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What Hiring Algorithms Mean for Job Searchers Like You

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When somebody uses the word “algorithm,” what image comes to mind?

Maybe you’re thinking of a young Mark Zuckerberg scrawling an equation on his dorm room window. Maybe you’re thinking of a huge room full of servers that somehow decide which website Google wants you to see. You’re not far off.

An algorithm is a series of guidelines or conditions that directs a computer result or action. For example, if you’re on Facebook looking for your friend Gina’s friend Greg, Facebook’s algorithm knows that since you’re already friends with Gina, her friend Greg is one of the most likely matches for your search.

Here’s the thing: potential employers are using hiring algorithms to search for you. And such algorithms often stand between your application and a real person.

Understanding how algorithms work can help you get past digital filters to the next level, where the human touch can make a bigger difference, and even help you plot your long-term career path with greater accuracy.

To make any of that happen, you’ve got to think like an algorithm during your job search process.


Step 1: Build a list of targeted keywords

Keywords are the words or phrases you enter into a Google search box; for example, “Pizza near me.” Much the same as you may look for pizza; hiring algorithms use keywords to look for candidates. So if you want your resume and profile to stand out to a hiring algorithm, you’ll need to use keywords they’re most likely searching for.

Here’s how to build a list:

  • Find job descriptions in your field and for any position you’re interested in, now or in the future.
  • Copy and paste the text from these descriptions into one big document.
  • Once you’ve compiled all relevant job descriptions, copy all of the text into an online word cloud generator by clicking on “word list” and using the “paste/type text” function.
  • Go back to the “word list” associated with the word cloud you just made, and see how often each word appears on it.
  • Starting with the most frequently used words, highlight any that describe skills, experience, knowledge, responsibilities, software, degrees, certifications or traits you’d use to describe yourself on application material. “The” is not a helpful keyword.
  • Finally, go back and check your keyword list against the job descriptions you got them from. Is the most frequent word used over and over in only one, or spread across many? Are there any power words that show up prominently in only two or three descriptions, but seem important? Are there any two-word phrases that the word cloud generator broke up into separates? Add these to your list. The goal is to find language that’s most likely to help you.

Talking to an algorithm can be tricky. By using a little technology to find top keywords, you’ll be better equipped to speak their language.

Step 2: Customize your application materials using keywords

As you’re customizing your resume to each position you’re applying to, add keywords from your target list into descriptions wherever it’s appropriate and still sounds natural. Also include keywords in any supplementary written materials such as cover letters, sample work, emails and job board fields.

You’ll want to keep the following in mind:

  • You still want your job application materials to be readable by humans. So the rules of grammar and sentence structure are still important.
  • No matter what the keyword list says, never lie or exaggerate on a resume.
  • Use your keyword list to guide your word choice. If your resume already mentions how motivated you are, but “driven” ranks higher than “motivated” on your list, use “driven” instead!
  • You don’t have to use every word on your keyword list, or use the top ranking words over and over again. Just where appropriate is fine.
Keep in mind that an algorithm can’t hire you outright. Keywords simply flag your application for the human who can hire you, and those humans don’t speak Robot. So don’t overdo it!


Step 3: Keep pushing, and recheck

Resumes, applications and job boards aren’t the only platforms algorithms use to track candidates. Use the same keyword list to help you build and edit your LinkedIn profile, or any other writing you publish on the web. After all, a fresh algorithm might come crawling past your page at any time.

You can also remain more visible to hiring algorithms by staying up to date. Post on LinkedIn and other channels, and update your profiles and details often using your keywords. Some algorithms may filter for user activity level.

Also, remember that jargon changes fast. You’ll want to occasionally re-do your keyword list, and check which social media hashtags are in popular use.

Keep at it even after you accept a job offer! You never know if or when a new algorithm will be the first point of contact for your next big leap forward.

Algorithms vs. people

Hiring algorithms are designed to help hiring managers spend less time reading resumes that don’t match job requirements. Instead of having to search through resumes by hand to see which candidates have a certain professional certificate, hiring managers can now trust a program to filter candidates automatically.

For job searchers like you, that means algorithms are a gatekeeper. They might not present the greatest barrier to getting hired, but they can limit your options if you’re not careful. Getting past them, and on to the human element of the job search, is where you’ll really get a chance to shine as a candidate.

Ready to leapfrog over the hiring algorithms? Reach out directly to a human, at Aerotek.