How Employers Review Resumes & Applications—And How You Can Stand Out

After you have applied for a job, you might be surprised (and disappointed) at what happens.

But, knowing what happens can help you win the next time.

The Applicant’s Hope:

Every job seeker would like to believe that when they send a resume to an employer, someone on the receiving end reads the entire document word for word, thinking…

“How can we best use this person in our organization?”

The Reality on the Resume Review Process:

Your resume may not be seen and, most likely, will never be read in its entirety.

The real thought process when the employer is reading it is…

“Is there anything in here that knocks this person out from further consideration?”

Even in today’s job market, employers are overwhelmed with the number of applicants they get for each job, most of whom are not remotely qualified.

In the simple point-and-click world of online applications, many people apply to hundreds of jobs whether they are qualified or not, in the hopes that they might get lucky.

Successful applications aren’t a random match — luck has less to do with being selected than carefully choosing job opportunities and clearly matching the job requirements.

Receiving Resumes and Applications

After posting a job, employers face hundreds of resumes and applications with less than 50% actually qualified for the job.

Cover letters may or may not be included by the job seeker. A cover letter may or may not be read, if included, depending on the employer’s rules and processes and the time available.

An employer’s only hope of finding the qualified candidates in the hundreds of resumes is to reject as many as possible, as quickly as they can.

How do they choose who to accept and who to ignore? Methods and processes vary. However, here are likely scenarios.

The Initial (Typically Automated) Resume Screening

Most medium and large companies typically use ATS’s (“Applicant Tracking Systems”) to gather and track all applicants.

  • When someone applies, the resume and application go into a database (not to someone’s desk or email).
  • Periodically, a recruiter or hiring manager will search the database by keywords, and the corresponding applicants will pop-up.
  • They scan the resume and application for a few seconds to determine if this is someone that they might want to check out further, or disregard.
  • If someone’s resume doesn’t pop-up from the keyword search, no human eyeballs ever see the resume at all!

Smaller organizations may use an ATS or they may have a more manual process, reviewing resumes individually.

  • Resumes typically arrive by email, and someone looks at each one.
  • Because of the volume, they must make a judgment on each one in a very few seconds

In either case, the reader decides if each candidate is worth further consideration – or not worth further consideration – from a very brief scan, determining if the person has the relevant background and experience for the role.

If they don’t see the connection between background and experience and the job requirements immediately, they move on.

Usually, there are plenty of additional resumes to review.

The Human Resume Review Process

How do employers make the judgment in that quick scan? This is a typical process —

Creating the “Maybe” Stack

Assuming that your resume uses good grammar and contains no misspellings, most recruiters will approach a resume in a similar way, following these steps described below either manually, in a small organization, or using the ATS.

  1.   Relevant work history?  

    They will disregard any summary or functional information at the top, and jump right to the work history to see if the person has had a related career background (companies / titles / appropriate number of years of experience in the field / stable work history).

    If not relevant, the resume is discarded, and they move to the next resume.

    If relevant, then they check for…

  2.   Appropriate skills and experience?  

    Quickly scan to see if there are related keywords in the resume that are easily apparent (skills / tools / processes / etc) with preference given to recent experience vs. history from years ago.

    If not obvious, they move on to the next resume.

    If included, then they check for…

  3.   Required/relevant education? 

    Scan to see if there is appropriate education, certifications, or other required criteria.

    If not visible, they move on to the next resume.

    If included, then …

  4.   The “maybe” pile.  

    If the resume passes the first 3 screens, above, it is added to the “maybe” pile, with a plan to re-evaluate it compared to the other resumes that end up in the “maybe” pile once the majority have received an initial review.

Evaluating the “Maybe” Candidates

This step usually separates the “maybe” candidates into two groups — those who are rejected and those who will move forward, likely invited to interview for the job.

Usually, this step involves:

  •   Most requirements met.  

    Prioritizing the applicants who meet the greatest number of the requirements.

  •   Good career path.  

    Evaluating each applicant’s career path (job title, employer, tenure in each job, and total tenure with each employer).

  •   Passed the fact checking/reputation research.  

    Researching the applicants to verify the resume/application “claims” vs. reality included in the applicant’s LinkedIn Profile.

  •   No other problem uncovered.  

    Reviewing the documents to look for any questions or potential problems (many short-term jobs, the applicant is located in a different state, etc.).

  •   Good references.  

    Checking the candidate’s references.

  •   Good test scores.  

    Passing (or better) scores in possible personality or skills testing which all candidates must take.

  •   Other employer-unique evaluation criteria.  

    The resume shows that the person meets the employer’s unique specifications.

Is the employer being cruel and heartless? No. Is the system flawed? Certainly…

However, currently there is no other way to deal with the volume of applicants more effectively. How long would it take you to thoroughly read dozens, hundreds, or sometimes thousands of resumes, and compare each of them to find the 3 most qualified? Way too long! More time than any employer has available for the project.

Secrets for Standing Out on a Job Application

So how do you make sure your resume or application gets noticed?

Make sure your resume screams “I’m a fit!” in that initial scan!

Customize your resume for each opportunity —

  •   Make your relevant work history clear.  

    Usually, your resume’s Summary section is the place to do this.

  •   Make appropriate skills, experience, and certifications jump out (bold face font).  

    Again, leverage the Summary section of your resume.

  •   Use appropriate terminology from the employer’s job description, not your own.  

    These are the important keywords that will help your resume pass the ATS analysis to be seen by a human.

  •   Be brief.  

    Write concise (easily digested in a quick scan) phrases, not long sentences or paragraphs.

  •   Be very careful with your spelling and grammar.  

    Typos can end opportunities very quickly! Carefully proofread your resume, and, if possible, have someone else proofread it, too.

Understanding the typical process on the employer’s end when reviewing resumes can help you be more strategic in crafting your resume so that it has the best possible chance of being selected.

The Bottom Line on the Resume Review Process

Always consider the process form the employer’s point of view! What do they want?

For More Information

About the author…

Harry Urschel has over 25 years experience as an independent recruiter in Minnesota. He currently operates as e-Executives, writes a blog for Job Seekers called The Wise Job Search, and can be found on Twitter as @HarryUrschel and on LinkedIn.

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