Becoming the American Ninja Warrior of Job and Internship Applications

Jamie Grant, Senior Associate Director

Have you ever applied for an internship or job online? If your first response is “yes,” and your immediate second is “but it’s like applying to a black hole!,” you’re not alone!  It’s VERY time- consuming yet required, and you may rarely – if ever – hear anything back.  What a waste of time, right?!!

But, with roughly 90%+ of employers using some form of an online platform, called an “Applicant Tracking System,” to accept and review applications, chances are you’ll HAVE to tough out the crazy challenge – like training for American Ninja Warrior J and hopefully making it to the finish line!!  Let me share with you some tips and tricks to make sure you have at LEAST a fighting chance to get to the interview – and hopefully/eventually an offer!

First, let’s break it down.

An Applicant Tracking System is just software – a front end application interface for candidates of every level, and a back-end database and interface for the recruiter or hiring manager.  When you create a profile and submit an online application, you have created a record for yourself in the database that employer is using. You, the experienced professional, and every level of person that that organization may hire, uses the application portal (and this can explain sometimes that you’re asked what feel like some totally irrelevant questions – but stick with it, Ninja!  You can do this (especially with a little help from AutoComplete)!  ATS systems do a few specific things for an employer – parse resumes (extract information from your document, if it can*), store resumes for later search, allow for keyword searching, filtering, and generating the oft-dreaded “auto-emails.”

Second, almost everything has to do with keywords.

How does one search a database of potentially hundreds or thousands of submissions for a particular job? 10 out of 10 times, it’s a keyword search (usually Boolean for you search-experts) on the many resumes the computer has already “parsed.” The more keywords on which the recruiter is searching that your resume contains, the higher percentage “rank” your application receives.   The higher your rank in the results, the more likely you are to get pulled – by a real human being! – for the next step in the process, an interview!  It’s kind of like “Search Engine Optimization” – how does a website show up at the top of your search results and get the clicks the site host wants? It’s all in the keywords.

Creating or adding into your “Skills” section may be a great work-around if the keywords you think are most relevant are not naturally fitting into other sections of your resume. And, using an important skill more than once – i.e. including it in your Skills section as well as calling it out as a tool used when you’re describing your experience – can be helpful as well, for the frequency by which you use an important keyword can boost your ranking.

Third, let’s be friends!  🙂  The goal is to make your resume as “ATS-Friendly” as possible. Preparing your resume for the online application process has almost NOTHING to do with design and layout and visual appeal (sorry, friends using InDesign or Latex), and EVERYTHING to do with simple file types that can be easily parsed by the ATS (think .doc, .txt – not all systems can even handle PDFs) and your appropriate use of keywords as they are relevant to the job. Try to stick to one page, use measurable statements of results when possible, etc.  There are several resources online for “ATS Friendly Resume Design,” so check one out to see if your own document could use a few friendly edits!

I and the advisors on our team use a tool often to help students “optimize” their resumes for the online application process called You can certainly give a site like Jobscan a try or two for free, to see where you may have gaps in your skills and help you sharpen your document.  But please know that long before there were online systems, there were Career Advisors like those of us in Career Services.  Years of training and thousands of resumes later, our teams here can help you figure out how to make your updates, trim out the no-longer-relevant stuff, maximize keywords, and more!  We’re open all summer, so please reach out if we can help!