Never did you suspect you’d have to get past artificial intelligence to hand your resume to a hiring manager.

Applicant tracking system

You might’ve had a Terminator-style scenario in your head when it came to AI taking over the world. But AI has already won – it led you to this article on Google, it’s running what you see on Facebook, it’s trading stock and running the markets, it talks back to you as Alexa or Siri, and now it’s even filtering people for jobs.

So how do you make sure that the hiring manager actually gets your resume? Many Gen X-ers will proudly list a long history of great work achievements and impressive job titles on their resume, yet they’ll face rejection after rejection. It’s bewildering. 

But perhaps you just need to update your ideas of how the world works. Maybe your resume consultant is even older than you are, alien to the ideas of keywords and AI filtering.

It’s definitely time to get to grips with AI and how it affects your selection process. This knowledge is all that stands between you and a Zoom call with your dream employer.

What role does AI play in job applications?

CNBC looked into how AI has transformed the world of recruitment

AI gets to work the moment you hit “submit”. It might operate on behalf of an external agency or job search site. A particularly large company might have their own software that filters applicants for them. If it’s not an outside agency doing the filtering, it’ll be an HR department that otherwise has little contact with the team you want to join.

Either way, if you’re not in the top 2% of applications, your resume isn’t even going to reach human eyes for judgment, let alone the right ones. And it’s very likely that you’ll encounter an applicant-tracking system (ATS), as they’re known – over 98% of Fortune 500 companies filter their applicants this way. 

So, is it all keywords, then? What keywords will help you vault the barrier? What order do you use them in? If you’re thinking in these simplistic terms, you’re no closer to understanding the complexity of AI than “what one word can I say that’ll keep my partner happy forever?”

Keyword algorithms have been around since the 90s, and they were very easy to game. Candidates could smuggle in the keyword they wanted to emphasize (say, “doctorate in engineering”) by filling the margins of the document with those very words in white text – not unlike invisible ink. Believe it or not, this actually used to work.

However, the algorithm is now far more advanced and intelligent, even though keywords still play an important role in getting your resume seen. AI can pick apart any gaps in your work history, how your job titles have evolved, and the education you received.

No longer can you pull off “the white font trick” or stuff your resume with keywords. You have to tweak your language to meet the AI on its own terms. 

What can you do about it?

Once you realize that it’s an AI sifting through thousands of applications, you might get a little clarity but feel no less appalled. How the f*ck can an AI work out who I really am? Who is an algorithm to judge my dedication? How dare a computer assess my personal qualities and work ethic. I am not a stream of numbers. I have really lived this.

AI resume

Guess what? You’re not going to beat this thing with emotions – AI doesn’t deal in those. It works with hard facts, numbers, and patterns.

So put the feelings to one side, and learn to speak its language. Your resume isn’t a rundown of your personal achievements or a “history document”, but a “destiny document” – a ledger of your potential value to the hiring manager. It’s not about showing what you’ve done. It’s about what you will do for them.

You can still make your resume an authentic testament to your skills. You just have to do so in a language that an AI program can read and deems suitable for passing on. Is it easy? Hell no. But that’s why you’ll be getting the job and some other schmuck will have to apply to a different AI elsewhere.

In this article, Team Vippi will break down:

  • How to find and use keywords (there’s still a knack)
  • The ideal format for your resume
  • How the AI knows it’s being gamed
  • How to balance showcasing your potential with demonstrating your achievements
  • Why you should still write a cover letter

It’s Judgment Day. Come with us if you want to live…

How to algorithm-optimize your resume

Just like job interviews, there’s a right and wrong way to appease an ATS.

career robot

Don’t let the robots f*ck with your career.

1. Keywords, keywords, keywords.

Sure, the system’s more advanced in 2021 than keyword algorithms were in the 90s. But it’s still checking your resume for key information, and it still does this by looking for keywords.

The great thing about an ATS is that even though they seem unmoveable, terrifying, and self-sufficient, a human hiring manager has set the specific keywords for which it needs to scan. So the AI still thinks like a hiring manager.

How to work out the right keywords

The job title itself might even be a keyword – that’s one out of the way. What you have to think about after that is the hard skills a job needs. This might include:

  • Software knowledge (e.g. “proficient with Salesforce”)
  • Spoken languages (e.g. “fluent in conversational and written German”)
  • Specific methodologies (like knowing a particular coding language or editorial style guide)
  • Industry-standard qualifications (like a particular teaching license or legal association membership)

Luckily, the company has done the hard work for you. These will usually be at the top of their job description.

Pro tip: Don’t take a chance on abbreviations, as an AI might be looking for a specific phrasing of a keyword. Instead, type out the full word with the abbreviation next to it – for example:

The wrong way: Don’t write RD ⛔️

The right way: Do write Registered Dietitian (RD)

H4: Online keyword search tools

If you’re still struggling, or the job spec isn’t particularly clear, the Internet (as usual) comes to the rescue. These tools can help you hone in on a few select keywords to boost your chances of getting past the ATS:

2. Only apply for suitable roles.

Perhaps you’re looking for something a little different or “pushing your luck” with a role that’s a little out of your reach. And we commend you for your ballsiness.

But an ATS is a pretty stern gatekeeper, and you’ll probably get turned away from jobs if you have insufficient or irrelevant experience.

That doesn’t mean you’re always restricted. You might have impressive transferable skills. You might not have every qualification but still have value as a candidate, or you might come from a less traditional background for the role. You’ll still be able to get in front of a hiring manager if your resume holds up.

But it doesn’t make sense to apply for an operations manager role if you’ve been working copywriting jobs for the last decade.

3. Don’t spam the same company with applications for different job levels or types.

If you’ve gone absolutely crazy applying to every single opening at a company, the AI will snitch on you to the hiring manager. And you’ll either look desperate, confused, or unsure of your skillset. (Yep, the AI does talk to the hiring manager – it’s not out here operating like a rogue agent.)

You may want to be considered for two different roles and might be suitably qualified for each. That’s fine. Make sure you aren’t submitting the same resume twice – each resume should be tailored for the individual role you want.

Avoid applying for two different levels of the same position (Assistant Warehouse Manager and Vice President of Logistics, for example) or two wildly different roles (Chief Physicist and Head of Janitorial Staff). You can’t expect a recruiter to spend time working out where you’d be most suitable if you haven’t either.

4. Place your keywords in a useful context.

It’ll be an AI that refers you to the hiring manager, but the hiring manager will be a human.

Don’t use keywords for the sake of it just to get through the screening process, only for a manager to take one look and realize you’re just gaming the software. You’re not playing a computer at chess. You’re trying to get a real job.

Recruiters do this dance every day for hundreds of applicants. They know when you’ve used a keyword directly from the job description without knowing what it means or how your skills relate to it.

And these hundreds of applicants? They’re all coming through with the same frickin’ keywords. So get familiar with your unique accomplishments, why you deserve the role, and how to frame those keywords in a context that proves you’ll add value to the hiring manager’s operation.

Pro tip: Don’t bullet point your skills – list your achievements instead, with numbers if possible.

The wrong way: I’m an excellent salesperson with great communication skills ⛔️

The right way: Using my sales skills, I generated $23,750,000+ in revenue which led to 23% year-on-year growth for my department

Have you made yourself the best candidate you can be?

While getting past the algorithm is one thing, it means very little if you haven’t made the effort to upskill and show how you’ll add value to future employers.

Yes, you’ll read some inspiring stories on LinkedIn about how someone helped a CEO in the street without realizing and landed a killer job the next week. But AI is making it harder and harder to bullsh*t your way into positions you didn’t work for.

It doesn’t matter what you put in your resume if you haven’t bothered to improve your skill set or stay current with your industry’s requirements.

Make sure you:

  • Attend workshops and seminars to stay up to date with industry developments.
  • Get as many qualifications (from certified providers) as you can.
  • Manage your personal brand and online reputation on sites like LinkedIn and Facebook – you’re Googlable now, so make sure what comes up is appealing.
  • Set yourself professional goals and work toward them (don’t just check out when your job gets difficult).
  • Turn up to networking events and meet people in your field – if you chat to the right person, you may not even need to deal with an AI.
  • Speak to your current manager or HR department about ways you can enhance your skill set.

5. Don’t try to be a cleverd**k – you can’t outsmart the ATS.


You might be the most highly qualified person on the planet for this particular role, but if you’ve been an a**hole about trying to “beat” the AI in some way, it’ll throw you in the discard pile.

So no sly white-text keywords, keyword stuffing, or sections marked “keywords” to try and sneak past. Remember when you were 17, trying to buy hooch with a fake ID? It’s that kind of business. You’ll get thrown out.

Google, for example, uses an algorithm that’s far more complex and wide-reaching than an ATS, but it’s actually not that different. And, nowadays, Google puts the articles with the most useful and immediately available information at the top of its search ranking – not the pieces with the most keywords.

You can algorithm-optimize your resume in the same way: by being the most useful candidate and front-loading the information that best demonstrates this (i.e. putting it at the top of your resume).

6. Use the right file type – it matters.

Generally, you should use a .docx file instead of a PDF. It seems like it shouldn’t matter, but an AI might discard a resume simply because it can’t easily scan the information. A .docx file is super scannable, because it contains the text – as opposed to a PDF, which contains a fixed image of the text.

To save you the hassle of worrying about file formats, many job descriptions and applications tell you the format in which they expect submissions. But if the description doesn’t specify a file type, choose docx so the AI can digest it.

Pro tip: To create a .docx file, go into the File → Save As dropdown menu on your word processing software and choose the file type as .docx. It’s usually the box below where you type the file name.

Alternatively, create your resume on Google Docs and download it in PDF or .docx format from File → Download.

7. Make your resume scannable left to right and top to bottom.

The ATS reads like a human – left to right and top to bottom (if you’re submitting in English). Make sure your resume doesn’t have any info where the hiring manager wouldn’t expect to find it. For example:

  • Make sure your name’s at the top of the document alongside your contact info.
  • Start with your most recent employer and work back through time.

The formats that both recruiters and ATS programs prefer are:

  • Chronological. The resume runs from your most recent role back through your earlier roles. It shows how you’ve developed over time. If you’ve stayed on a steady career trajectory in the same industry without any substantial breaks in employment, this format may be best for you.
  • Combination. This combines the chronological resume with a functional approach. A functional resume highlights your transferable skills more than your experience, and is a particularly good format for folks who’ve changed careers, recent graduates, combat veterans, or people with large gaps in employment

Both the hiring manager and the ATS need to see your story – and it’s one of 200 stories landing on their desk/server that day. The important parts need to stand out and sit in a predictable place on your resume, because that’s where the recruiters will look first.

8. Fancy formatting looks cool, but *don’t do it*.

First of all – sorry. We know you might’ve spent a lot of money on that swanky template or custom resume, but you need to scrap it. You might think a fancypants resume makes you stand out, but it actually makes it way harder to read.

It’s also a waste of time. The software will convert your whole resume to plain text, so any fanciness will be lost in the ether. If an AI can’t pull the crucial info from your resume, no human will lay eyes on your beautiful handiwork – or, y’know, the skills you’ve spent 20 years building up.

What you can still include

The ATS will still pick up on:

  • Bold, italic, and underlined text (but restrict any underlines to headings and URL links)
  • Colors
  • Square or circle bullet lists

Things to avoid when formatting a resume

Pretty though they may be, these style choices are going to trip up an ATS and make your resume less scannable. Don’t use:

  • Logos
  • Text boxes
  • Tables
  • Images (do not include your photo)
  • Graphs and visuals
  • Columns (as the ATS may read them in the wrong direction)
  • Headers and footers (which may get ignored completely)
  • Kooky section headings (just stick with the basics like “previous employment” “education” and “qualifications”)
  • Hyperlinks
  • Rare or unusual fonts (you think it’s going to make you stand out, but using a downloaded font might reach the other side of the ATS completely scrambled)

9. Make sure your spelling is on point. 

Spellcheck your resume. We really shouldn’t have to f*cking say this. 

Not everyone is the world’s greatest literary mind, and that’s fine. But it’s the 21st century, and so many programs can run a spellcheck for you (tools like Grammarly really help, as they pick up on tone as well as spelling). There are zero excuses for having typos in your resume.

It’s a sure way to get your application thrown in the trash pronto. The AI will see this as an easy way to justify removing your submission from the application process.

10. Be as straightforward as possible.

List your skills and the years of experience you have in each, using the most direct language you can to convey your talents. The AI won’t recognize frilly language, as it’s looking for specific requirements. Keep the frills and rhetoric to your cover letter.

Pro tip: Drill down into specifics where you can on your resume. 

The wrong way: I’m an experienced administrator who is adept at using a whole bunch of invoicing programs. ⛔️

The right way: I am an administrator with 3 years’ experience of using DEAR online invoicing software. ✅

11. Include a cover letter when you can.

Yep. They’re still super important. You won’t be able to send them with every application, but when you can, you absolutely should. 

To get through the AI-imposed barriers, your resume needs to be as quantitative (or numbers/results-based) as possible. 

Your cover letter, on the other hand, can be a qualitative (or descriptive) representation of who you really are, and you’ll be able to show your work ethic and personality in much clearer ways.

You can still stand out, and you’ll have an advantage over candidates who didn’t provide a cover letter.

Pro tip: Include an essential sentence. Start with “I am so excited to apply for this job, because…” and fill in the rest. Let the hiring manager know why you want the job – but research the company first and express it in ways that speak to their values. 

Complete that sentence with “because I use your products all the time” or “because I have the skills to improve your services a great deal”.

12. Include specific, numerical results rather than duties.

Everyone prefers to work with colleagues they actually like as people. To an AI and a hiring manager, though, all they have is a piece of paper with your professional journey – so make sure it screams results at them.

If you’ve truly applied yourself over a 20-year career, you’ll have some results to be proud of. Make sure you include these in your resume, rather than vague skills or qualities. They’re much more eye-opening to all parties looking over your resume.

There’s no surer way to show a future employer your potential value to the company than pointing out the value you’ve already added to others.

13. Create your resume on a desktop computer – but make sure you can access it on a mobile.

Don’t put your resume together on a cell phone. You’ll be searching for roles on phones and tablets more and more often, and you might have convinced yourself that you’re a tablet whiz who doesn’t need to touch a physical keyboard again. 

Make sure you always put in the due time and care at a desktop computer to format your resume in the right way and export it in the correct file format. Then, add it to a Cloud drive (like Microsoft OneDrive, iCloud, or Google Drive) and transfer it to your cell phone so that you can access your resume and cover letter at all times.

That way, you know it’s formatted the right way, but you’ll also be able to access it whenever you’re thumbing through opportunities on your phone.

The roundup

The idea of just getting one person to cast their eyes over your resume might feel like drawing blood from a stone in the modern workplace. But fear not: taking a sensible, results-driven, and direct approach to resume compilation will mean that your application is AI-proof and ready for human eyes.

It’s not complicated either. The easiest way to think about getting past an ATS is this:

If you’ve presented good information in a way that a recruiter will find useful to scan through, it’s likely that an AI will pass it on to the hiring manager. AI isn’t sentient (yet). Recruiters designed this software with a specific purpose, and they did so with a recruiter’s mindset.

You’re a talented, multi-skilled, and valuable asset – we know you can cope with this most modern of hurdles. Think of this as a situation where you’re still being authentic about yourself but communicating it in a different language. Adapt this mindset, and you’re going to have a competitive advantage over the others.

Article resources

Borsellino, R. (n.d.). Beat the robots: How to get your resume past the system & into human hands.

Cornfield, J. (2018). Robots are reading your resume, so here are 5 tips to meet their approval. 

How to ‘algorithm optimize’ your resume to get past the bots. (2019).

Shields, J. (2018). Over 98% of Fortune 500 companies use applicant tracking systems (ATS). 

Ziv, S. (n.d.). Do you need a combination resume? Here’s how to know (and how to write one).