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Application Screening Methods

Introduction

Over the last few weeks we have taken you through creating your LinkedIn profile, writing your resume and cover letter, and updating your portfolio in preparation for beginning your job search. In this lesson you’ll learn about parts of job searching you don’t have as much agency over because they’re dictated by the company hiring and how you can adapt to give yourself the best chance for success.

Applicant Tracking Systems

Many companies use Applicant Tracking System (ATS) software to manage the influx of applications. These systems scan resumes and applications for specific keywords related to the job, such as required skills, educational qualifications, and previous job titles. The intent is to filter out applications that do not meet the basic criteria.

Navigating through an ATS is a crucial part of job searching in the tech industry. While not every company uses them, it’s much more effective to assume you will always encounter one, and approach your cover letter and resume accordingly. Here are some strategies to increase your chances of getting through an ATS:

Use relevant keywords: Tailor your resume to each job application. Use keywords and phrases that are in the job description. ATS algorithms often scan for these specific terms. Include relevant industry jargon and technical terms, as these are often used as keywords.

Optimize your resume format and naming conventions: Use a straightforward format. Complex layouts with tables, images, or excessive graphics can confuse the ATS. Stick to traditional resume headings like "Work Experience", "Education", "Skills", etc. since ATS systems are programmed to recognize these. Use the full, official title of your previous positions. Abbreviations or internal jargon may not be recognized by the ATS. If you want to keep a more complicated resume with graphics, tables, and images, make sure you’re only submitting it to jobs where you know a real human will see it first, or sharing it later in the process once the ATS has reviewed your straightforward resume.

Customize for your application the job: You’ve already learned about the importance of this in previous lessons, but it bears repeating because it’s just about the most impactful thing you can do when you apply for jobs. Emphasize skills and experiences that are directly related to the job requirements. Use numbers and data to make your achievements stand out (e.g., "Increased sales by 20%"). Review the job posting when customizing your application materials to identify what skills, experience, and qualities are most important to include for each specific position and company. Use matching keywords when possible.

Don’t leave out your skill section: List skills that match those in the job description. This section can help boost keyword matching. If there are skills you didn’t see in the job description that you have a good reason to believe are relevant to the role, this is also a great place to add those.

Standardize your application materials: Submit your resume as a Word document (.doc or .docx) or PDF. These formats are typically the most ATS-friendly. While decorative fonts can be fun to look at, they may not be recognized by the ATS, so use common fonts like Arial, Times New Roman, or Calibri.

Proofread your resume and cover letter: You should never send out an application without proofreading what you’re submitting. Spelling or grammatical errors can cause an ATS to discard your resume. They also suggest a lack of attention to detail, so even if you make it through the ATS, it will very likely disqualify you once a person starts reading it. You should also review to make sure dates and other details are consistent throughout your resume, both factually and in format. Finally, double check that your name, phone number, email, and LinkedIn profile are easily identifiable so the company can get a hold of you!

Leverage networking or alternate application methods to avoid the ATS entirely: The power of a direct referral in overcoming the initial barriers you face applying to a job can’t be overstated. We’ll be talking about this more in the next lesson, but it can also be really effective to pursue alternate methods to apply that put your application directly in front of a person.

Other Applicant Screening Methods and How to Adapt to Them

Companies use various methods to screen candidates during the hiring process, each designed to assess different aspects of a candidate's qualifications, skills, and fit for the role. Today, we’re just going to focus on the methods that occur before you interview with a company and why they matter in your job search. While it would be impossible to provide an exhaustive list, the methods you are most likely to encounter are:

Review by a recruiter: After the ATS has filtered applications (if the company uses one), a recruiter may review the shortlisted resumes. While not all companies employ this screening method, many mid-size and large companies employ a team in-house, and often smaller companies outsource the work to recruitment agencies. Recruiters will look through your application materials for specific qualifications, experience, and skills that align with the job requirements.

Because they’re usually not someone who has practical experience in the role they’re recruiting for, they’re usually looking for listed skills and employment bullet points that closely match the requirements listed on the job application. If you’re using a different word from the job posting to describe a general skill, they’re much more likely than the ATS to note that you meet the criteria, but it’s important to know that for more role specific or very technical skills, they may still overlook requirements that you meet because they didn’t recognize the verbiage you used. If you assume you’re going to encounter an ATS when you apply for jobs, you will also be well prepared for a recruiter to review your application materials.

Phone or video call screening: Recruiters might conduct a brief telephone interview to assess the candidate's communication skills, enthusiasm, and professional demeanor. This also helps in verifying the information provided in the application or on your LinkedIn in the case of unsolicited outreach from a recruiter.

Much like the previous point, this is often to be someone who isn’t in the department they’re screening applications for, but because you’re talking to them in real time, the most effective approach is a little bit different from your resume or cover letter. In your pair programming experience at Epicodus, you’ve had a lot of opportunities to talk through coding concepts, and this is a great opportunity to put that experience to use! Look through your resume and cover letter and be ready to reframe the projects and job responsibilities you’ve shared for a less technical audience.

Resume, Cover Letter, and Portfolio Review

Technically, this last section is a method of applicant screening, but because this point ties together work you’ve been doing in previous lessons, we’ve given it its own section. Assuming your application materials have gotten through the screening process, at some point a hiring manager will be reviewing everything you submitted. This is probably the person you had in mind when putting together your application, so you may be well on your way already, but here are a few important points to keep in mind.

Customize your application for the job: According to Indeed, employers look at resumes for an average of six to seven seconds apiece. That’s not a lot of time to get their attention! Customizing your resume will help you avoid cluttering up your application with skills and job descriptions that don’t make a case for why they should hire you.

Be intentional about the projects you link to: Just like you would customize job descriptions and skills, the most compelling projects for an employer may not be the same every time.

Think about the tools they expect their team to use, and how you can show them your expertise. For example, let’s say you’ve been using your time post-graduation to learn Java, which makes you a great fit for this Java developer position you’re applying for. If all the pinned repositories on your Github account or portfolio site are written in C#, they’re probably going to overlook the Java application you just finished, even though that’s the very first thing you want them to see.

It’s also a good idea to think about the work that company does. Maybe you built a really cool game in Unity for your capstone project. If that’s the main thing you point to on your application for a role that’s focused on database management, you might have demonstrated that you’re a talented developer, but you haven’t shown them you can do the work you want them to pay you for. Instead, you might draw attention to your code review from Authentication with Identity in the C# course.

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t also show off your cool capstone project!

Don’t skip the cover letter: There are a couple of reasons why this is important. The first is that employers often use it as a litmus test for whether you are invested in the job or whether you’ve read the full job description. Sometimes just the presence of it makes a difference in your job prospects. There is a possibility that, if you choose the quick apply button when there are other options or email a resume in without a cover letter, that the employer may toss your application out before ever reading it.

The second reason is about the content itself. If your resume is your opportunity to show them that your skills meet their requirements, the cover letter is your chance to make a case for why that merits further consideration. Every interview a company conducts costs them time and resources, so employers tend to minimize how many folks they move forward with. It’s important to understand that when you’re entering a new industry, you don’t have paid work or an internship yet to back up your assertions about your skills. Without that, when you apply for a role that has attracted many candidates, it can be incredibly hard to stand out enough for an employer to decide that bringing you in for an interview is a good investment.

Update your portfolio regularly: While many employers will want to review your code, the visual aspects of your projects are also important. This is particularly true if you’re applying to front-end roles or are applying somewhere that a recruiter may be the first person looking at your work. Treat your portfolio as a living document, and update it regularly to reflect the aspects of coding you’re most passionate about, the tools the companies you apply to are looking for, and the work y