Why Thinking Like An Idiot Improves The Chances Of Having Your CV Read


There’s the famous urban legend of the investment banker who just before heading to lunch, picks up the top half of a pile of new CVs on his desk and drops them in the bin, unread. When his lunch colleague questions why he would do such a thing, he claims that those applicants are evidently unlucky and that he doesn’t want unlucky people working for him, as they lose money.

Times (fortunately for recruiters) have moved on. Paper is on its way out, so the waste paper basket is now spared unread CVs and a simple mouse click can do the same job more efficiently. For less guilt, a bot can be assigned to determine who the unlucky ones are. “Hold on a minute!” I hear you say, “They are not randomly binned, they use intelligent AI systems to select the best candidates for the role and shortlist them for human examination.”

Well it’s a nice idea but the reality tends to be quite different and the unlucky ones are still often just that. About the same proportion of applications that the investment banker binned will also go unread by automated tracking systems (ATS), mainly just due to technical incompatibility problems with what is submitted.

It is not surprising that after a while, many job seekers send off their job applications half expecting never to hear anything back. You would be justified in questioning that why, in these days of amazing technology, can it be so hard, to simply send an email informing the applicant when they are out of the running, or even tell ‘Alexa’ to let them down gently? Surely it’s the polite thing to do.

Leaving applicants in silence also tends to backfire badly on employers. Job applicants beginning a job search are typically thought to spend between 3 and 4 hrs on each well crafted application and if they don’t even receive a rejection email for their efforts, it can create a hatred towards the company and its products. 

Another consequence is that it tends to change the behaviour of the job seeker. Applicants cut back the time spent per application and instead they shift towards a more generic carpet bomb approach, for roles both above and below their grade, hoping something stirs a reaction. It feels more satisfying to have applied to 10 jobs in a day than 2 and with less time invested in each, the care and attention levels between job seeker and employer are perceived to be more in line. This only leaves recruiters exasperated as to why they get so many applications from unsuitable applicants, feel overwhelmed about replying to even a fraction of them and round and round it goes.

So why are so many HR departments and recruitment firms still getting it so wrong? It’s easier now than ever to deal with big data and to inform applicants how they are, or aren’t progressing. We’re not just talking SMEs here, we’re referring to some of the largest organisations on the planet having appalling online recruitment processes. Many still clinging to that awful line from the 20th century that marks out the worst of them, “If you haven’t heard back within X weeks then consider your application unsuccessful.”

Firms ought to see the bigger picture and take into consideration the fact that applicants might have an offer on the table from another firm. This is perhaps nowhere more damaging that the graduate recruitment market where first steps are taken in careers and jobs are accepted prematurely or rejected, due to a lack of updates from alternative employers. When those graduates become managers and senior managers, are they likely to rush to do business with the firms that were too complacent or incompetent to keep them informed? Grudges can last a long time.

So whats’s going wrong?

As touched on, one problem is reliance on software that isn’t really up to the task. While many developers would love you to believe their systems have sophisticated AI and deep learning capabilities, most don’t and some can be tripped up by something as simple as font style or the file format it is saved in. Did you know that recent research by MMC Ventures showed 40% of self proclaimed AI startups actually have no AI functionality at all?

Technology is great but applicants need to think like a programmer to understand where the system weaknesses might be, then play the game accordingly. Often that means thinking in a more idiotic way than you’re used to. A basic approach of one of these program’s logic might for example be, if the job description contains these 3 keywords but the application does not contain those 3 keywords then send it to the bin. A candidate that spent four hours on their application might think that is an idiotic way to be assessed but these are the hoops needing to be jumped through.

Other recruiters have told us if the number of years from the first listed job date to the present is too many, then they are ‘set aside’ by the machine. Keeping some early job years on your cv might be depriving you of a human assessment while on the other end of the scale perhaps those summer internship years might help hit the sweet spot.

What are some things applicants should avoid?

Do not send your application in a complex format like pdf, even if it says it is an acceptable format. It’s a fast track into the recycle bin for many, as plenty of ATS software just isn’t capable of analysing it. Some basic optical content readers (OCR) can only extract gobbledegook from flashy pdfs. Plain TXT format is deemed the safest option with Word files a close second (even Microsoft has some difficulty auto-extracting Word CVs accurately), try and forget other lesser know formats like Open Office, Apple Pages and the like too.

Do not add fancy tables or background graphic templates to your CV to make it stand out unless you are putting it into someone’s actual hand. It might look great to a human but this too can cause errors at the software stage which gets you sidelined before your design attempt ever has the chance to grace a pair of eyeballs.

Stay away from serif fonts like Times New Roman. Many of these systems can not read serif fonts. Sans-serif fonts like Arial or Calibri are a safer bet. The serifs, which are the fancy corners to letters confuse some ocular scanning systems.

Bullet points? Don’t use anything other than a dot and to be extra safe simple hyphen might be the safest bet.

Also lose any headers and footers too as these only complicate issues for simpleton software.

What are the things applicants should be doing?

Filling your CV with as many matching words as the job title has as possible. These systems are mainly glorified keyword counters that decide whether to push you through to the next stage. At SaudiHires.com you can store up to six versions of your CV for this reason. Every submission of your CV to a role should be fine tuned with this in mind, not just the cover note, although you equally want to get as many keywords as possible into that too.

However once past the machine, you still want it to look and read well and the text appear natural to a human, so you need to balance it out, avoid adding lists of matching words out of context. Some enterprising individuals add key word lists in white font, so that only the machines can read see them.

Machine Interviews

It’s not just CV tracking software hoops you need to jump through either. Quite often if lucky enough to get past that level in the computer game hiring process, your next round may take you to a recorded video interview. Questions will be displayed on screen and facial recognition technology will try and rate your expression as you answer. Are you confused, bored or angry? It will then decide if you might be a good fit or not for an employer who chose that they wanted a ‘happy’ employee in the software settings.

Many people’s natural facial expressions might appear grumpy to a piece of computer software at no fault of their own, so you might have to again think of the software as a toddler or baby when talking to it, be aware you facial muscle movements are being recorded and analysed, potentially blocking you from getting the job. Feeling put off yet? We feel your pain. People in HR and recruiting are big fans of these tools, so they are not going to disappear any time soon, it cuts their workload and let’s be honest their culpability if the wrong person is hired, ‘the machine said they were good, here’s the report.’

Overall the number of applications per role have increased dramatically as accessibility and ease of applying has increased. The flip side to that is that each application is then relatively less valuable. Recruiters tell of adding superfluous requirements to job descriptions such as memberships to expensive industry groups just to keep the application numbers in check.

However the best companies do not ignore anyone willing to dedicate a significant part of their life to working in their service. They ensure that all applicants are kept informed and none left hanging. Accomplishing that is easier now than ever before so there is really no longer any excuse for the, “If you don’t hear back…” line still offered by some laggards.

At SaudiHires.com we help pick up a bit of the slack. If employers handle their application process on our system we make it incredibly easy for them to change the status assigned to each applicant. When they do we send out an alert to the applicant on their behalf. If the employer marks the position filled, we also let everyone who applied know, so they can stop guessing and get on with finding a suitable job.

A variation of this article was first published on our sister site DubaiHires.com


AI & Machine Learning, Job Applications, Jobs in Saudi, Labour Law, Recruitment, Saudi Hires