6 ways to beat CV algorithms

There was a time when it was commonplace to drop off or post a copy of your paper CV to employers – who would sort through them by hand. But advances in technology mean that many large employers now use algorithms to whittle down candidates and save hiring time. But what exactly are CV algorithms, and crucially, how can you make sure that your CV makes it past the robots and into the hands of the recruiter?

What are algorithms and how are they relevant to my CV?

An algorithm is quite simply a list of rules or steps that are used to solve a problem, or to accomplish a task. Looking at real-life human scenarios – the process of putting the bread and cheese together, placing it under the grill to make a cheese toastie and then eating it, could be described as an algorithm. As could the process of looking at the train timetable, choosing a train, getting on the train and arriving at your destination.

Humans can also programme computers to follow rules or steps to complete tasks, and many employers now use software which will decide in a matter of seconds – using a set of criteria – whether the skills and experience listed on a person’s application are relevant to the role being applied for. It does this by using algorithms to hunt for specific keywords and phrases on their CV.

Computer algorithms are essentially robots that screen hundreds or even thousands of digital CVs. If an algorithm doesn’t understand your CV because it can’t find any relevant keywords or phrases, then it won’t select it – and your CV will never make it in front of an actual human being. It is sometimes at this point that the algorithm will also trigger the release of a rejection email. If you’ve ever received a generic-looking rejection email that makes you question whether anyone has actually even read your CV, then chances are, they may not have and it’s the work of algorithms. Astoundingly, it’s believed that CV algorithms reject up to 75% of CVs (The Economist, 2018). This might not seem fair, and it certainly raises its own concerns, but whether we like it or not, it’s increasingly the norm for large employers. Employers argue that since most application processes are now digital and they can often receive a flood of CVs – algorithms allow them to quickly save time and money by filtering out the ones that appear less relevant for the role that they’re hiring for.

If your CV appears to keep falling at the first hurdle, then whilst this will be incredibly frustrating, it allows you to focus all your job seeking effort on making your CV the best it can be to get you through to the interview stage. Thankfully, there are a few different tips and tricks you can try to reduce the chances of the robots placing your CV on the rejection pile…

6 ways to beat CV algorithms

Your CV is something you should be proud of because it provides a summary of some of your most notable professional achievements. Essentially it’s an advert – for you and your accomplishments. However, even if you have what many would consider to be the perfect CV – if it doesn’t make it past the algorithms, then the reality is, that no one will see it. To give yourself the best possible chance at beating the algorithms and impressing the recruiter, try these 6 tips.

1. Identify your relevant skills and achievements

Algorithms will typically look for keywords about your skills and achievements – not about your future career goals – so try to focus your CV on these if you want to appease the robots and give the recruiter a great first glance at what you have to offer.

When identifying your skills, it can help to break them down into keywords that describe your “hard” and “soft” skills. Your hard skills are those which have been learned and then enhanced through practice and/or education. This could include things like “budget management”, “typing speed”, “foreign language skills” and “SEO marketing skills”. Soft skills are interpersonal skills that are looked upon as personality traits, attributes or habits. These could include things such as “empathy”, “good listening skills”, “excellent initiative” and “highly organised”.

To make sure that your hard and soft skill keywords match at least some of those that the algorithm will be looking for, it’s a good idea to spend some time looking over the job description. The keywords used in the personal specification and role description will often act as good indicators about what sort of keywords that the algorithms will be looking for in candidates’ CVs. It can also help to take a look at company or industry-related websites to see what kind of keywords might be most appropriate to use when describing your skills.

It’s best to use hard and soft skill keywords in short punchy sentences to give details about your experience and achievements. For example, “I used my strong organisational skills to plan a highly publicised, high profile event for more than 1000 attendees.” This will help you to make sure that details of your experience and achievements stay relevant to the role you’re applying for. If you’re making a role or career change, then try to identify as many of your transferable hard and soft skills as possible.

It’ll never be enough to simply include a list of keywords that you saw in the job description, because whilst this might make it past the algorithms, when your CV falls into human hands, they will be looking to see how you used these skills. Recruiters can tell quite quickly if you’ve added in a list of keywords simply because you saw them in the job description, and will swiftly move onto the next candidate. Plus you won’t be the only person adding some of these relevant keywords to your CV – so in order to make sure that you stand out from the crowd, every keyword must be linked to a specific personal achievement.

2. Avoid the fluffy stuff

Whether you have plenty of relevant skills and experience or not, algorithms will only be able to understand what these are, if you choose your terminology wisely. So, avoid using fluffy descriptions that won’t be picked up on. For example, rather than saying that “you’re friendly, with a bubbly personality”, try referring instead to relevant keywords that describe strong interpersonal skills  – such as “empathy”, “communication” and “positive attitude”. One helpful tip can be to put yourself in the shoes of the hiring manager and think about what words or skills you would search for on google, in order to find the best candidate for the job.

It’s also best to avoid including anything that has no connection to the role you’re applying for. For example, perhaps you won an art award in 2010 – but if you’re applying for a role in finance, then this becomes irrelevant and doesn’t need to be included in your application for this role. Space on your CV is precious, so try not to take too much of it up with information that is neither relevant, nor algorithm-friendly.

3. Always use standard job titles

When you’re detailing your previous professional experience, algorithms won’t typically pick up on job titles that are a little more offbeat, so it’s best practice to choose a more standardised title to describe your role. For example, instead of writing “Digital Dynamo” (even if this is what your job title actually was), write “Digital Marketing Manager”, or instead of writing “Talent Delivery Specialist” write “Recruitment Manager”.

Never lie about your job title to get past an algorithm because you could get turned away later for dishonesty. But don’t be afraid to convert job titles to clearer, more widely recognised forms – so that they can be better understood by both algorithms and human recruiters.

4. Consider the style and layout of your CV

Believe it not, algorithms don’t just look at the language you’ve used in your CV. They are also programmed to reject CVs if they’re structured in an unfavourable format. Luckily, this is easy to combat by remembering to avoid the following:

  • Text boxes and tables
  • Graphics, graphs or symbols of any kind – apart from bullet points like these ones
  • Fancy font types or colours
  • USING ALL CAPITAL LETTERS (unless it’s for section headers)
  • Unconventional section headers. Stick to conventional ones like “Professional experience”, “education” etc, so that algorithms know how to sort through your information. Headings like “Areas where I’ve made an impact” risk confusing them.
  • Headers and footers. Some algorithms rid CVs of headers and footers, along with any information included in them. So it’s best to make sure that all information is included in the main body of the document.
  • Hyperlinks (adding a website link to a word or phrase) that contain important documents or information e.g. a link to a portfolio. Some algorithms remove hyperlinks, so always include the website link in full on your CV if needed. Or add a note to say that you will send additional documents or information separately.

It’s also important to make sure that your CV is easy to scan. Algorithms will read your CV from left to right in the same way that humans do, so it should be displayed in such a way that there is no guessing about what information should be read next. Otherwise, there’s a risk that information could get left out during an algorithm’s scanning process. If you need some help with how to structure your CV, then it’s worth having a look at our detailed guide to writing a CV or download our free CV template. Having a CV that’s easy for algorithms to read, will also mean that it’s likely to be a lot easier for a recruiter to read too, further down the line – which can continue to work in your favour.

5. Check what kind of file type the recruiter wants you to use

A quick way to get your CV rejected by an algorithm is to submit a CV file in the wrong file format, so always double check the job advert to make sure that you know what file type they’re looking for. The two most common file types that an employer will ask for are usually a Word document (. doc or . docx) or a PDF – with a word document being the most popular choice where algorithms are involved, because it makes for easier scanning. If a job advert doesn’t specify what format to use, then it’s best to submit it as a word document for this very reason.

6. Don’t try to trick the algorithms

Once people find out more about how algorithms work, some try to outsmart them by doing things like copy and pasting blocks of keywords (or even the whole job description) onto the bottom of their CV in a white font, in the hopes that no one will notice – or adding a section titled ‘Keywords’.

Even if your CV does make it past the algorithms using any of these methods – a human recruiter, who is next in the hiring chain, will take one look at your CV which is plastered with the words “marketing, marketing, marketing, marketing” and almost certainly dismiss it. Recruiters won’t see it as a positive that you are willing to play the system to get ahead. Even if you included a ‘Keyword’ section, this will still lack context and won’t show an employer why you’re the right person for the job. It’s much better to have a ‘Key skills’ section – readable by both computers and humans – with the relevant information instead

Final thoughts…

It can be incredibly frustrating that in today’s modern world, there are an increasing number of technological hoops that we have to jump through in order to land a job. However, by acknowledging algorithms for what they are (a time-saving tool), and getting as clued up on them as possible, you can reduce the likelihood of them hindering your job search.

Once you can beat the algorithms and your CV makes it into the hands of a human, you are in with a much better chance of success. If you can beat the bots, then you are able to shift your job seeking focus to perfecting your interview technique and you will be a step closer to landing the right job for you.

We have a number of free CV and cover letter writing resources on our site, including free downloadable CV and cover letter templates. If, however, you’re looking for more bespoke support with your CV, we do offer an affordable, high quality CV rewriting service which you might want to consider.

Did you find this article helpful? What are your experiences with CV algorithms? We’d love to hear from you at [email protected] or in the comments section below.

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13 thoughts on “6 ways to beat CV algorithms

  1. Avatar
    Elaine Quinn on Reply

    Very useful
    It would be helpful to show include some layout with headings examples
    And some suggestions for some of the bullet points you describe eg font, size, etc

  2. Avatar
    John L on Reply

    Yes … really good. Having made all the mistakes this writer identifies – over several decades – I can vouch for what is said here.

  3. Avatar
    Lois Lucambe on Reply

    Excellent article! I’ve never even heard of algorithms with regards to selecting and rejecting CVs. The difference between futile CV would never sees the light of day, the 75%, and the 25% that receives the human touch!

  4. Avatar
    Caroline on Reply

    Helpful if you have experience to put on your cv but what about young people who have left school after finishing their A Levels and have no experience to put on a cv how do they get past the algorithms and into human hands, my son left school 2 years ago and has still found work it’s so depressing he has sent his cv off for many jobs and has had a number of telephone interviews and about 8 face to face interviews but hasn’t had any luck and now with the current job market due to coronavirus I worry even more about him ever getting a job

  5. Avatar
    Sarah on Reply

    Thank you. I wasn’t aware of this. Even though I’ve updated my CV I shall be looking again using these tips and links to your template.

  6. Avatar
    Shirley Price on Reply

    I’ve read quite a few websites on how to build a CV and felt they all contradict each other. Some say use words like ‘Driven’ ‘Motivated’ etc. Others say don’t use obvious words because they are used far too often in CVs. But now I understand why there is a need for those cheesy words.

  7. Avatar
    Terry Iddenden on Reply

    I have fallen foul of these algorithms too. Highly frustrating and does the employer actually get the right candidate in the end? I have almost given up, having sent my Cv out countless times only to receive the standard ‘Computer says No!’ response. I would love the opportunity to sit in front of a human being and be judged, rather than by a machine!

  8. Avatar
    Linda Sutcliffe on Reply

    As a retired Recruiter its useful to understand how technology is being used in recruitment today and the above is very useful as I’m thinking about offering CV support myself.

  9. Avatar
    Gill Adamson on Reply

    A great article very good indeed , have used tips in my CV . And l have two interviews a head of me tomorrow. Thank you very much.

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