Here's how to beat the bots and avoid the resume black hole.

In today's job market, it has become increasingly important to customize your resume.


Many employers use software called applicant tracking systems (ATS) to filter resumes based on the requirements of the role. If you want to pass this initial electronic screen, your professional resume needs to be tailored for a specific position.

In addition, several recent studies have indicated that the person who reviews your resume — assuming you make it past the bots — will spend six seconds looking at your resume before deciding whether or not you are qualified for the opportunity.

When done correctly, customizing your resume should improve your job applications in two important ways:

First, your resume will pass the ATS filter.

As I already mentioned, ATS software is designed to weed out applicants' resumes based on keywords, design, and format. Customizing your resume for your industry and the requirements of the position will send a signal to the ATS robots that you are a good fit, helping you pass this initial test and get your application one step closer to the hiring manager's inbox.

Second, your resume will impress the recruiter.

This may be the biggest challenge in the whole job application process. Once your resume passes through the ATS and is reviewed by a human being, it needs to prove — in six seconds — that you are qualified for the job and deserve further consideration.

As you can see, tailoring your resume can only benefit your job search. However, a word of caution: Customizing your resume does not and should not mean a complete re-write of your resume for each opportunity. In fact, you will dilute your personal brand if you use wildly different versions of your resume for each job application. But, these small tweaks will require you to take a little more time and effort than simply clicking on the “Apply” button.

So, here is what you need to do, in five steps:

Step 1: Analyze the job description

Carefully re-read the job posting. Pay special attention to the job title used in the description, the duties and responsibilities, the job requirements, and location of the position. What keywords and phrases are repeated throughout the job description? Make a list of all these terms and put a checkmark next to all the words that describe a skill you have or a responsibility you've held in the past.

Step 2: Match your resume's target job title to the job listing

If the job description uses the same job title as the one already at the top of your resume, then you are all set. However, if it uses a unique version of the job title, match it. I recommend using a target job title, also known as a professional title, at the top of your resume, right below your name and contact information so your job goals are crystal clear.

For example, if you are applying for a job with a title of “Medical Administrative Assistant,” then put that exact title at the top of your resume as your target job title so there is no confusion about your current job goals.

This customization also demonstrates that you've taken the time and effort to customize your resume for this specific opportunity.

Step 3: Tailor your skills to match the key terms in the job description

It's not enough to meet all the job requirements; you must incorporate specific keywords associated with those qualifications throughout your resume to safely pass through the ATS. For example, continuing with the Medical Administrative Assistant, you find the following requirement within the job description:

Requirements for Consideration: Advanced knowledge of Microsoft applications (Word, Excel, PowerPoint)

Let's assume that your resume currently describes your Microsoft Office skills like this:

Current Resume: Solid background in Microsoft Suite.

This version is missing some important keywords — Office, applications, Word, Excel, PowerPoint — that could keep your resume from escaping the ATS, never to be seen by a human being. Instead, adjust your resume to match the description:

Updated Resume: Advanced knowledge of Microsoft Office applications: Word, Excel, and PowerPoint

This version matches more closely with the language used in the description and should help your resume rank higher in the ATS.

Continue incorporating key terms and phrases from the job description into your resume, as long as they describe skills you currently possess. If you don't have that skill, however, don't lie on your resume and include it.

Step 4: Highlight your skills on the top third of the resume

While it's important to customize your resume with appropriate keywords to beat the bots, you also need to craft your resume with the recruiter and hiring manager in mind. Focus on the top third of the first page of your resume — “above the fold,” as they say in the newspaper and web development worlds — because this is the small window that needs to grab their attention.  

Clearly line up your qualifications with the requirements from the job description and place them in the objective statement at the top of your resume, just below your contact information and target job title. Resume writers refer to this section by many names — “Performance Summary”, “Summary of Qualifications”, “Professional Summary”, etc. — but they all serve the same function on your resume.

In only 3-5 lines or bullets, summarize your experiences and achievements that best match the most important requirements in the job description. In other words, show the reader why you're a great fit for the role by highlighting your most impressive and relevant qualifications.

Step 5: Confirm your location

This is where things get a little tricky. Employers tend to favor local candidates over out-of-towners because they're less expensive to hire (think relocations costs, travel expenses during the interview process, etc.) and less likely to get flakey and jump ship.

So, if you're searching for a job nearby, make sure employers know you're a local candidate by including your location in the contact information at the top of your resume. Don't publish your home or work addresses on your resume, but do include the city and state. If you're targeting fully remote roles, then you don't necessarily need to include your current location at the top of your resume.

If you are planning to relocate to a place near a job for which you are applying, make sure to let your potential employer know. They will usually be more sensitive to your situation and not quickly dismiss your resume because of location issues.

The rest of your resume probably needs little, if any, customization — a standard work history format is fine. It's now time to send it off and hit the “Apply” button proudly!

Click on the following link for more job application advice.

Need help customizing your resume? Our TopResume writers can help!

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