overused. Instead, use specific skills that employers would use as search terms like contract negotiation, supply chain management, grant writing, regulatory compliance—these are all examples of skills that function as keyword search terms that hiring managers use to locate candidates in databases”
But there’s one keyword tactic to avoid, according to Kennedy: “Resist the urge to gain an edge by using sneaky tactics such as ‘white fonting’—adding keywords in white ink to fool the ATS [Applicant Tracking System] to increase your match score.”
Why is this a bad idea? “There are over 200 ATS software versions, many are getting smarter in detecting these types of tricks,” Kennedy says. “Certain ATS software programs even strip the document’s formatting to convert all information to text, displaying any hidden words. Even if you do get past the ATS, a human will then review your resume. Most in a hiring position are aware of this tactic. At the end of the day, the best tactic you can use to get in the door/get an interview is a well-written and tailored resume—one that’s written for robots and humans alike.”
So let’s say you’ve mastered the art of resume writing and finally locked down an interview. Should you send an email afterward thanking the employer for the opportunity? In a piece for The Houston Chronicle, Kristin Swain wrote while it’s not necessary, it’s an example of good etiquette.
Swain advised, “Make sure that you personally address the interviewer and that you spell his name correctly. …Your follow-up email should be sent shortly after the interview, about 24 hours afterward so that it is still relevant and doesn’t come across to the interviewer as an afterthought.”
In addition, she said a follow-up email can also “inform the interviewer of any additional information pertaining to your skills or training that might be relevant to the decision-making process.” In other words, if you walked out the door kicking yourself because you forgot to mention a detail that makes you more desirable for the position, this is your time to fix it.
And what are those anxious job seekers to do if they haven’t heard anything back from a dream job they applied for? In a separate piece for The Balance, Doyle advised sending a brief follow-up email after two weeks if you haven’t received any prior response, listing your availability for interviews, and, once again, mentioning any pertinent skills you didn’t add to the prior correspondence.
There is one caveat to this, however: Always make sure to read the full job listing, as some employers leave specific instructions about not sending follow-up emails. Lastly, if you don’t receive any response in a couple of weeks, it’s time to move on.
You’ve got this.
Keeping these tips in mind can help improve your job search odds while also giving you a chance to truly evaluate and strengthen your skill set. But as always, there are a few other pointers that can make your job search a success.
Networking is a great tool to help find job opportunities you might not find via job hunt sites, so always reach out to friends, family, and former co-workers to see if they know of any recent job openings that might suit your talents. Social media can be a great way to network in this regard, but do some housekeeping to make sure nothing in your profile might be off-putting to a prospective employer.
In addition, tighten your LinkedIn profile by building up your network, keeping all your work history up to date, following companies you’d like to work for, and, most importantly, letting everyone know you’re looking for a job.