Today’s resumes serve a variety of purposes and are read by a number of different audiences. Knowing who these readers are and how to optimize your resume for each of them will greatly increase your odds of securing an interview.
We’ll go into depth on the unique needs and how to write for the screening software, recruiters and staffing managers, and hiring managers.
Purpose of a Resume
Before we jump into the “who” it might make sense to understand the “what” behind a resume’s purpose and the “why” behind the motivation of these audiences.
The “what” behind a resume
The primary purpose of your resume is to secure an interview. That’s it. There are a few ways it accomplishes this:
- It demonstrates that you are qualified
- It tells a story about you as a professional
- It builds interest in learning more about you as a candidate
The “why” behind the reader’s decision
Put simply, the readers are each trying to complete a task or solve a problem. While the task or problem may be different for each audience, it makes a lot of sense to write your resume in a way that helps them achieve their goal.
We’ll talk more about the “why” as we cover each of the three audiences.
AUDIENCE ONE: The Screening Software
That’s right. In almost every case, the very first entity to read your resume is an algorithm. These are often part of what is called an Applicant Tracking System (or ATS.)
Why do employers use an ATS?
As technology has advanced, recruiters and staffing managers are being asked to handle more and more open job requisitions. This means they have less time to spend reviewing candidates for each one.
In fact, even basic hiring platforms have an algorithm. Ziprecruiter, a popular job posting system targeted at small and medium-sized businesses has a candidate scoring system that flags top candidates – with absolutely no input from the business owner besides the job description itself!
What is the ATS trying to accomplish?
Large companies get hundreds (or thousands) of applications for each role. Small companies generally have one HR person (or maybe even the hiring manager) trying to fill an open position and run the day-to-day operations of their department or business at the same time.
The goal of the ATS is to find the most promising candidates for the role so they have a short list of applications to review to determine who they are going to interview.
How does the ATS rank candidates?
This depends on what ATS the employer is using. In most cases, it looks at the job description and the requirements, then attempts to interpret the application and the resume of each candidate to determine how well it fits.
In most cases, keywords play a critical role. It also weights keywords, years of experience, and other factors to come out with a balanced score to account for candidates with different but equally useful backgrounds.
It’s not unlike the way search engines look at all of the websites they have indexed and try to give you the most relevant and helpful list when you’re searching. In this case, the ATS is the search engine, and the candidates are the websites.
Some ATS systems provide a numeric rank for the applicant, while others just flag the best matches. Either way, that without a high candidate score or a flag saying you’re a great match it is highly unlikely that anyone will ever even read your application, cover letter, or resume.
How to write for the ATS audience
The key here is to keep in mind that as advanced as some ATS systems are, they all process resumes differently. That means that you want to use the principles and formatting that is the most likely to be accepted and read by the largest array of applicant tracking systems.
Format with care
We discuss this in more detail elsewhere, but keep the following rules in mind:
- Only submit resumes in MS Word format (avoid other formats, including PDF)
- Remember that text boxes, multi-row tables, and images are invisible to the ATS
- Always put the most important keywords and concepts toward the top of your resume
Pay attention to wording (keywords)
Using keywords is an important part of the strategy. Some more advanced ATS recognize synonyms, it’s always best to use the same wording as the job description.
Just like SEO for websites, you don’t want to overuse keywords. However, if you’re going to express your expertise or experience, it’s always best to use the same language the employer chose to use in the job description.
AUDIENCE TWO: Recruiter or Staffing Manager
Recruiters and/or staffing managers are generally the first humans to review those applicants that the ATS serves up as as the best potential candidates.
Although “Recruiter” and “Staffing Manager” are sometimes used synonymously, they generally refer to two different functions.
A recruiter often (but not always) works for an outside firm that the employer has retained to help them find candidates. They are generally focused on proactive searches of candidates, but they may also review applications that come in for certain roles.
Staffing managers are generally employees of the same employer that is looking to fill the role. They generally work within HR, and focus primarily on inbound candidates. The staffing manager may even hire a recruiting firm to help them fill more senior roles.
What is the recruiter trying to accomplish?
Both roles are trying to fill an open position for their customer (the hiring manager) as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Recruiters are generally retained for a specific period of time, and they are compensated based on a percentage of the candidates annual salary. Quality of candidate and speed with which they produce candidates are the two major factors on if they will be awarded contracts to find candidates for other roles. Thus, they want to find someone that the company likes and is willing to pay the highest amount possible in salary as quickly as possible.
Staffing managers are generally evaluated based on the quantity and speed of positions they fill. In fact, this is a metric that is often tracked and included in their performance evaluations. Thus, they are rewarded for finding the best possible (but at a minimum “good enough”) candidate as quickly as possible.
In both cases, speed and quality are essential, with the end result being closing out an open job requisition after an offer is extended to a candidate.
(Note: There are many amazing recruiters and staffing managers who take pride in their work and always look for the very best candidate. We are only calling out the external incentives that may influence these roles.)
How do recruiters and staffing managers evaluate candidates?
In the vast majority of cases, recruiters and staffing managers have no direct experience in doing the type of work outlined in the job description.
We know recruiters who have a tough time mastering scheduling a meeting in Outlook that have recruited for IT help desk roles. Recruiters who are former actors that recruit for defense contractors.
Don’t expect the recruiter or staffing manager to understand the details of the job beyond what the hiring manager has told them. Frankly, it’s not their job to know. They won’t be the final decision-maker.
What they will do is compare your experience to the job requirements as well as evaluate your experience and background against that of other promising candidates.
They may even do a quick phone call to get a bit more context around your resume. Then they will sometimes prepare a brief to submit to the hiring manager that is almost like a pitch as to why you’re a good candidate for the job.
How to write for recruiters and staffing managers
Your resume needs to be able to be interpreted and understood by someone that has only a partial understanding of what it takes to excel in the open position.
In some cases this is simple and straightforward, but for more specialized, technical, or senior roles it becomes important to include enough information and context that a recruiter or staffing manager will understand to evaluate whether or not you’re a good fit.
For example, if you’re an account manager that specializes in selling into and supporting retail stores that sell your products, there are multiple ways you could express that in your resume. If your current company calls that “Indirect Retail” but the job description is looking for someone to build and support “Agent Distribution” (both the same thing) then it’s best to use “Agent Distribution” to describe your historical experience at least some of the time on your resume.
It’s not fair to expect someone in a sales (recruiter) or HR (staffing manager) function to know the nuances or domain lingo (marketing terms, programming languages, or other discipline-specific jargon) that is not explicitly listed in the job description.
If they don’t understand that your experience is relevant, the hiring manager (who probably WOULD understand) will likely never see your application.
AUDIENCE THREE: The hiring manager and interview team
If your resume makes it this far, congratulations! It has passed one or more gatekeepers. The most challenging and discerning viewers are now in possession of your resume, and there are a few things they will want to see.
The hiring manager is almost always the person who will directly manage the successful candidate. There are exceptions – usually in high-volume / high-turnover environments like call centers or retail. However, for our definition the hiring manager is the final decision-maker.
The interview team often consists of at least a few of the following:
- Peers in the same workgroup as the role
- Peers of the hiring manager
- Colleagues in other departments that either support or are supported by the role
- The hiring manager’s boss
These individuals are likely all looking for something different. However, for purposes of the resume, they are all looking for the same kind of information.
What is the hiring manager trying to accomplish?
The hiring manager needs to solve a specific problem. They will be counting on whoever fills the role to handle certain responsibilities in a way that improves organizational outcomes and also adheres to the three things all hiring managers want in an employee.
They want an employee that will be low-maintenance, have minimal ramp-up time, and make them look good by delivering the best possible results.
What is the interview team trying to accomplish?
It depends on the role, but in most cases they will be assessing whether or not the candidate has the skill set to adequately support them or handle the responsibilities of the role in such a manner that they can be easily supported.
In the interview process, it will be important to be likable to this audience. For a resume, it means providing evidence of competence in the specific areas that the role will impact.
How do hiring managers and interview teams evaluate candidates?
The short answer is: specifics.
These are the experts in what the role will need to be able to accomplish day in and day out. They understand the industry and the internal function. They know the buzzwords and trends. In short, they come the closest to speaking your language.
This audience will be looking for a few things:
- Your specific experience relative to the responsibilities of the role
- How you have solved problems similar to those facing the team presently
- Evidence of initiative, collaboration, and general problem-solving skills
They want someone they like that can do the job in a way that supports the broader team, and in most cases, they also want to make sure they can work within the existing structure.
How to write for hiring managers and interview teams
We’ll answer this the same way as the prior items: use specifics.
Your accomplishments should help this savvy audience what you accomplished and how you did it. It doesn’t need to be highly detailed (long or exhaustive) but it does need to be quantifiable and specific enough for this audience to say “I want to work with someone who is capable of that!”
Keep Your Audiences In Mind
Remember that your resume needs to serve all three of these audiences to make it to the interview stage:
- Format and keyword optimize for the screening software
- Provide some info in layman’s terms that a recruiter will understand
- Provide specific examples of your performance for the hiring manager
If you keep the ATS, recruiter, and hiring manager in mind, you’ll write a better resume that will increase your chances of getting an interview!