How to beat applicant tracking systems

How You Can Beat Computerized Applicant Screenings to Land the Job You Really Want

Get our best career advice delivered to your inbox. Sign up today!

I stared at the screen for what seemed like an hour.

“Do you have experience marketing software in a business-to-business environment?” the computer asked me.

I knew if I answered “No” to this question, which was the truth, I would probably be automatically excluded as a candidate for this job. No chance of anyone at this company that I desperately wanted to work for even looking at my resume. Forget about getting an interview. And it was a shame, because I knew I could not only do the job they were advertising, but I could excel at it.

But I wasn’t willing to lie. That would be a deal-breaker if I ended up being considered for the position. So, I clicked “No” and completed the rest of the online application.

Five minutes later I opened my email to find an automatically generated rejection message. I was not being considered for the position. And nobody — no human being — had even looked at my application or resume. The software the company used to manage the online application process automatically eliminated me because I answered “No” to that one screening question. Game over.

When Software Replaces Recruiters

I understand why companies use this kind of software to screen out “unqualified” applicants. About 13 million people in the U.S. are officially looking for work. And a lot of people apply for jobs willy-nilly, regardless of their experience or skill set. The HR department simply can’t sort through all of the applications.

But software simply can’t do the job as well as a human. It can’t apply judgement and pass along an application from someone who meets nearly all the requirements. Or maybe the problem is whoever creates the screening requirements for these positions sets the bar unreasonably high, with the hopes of narrowing the pool.

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal says hiring managers now pile up so many requirements for jobs that it’s almost impossible to find someone who meets them all. The owner of a temporary staffing company quoted in the article calls it “looking for a unicorn.” He tells of a business he worked with that received 25,000 applicants for an open engineering position only to hear from HR that none were qualified. None! Nobody, out of 25,000?

Connections are Key

But here’s the thing. If you really want a particular position, getting weeded out by the screening software should never stop you from going after it. I don’t advocate lying. I don’t advocate spending a lot of time trying to game the system.

What I do advocate is building personal connections inside a limited number of target employers. Organizations that are a good fit for you. You need to meet people — either in person, on the phone or online — who work at those companies so if you run into a situation where your application gets weeded out, you know someone who will help you go around the software and reach the hiring manager.

How I Beat The Software

So what do you do if a job you know you would love and be great at and that you’re qualified for comes along and you don’t have any connections at that employer? That’s the situation I was in when I got this automated rejection email for no reason other than answering one question on the application “incorrectly.”

This was a company that hadn’t been on my radar. I hadn’t made any connections there. I was behind in this game. But this was a great job, and I wasn’t willing to give up so easily.

Here’s what I did:

  • I’d found the job posted on LinkedIn. I looked back at the posting there and saw it had been posted by a recruiter who works in HR at the company. I wasn’t connected to the recruiter on LinkedIn, but I saw in her profile that she was a member of a marketing-related LinkedIn group I’m in. That meant I could send her a direct message through LinkedIn. I sent a message explaining the situation, why I felt my skill set was a good match despite my lack of software marketing experience, and provided a link to my profile and attached a copy of my resume.
  • Then, by doing a little digging on the company website, I figured out which of the company’s locations she was most likely to work at. I sent her a package in the mail with a unique, direct marketing-style cover letter, my resume, samples of my work and a card that simply said, “Call Me” and included my mobile phone number.

I did all of this on a Wednesday. The following Monday, she called. She agreed I was well-qualified for the position and said she was impressed by my persistency and the mail package I sent her. She asked a few specific questions about how my experience and skills might be transferable to the software industry, and since I’d prepared to answer those questions, I responded with no problem.

Then she said she would recommend that the hiring manager interview me.

A week and a half later I interviewed with the hiring manager. It went great, and I went through two more rounds of interviews with various members of the team. In the end, I didn’t get the job. The hiring manager ended up going with an internal candidate (who obviously had software marketing experience and had worked with the hiring manager in the past).

Yet the recruiter emailed about a month later to ask if I was interested in applying for another marketing position they had open. Unfortunately, this other job would have meant relocating my family, so it wasn’t a good fit.

But that doesn’t mean I didn’t win in some way. The point is, I did beat the evil software. I didn’t let something stupid and arbitrary stop me from going after a position I knew I wanted.

And you can do the same. You might have to get creative. You might have to be a little pushy. But you can do it. It really depends on how badly you want it.

Dylan Alford is publisher of RecentGradsOnly.com. To sign up for a seven-week email-based training designed to help you land the job you really want, click here.

11 comments

  1. Great story, I work for a company that distributes DISC assessments which are often used as one tool for evaluating candidates. So I come across this issue a lot. I love how you showed initiative to not lie, but to demonstrate your skills first hand. Well done.

  2. Pingback:   How You Can Beat Computerized Applicant Screenings by time to evolve

  3. I personally disapprove on how companies use a software to screen their job applicants. Thank you for posting this. It will inform job applicants like me on how to handle this kind of situation.

  4. Very interesting. I encountered this many times during my job search. It was really frustrating. I even heard a talk at UT where the speaker described how this HR software would work. I challenged the speaker about false positives or negatives in the selection of candidates to interview. The response was that it was acceptable compared to the amount of time that was required for a human to review each resume directly.

  5. I know of an aerospace company (spoke with their HR person directly) who also informed me that when I applied to two different jobs using two different re’sume’s within their company, their software looked at the most recent document (my most recently uploaded re’sume’) and applied that document to both jobs. So, I in essence eliminated myself from the first job I was applying for.

  6. I recognize that you are attempting to paint a positive picture of what you did.

    Ultimately, no matter how you dress it up and regardless of the time, effort and expense you put into this effort–you did NOT get the job. TWICE.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>