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How to ensure your CV beats the robots

Published: Tuesday 7th February 2017

When you submit your CV for a job application (or post it on a jobs board), the chances are that it’ll be initially processed – and rejected – by software, not by a human. Known as an Applicant Tracking System (ATS), the software addresses many hiring needs but only one is of concern to a job seeker: the automatic processing of submitted CVs. In short, the ATS will ‘parse’ or read and process your CV, and crucially, compare its (and your) relevance for the job in question. So, how can you ensure that your CV beats the robots?

An ATS is a God-send for recruiters. It not just extracts the key information from various formats and layouts of a CV, but crucially it will provide the recruiter with an estimation of your suitability to the job – highlighting the best matching candidates, rejecting the rest, and saving the hirer time. What then does this mean for a job seeker? More than anything you need to get into a new mindset – keywords and formatting – when crafting your CV for each job application.

Robot shaking a hand with employee

Ensure your CV beats the robots using keywords

Firstly, make sure your CV is full of the keywords – and their variations – that reflect the specific job you’re applying for. This keyword focus is obviously of more value if you’re posting your CV to a jobs board – you’re casting your net a little wider than if you were applying for a specific job. Ensure your CV is tailored closely to specific job applications.

For instance, you’re an SEO Executive; your CV talks about your SEO experience, with several past roles as an SEO executive. But you also know SEO can be called SEM. Or similar roles may be titled ‘Search Marketing Executive’. Know the synonyms that can be used to describe your job, and use them. For specific jobs, a good approach is to read the job description, highlight the keywords, and match them with your CV. When you’re close to being finished, run your CV content through a word cloud site like wordle.net – it’s a great way to visualise the relative weight of keywords in your CV.

Ensure your CV beats the robots using the right formatting

Go with the simple approach: avoid formatting and go back to basics with your CV. Avoid absolutely anything that will upset the ATS. That means no tables, no graphics, no links, no non-Word file formats, no fancy bullets, no non-standard fonts. The focus naturally switches to good and consistent use of white space – two blank lines after each job, for example. Follow the conventions and keep to them throughout: job titles are followed by company and date. Keep section headings simple and on one topic only. So split-out your current “Education & Qualification” section into two distinct sections.

man review his resume on his desk, laptop computer, calculator and cup of coffee

Don’t use page headers and footers, and this includes page numbers. Remember, you’re not selling your layout skills (unless you’re a graphic designer of course – but even then, you’ll have an awesome portfolio of your work on your website). You’re making it simple and unambiguous for software to understand your CV. And don’t worry about keeping the CV to one or two pages; this is one advantage of writing with an ATS in mind.

Don’t forget the cover letter

Most times when you apply online you’ll be offered the chance to craft a great cover letter. Use it. The new keyword rich CV is the way to beat the robots, but a cover letter could touch the heart of the recruiter.


Much of this CV advice goes against the grain in so many ways; it certainly puts a stop to the impulsive ‘Apply Now’ click; the CV doesn’t do your considerable Word formatting skills justice. And it does raise the stakes on the job-application process. But it may help address the question often asked: why didn’t I get even get a call from XYZ when I’m clearly the best candidate for the job?

Of course, you can increase your chances of finding your ideal job with Zoek. Zoek learns your job search preferences as you use it, giving you more relevant job matches.

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