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Job Hunting 101: How to Get Past the Gatekeeper

Job hunting gatekeepers play a crucial role in the hiring process. Vicky Oliver shares tips to help you navigate and get past them.

Competing to make it through the initial job screening process is tougher than making it to the final rose ceremony on “The Bachelor.”

With job listings on the internet available to everyone, and with job seekers able to upload their resumes at the click of a key, candidates may have to eek by thousands of competitors just to snag an interview.

Many recruiters use applicant tracking system (ATS) software for a first pass to weed out unqualified applicants. Generally, this early screen eliminates an astonishing 75% of resumes, according to a study by job search firm Preptel. Then, a Ladders Inc. 2018 Eye-Tracking Study suggests when recruiters put their own eyes on those that remain, they spend an average of 7.4 seconds with each one. Whoa!

Given this fierce environment, how do you become the savvy applicant who successfully flies through the initial screens so that you advance to the interview round?

Here are seven ground-rules:


1. Don’t take a random approach.

Some applicants figure that online applications are a numbers game, so they simply upload stock cover letters and standard resumes and push “send.” Posting out a blitz of resumes won’t get you noticed. Before uploading your online application, make sure that many of your skills align with the job requirements. Better still, narrow your search for online job listings to sites best suited for your industry or career level.

Pro Tip: If you have 7 out of 10 of the required skills for a position, send your materials. No sense in being too cautious.


2. Use original content.

Recruiters use detection tools that predict whether text came from AI. So don’t use it. Customize your own details about the projects, experiences, and accomplishments you achieved. A resume is one or two pages, maximum. Surely you have enough original content about your own career to fill out the space, and doing so will make you look proactive and professional.

Pro Tip: Show your resume to a friend before sending out to put another set of eyes on it.


3. Tailor your applications.

Target your cover letter and tweak your resume to the job for which you’re applying. Where possible, use words that match the employer’s descriptions of job requirements and skills — especially those listed near the top and that come up more than once. Also, research the most current terms describing the industry and the job position within it and work them in where possible. Rather than an exhaustive list of every duty you’ve ever hand, describe examples of how you applied skills using numbers and metrics to indicate your ability to make a measurable difference.

Pro Tip: Wait three days before sending your materials for the first time. Then reread and eliminate all repetition.


4. Opt-in to the optional cover letter.

Some job postings will give applicants the option of opting out of providing a cover letter. Don’t take them up on the offer! A cover letter gives you the opportunity to further sell yourself in a personalized way that creatively shares who you are and why your skills and personality align with the position and the company. Know that the scanning software will also likely inspect your cover letter for skills listed in the job description — and even reject you if the letter exceeds one page. This means you’ll need to draft the cover letter to emphasize your topmost skills. Again, include measurable results, but don’t repeat too much from your resume. Think in terms of describing why you’re applying for the position and why you’re the best candidate. Avoid stale phrases like, “I believe my experience would be a good fit.” Instead, show your personality. For example, “Having run three marathons I know a lot about hard work.”

Pro Tip: If a particular lead or close to your cover letter doesn’t seem to be working, change it.


5. Make sure your uploads are letter perfect.

Before submitting, review your resume and cover letter to ensure you’re not letting any typos or grammatical errors slip through. Your work will be wasted if you mistakenly place the wrong information in the wrong field or misspell a key employable quality. It tells the recruiter that you lack attention to detail. Additionally, don’t use any of the shorthand words that you regularly use on social media. The software may dismiss any informal use of words.

Pro Tip: Are you a morning person or a night person? Fill out the applications when you’re at your best.


6. Avoid embellishments.

With the plethora of data now on the internet, it’s not difficult to verify your information. Exposure of even the smallest inconsistency in the claims you make on your resume will immediately disqualify you. This involves everything from exaggerating your position to dishonestly covering gaps in your employment to inaccurately describing your education. While it may be tempting to claim that you led or individually delivered a project, the truth tends to come out.

Pro Tip: If you were unemployed for a stretch of time, list any volunteer or course work you undertook — but describe it candidly. It shows you were using your time productively.


7. Ensure your application projects professionalism.

Be aware that even a casual choice of words, such as “like,” instead of “for example,” can paint you as unprofessional. Employers look for candidates who communicate clearly, so use words or phrases that indicate you can deliver. Slang and flippancy don’t portray professionalism. Even a cutesy email address may come off as too informal.

Pro Tip: Your cover letter and resume should tell a narrative about you that coordinates well with the job offer at hand.

Although the use of application software, followed by a quick scan by a recruiter, seems to give short shrift to your meticulously drafted resume and painstakingly crafted cover letter, know that putting in the extra work is your best bet for advancing to the next round. Take time with each job application so that it projects your originality, passion, and professionalism.


Vicky Oliver is a leading career development expert and the multi-bestselling author of five books, including 301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions (Sourcebooks 2005), named in the top 10 list of “Best Books for HR Interview Prep,” and Bad Bosses, Crazy Coworkers & Other Office Idiots (Sourcebooks, 2008). She is a sought-after speaker and seminar presenter and a popular media source, having made over 901 appearances in broadcast, print and online outlets. Vicky Oliver is the Nonfiction Editor at LIT Magazine, the Journal of the New School master’s in fine arts creative writing and teaches essay writing at the New York Writers Workshop. For more information, visit vickyoliver.com.


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