During a job post writing workshop at a state HR conference, I was teaching the group how to remove buzzwords from their job postings. I mean, everyone is looking for a “collaborative team player.” If you want to stand out, you have to do something different and removing these buzzwords is a great place to start.
As I was teaching the group how to add context to create universal meaning for candidates, a person near the middle raised their hand: “I have a job search question,” they said. “How do we keyword load a resume if there are no keywords in the job post? Won’t the ATS reject my resume automatically if I don’t have the keywords? Is AI rejecting my job application?”
In my head, I could almost hear the record stop sound. This is a topic that has caused many wars on LinkedIn and Twitter. Frankly, it has forced me to unfollow a few people, too, for exaggerating the capabilities of machines. “Now, I’m not a full-time recruiter,” I answered, “but I have worked with recruiters non-stop the last 13 years of my life.” Then I explained the truth. The truth every job seeker needs to know about the AI resume rejection and keyword-loading.
AI And ATS: What Everyone Needs To Know
Now, I understand why people think they are getting rejected by AI. Maybe they got rejected immediately after applying. They saw a clearly machine-generated response. But I’m here to tell you that resume rejection isn’t happening with AI or any kind of automation. Especially not because you were missing a few keywords.
For those of you who don’t work in the world of recruiting, an ATS is an Applicant Tracking System. When you go to a careers site and apply, you are entering your information into an ATS. This is where you upload your resume, tell them how to contact you, all of that. When I asked that room of over 100 practitioners? None had seen AI resume rejection. At it’s most simple, their ATS is just a database. Even the high end (read: expensive) ATS systems are still a database, just with more integrations, bells, and whistles.
I have only ever seen one tool that had any kind of decision-making logic built in and it was a simple geo-limit. Basically, if you didn’t live within 20 miles of one of the restaurants, it would auto-reject you. To be clear, I don’t recommend this matching approach or the geographic auto-elimination. There’s bias in that geo-decision. Not all zip codes offer the same opportunities. It doesn’t cost the same amount of money to live everywhere. Also, what if I’m willing to drive more? Why should I not even get a chance? All that to say, the only AI resume rejection system I’ve ever seen was very artificial but not intelligent.
How To Avoid Being Digitally Rejected
When it comes to keywords, the most advanced AI resume processing I’ve seen is simply doing a percentage match. Is it accurate? About as accurate as the last dating app you used (read: not). But what I need you to know without a doubt? That machine won’t be rejecting anyone. There are people pulling the levers.
See, when a recruiter has an open job, they are looking at the resumes as they come in, sometimes all at once. As they review each resume and based on what they know about this role, they click reject or they reach out to you. That’s what determines the message you get. If you got a message automatically? It’s probably because the role is already closed in one system but hasn’t been removed from the site yet. It’s not you.
So how do you show a recruiter you’re a match without playing buzzword bingo on your resume? Make sure to answer the two questions every recruiter has to understand by the time they are done doing a quick scan of your resume.
1) Industry expertise, aka what industries you have worked in. Context of your experience matters, especially in more senior roles. Managers have a bias to industry related experience because vocabulary and audiences can vary wildly.
2) Scale of work. For each skill, you need to quantify with numbers and clarify the impact. Answer questions like these: How big was your company? How big was your team? How many data points? Numbers matter.
Writing a resume and LinkedIn profile that help recruiters understand your work starts with making it easy to read, not trying to make it match for a machine. And for now, don’t worry about AI resume rejection. Focus on helping that recruiter know you’re qualified for this job.
Oh and don’t stress that 6-second resume review, either. Don’t believe me? I asked a bunch of recruiters and here’s what they said.
Kat Kibben [they/them] is a keynote speaker, writing expert, and LGBTQIA+ advocate who teaches hiring teams how to write inclusive job postings that will get the right person to apply faster.
Before founding Three Ears Media, Katrina was a CMO, Technical Copywriter, and Managing Editor for leading companies like Monster, Care.com, and Randstad Worldwide. With 15+ years of recruitment marketing and training experience, Katrina knows how to turn talented recruiting teams into talented writers who write for people, not about work.
Today, Katrina is frequently featured as an HR and recruiting expert in publications like The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and Forbes. They’ve been named to numerous lists, including LinkedIn’s Top Voices in Job Search & Careers. When not speaking, writing, or training, you’ll find Katrina traveling the country in their van or spending some much needed downtime with the dogs that inspired the name Three Ears Media.