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Making your résumé stand out (or at least be seen) in the age of automated screening

Elizabeth Stivison
March 10, 2023

It’s starting to feel like the workers' economy that was talked about so much a few months ago has disappeared. Tech companies have laid off thousands of employees, and job sites regularly show that hundreds of people are applying for any given job.

A friend looking to put his chemistry Ph.D. to work recently told me he applied to 100 jobs before he got one. It feels a bit like playing into an arms race; as sites like Indeed and LinkedIn make it easier to find job openings, more applicants are in turn applying to more jobs, so companies have to find better ways to sort through (or weed out) applicants, which leads to more rejections, more applications, more weed-out mechanisms, and on and on.

Companies regularly use applicant-tracking systems that scan résumés for keywords, ranking the applicants and sometimes throwing out applications that don’t have those keywords before they’re ever seen by human eyes. If you don’t hear back from an employer, it’s hard to tell whether you weren’t a good fit for the job or if your résumé just didn’t have the right buzzwords.

On top of that, studies show that more jobs are filled through networking than through applying cold.

Employers cast a wide net, presumably to attract a wide pool of talent from which they can select the absolute best candidate for the job. But, instead, they attract so many applicants that they turn to automation to sort out candidates and end up selecting the one who applies the best, writes the best résumé or cover letter, or has the best connected friends. 

It’s not necessarily fair, but there are some ways to deal with it.

Here are some tips for getting a good résumé.

Tailor, or at least categorize, your résumé

It's always a good idea to tailor your résumé for the job you want. But if you can’t tailor every single résumé you send out, at least have categories. For example, one résumé for teaching jobs and one résumé for medical writing jobs. You can frame your experience in the way that is most relevant to each job.

Every experience on your résumé can be framed for different contexts. For example, if you gave a talk to a local group, you might categorize that as teaching experience in one context or communication skills in another, depending what the employer is looking for. Or maybe you want to highlight the management side of working with undergrads versus the teaching or mentorship side, depending on the job.

Proofread and get a friend to help

It’s easiest to proofread if a little time has elapsed between when you wrote the résumé and when you’re going back to check it. The next day is ideal, but an hour is better than right away.

Check spelling, punctuation, indents, font sizes and tenses for consistency. It’s hard to convince a potential future employer that you’re super detail oriented when your résumé accidentally has two font sizes from a copy/paste error.

And if you have a friend who is willing to read your résumé, that’s great. A really fresh pair of eyes will help spot where you’re being redundant or what you’ve left out, in addition to typos.

If you’re tailoring your résumé to each job, you can’t send a friend 10 résumés to read (well, probably not!). But you can send the main résumé you’re working from.

Put keywords from the job description in your résumé

One way to try to get past automated screening is to include keywords from the job posting in your résumé and cover letter. They want a motivated self-starter? They want someone who will leverage their deep knowledge of technical writing? Think about how to get those phrases into your résumé.

Try keyword-checker sites

As in any good arms race, technology has sprung up to help get around other technology. There are now plenty of websites that will scan your résumé for keywords likely to be used for specific jobs and give you a report. Sites like jobscan.co will do this, but also try searching “resume keyword checker” because there are tons of options.

Professional résumé reviewers

The next step up from a friend reviewing your résumé and a keyword scan is getting a professional résumé review. If you are a grad student or a postdoc, you might have an office at your institution for career services. These offices usually offer résumé review. If not, there are websites that offer the service.

Professional résumé writers

Another option is to have someone write your résumé. There are lots of websites that offer this service. 

In these cases, you typically fill out all the details of your career history and skills and upload your current résumé, and then professionals take that info and craft you a new one. They obviously can’t change any of your actual experience, but they know how to phrase things. The service can be hit-or-miss, and you’ll probably have to do a bit of tweaking in the end, but it can be a good place to start.

Make a schedule for yourself

If you’re going to put a lot of effort into tailoring cover letters and résumés, then you probably can’t apply to 100 jobs at once. Decide what works for you and your job-seeking needs — two a day, one every other day, three every Saturday, etc. — and then just do it!

Go for it

If there’s a job you really want and you think you can do it, apply! Companies have no problem rejecting people, so don’t you reject yourself before you even apply by thinking that you might not be qualified enough, that your résumé isn’t good enough or that there’s too much competition.

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Elizabeth Stivison

Elizabeth Stivison is a postdoctoral researcher at Vanderbilt University studying inositol signaling and a careers columnist for ASBMB Today.

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