The Resume Game: Playing to Win the Interview

Most of us have been there: You’ve sent out your resume to multiple jobs where you know you’d be a great fit, but none of them have asked for an interview. Not one single call back or move to the next round. It can be frustrating and disheartening and you might begin to wonder if something is wrong with your experience. Or you might know that there are weak spots in your professional history, but if you could just get an interview you would be able to explain why you’re still a great candidate.

The thing is, the resume and application process is often not fair, neutral, or even very logical. It’s a system set up to minimize hiring managers’ time and the organization’s hiring risk as much as possible. The sooner you start thinking of it as the game it is, the sooner you can start playing to win the interview.

Identifying Your Obstacles

Many organizations get swamped with resumes for a single job posting, and most of those resumes will not be a good fit for the position. In fact, a large number won’t even meet the basic skill or expertise requirements for the job. It makes sense that hiring teams have tools to make their reviewing process easier and that they, like all of us, can burn out on too much information or complexity. To play the resume game effectively, you have to understand how to go around the obstacles standing in the way of your resume’s success.

Keyword Scanners

When you upload your resume through an online portal of any kind, it’s very likely the organization will run it through a keyword scanner first. Both the upload software and the keyword scanning software can cause all sorts of problems if you don’t understand this part of the game.

If you submit a resume made in design software or even a plain text one that uses a lot of tabs and tables, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Both upload software and keyword scanning software can break your resume beyond recognition, separating columns and lines and even individual words until your resume becomes a giant mess far beyond anything a computer or human can understand. Save the fancy resume for when you have a real human’s email address and avoid pre-formatted templates from the internet like the plague.

Keyword scanners are also looking for particular words, not synonyms of the words or a description that means the same things as those words. Use the same words the job posting uses to get the best results with keyword scans.

Human Fatigue

At the end of the day, hiring managers are humans like the rest of us. Even after the keyword scanner weeds out dozens of resumes, hiring teams have a lot to look through. They will go quickly and they will get tired. If a hiring manager has to think or read much at all when reviewing the resume, you will lose their interest and the interview.

Humans are also scanning for certain keywords and not necessarily processing synonyms or concepts that mean the same thing. This is another good reason to use the same keywords as the job listing, even if you would normally call a skill or process something different.

You should assume that your resume is getting no more than a cursory glance before the person looking at it decides to keep reviewing it or reject it out of hand. In that single glance, your resume must shout that you are not only a qualified candidate, but a pretty impressive one at that.

Red Flags (fair or not)

Hiring teams will weed out resumes for any tiny reason — remember, they’re trying to get their pile down to just a handful of candidates to interview. Some of the reasons aren’t very nice. In fact, a lot of them are complete and utter BS. You can’t fight it though — hiring teams will find another official reason they rejected your resume if asked. All you can do is to use this information to avoid getting weeded out. Reasons you might unfairly land in the “no” pile:

  • Gaps in Work History — Unemployment of any kind, including going back to school or being a stay-at-home parent.

  • Filler Jobs — Non-career positions outside your field you’ve taken to earn income while between jobs.

  • Moving to a New Market — Out-of-town resumes often immediately go in the “no” pile.

  • Changing Careers — Hiring teams can be distracted when your past career experience doesn’t line up with the position you’ve applied for.

  • Switching Industries — If a hiring manager thinks you don’t know the industry, you could be right out.

  • Education Level — You might have 20+ years of experience in your field but the position requires a bachelor’s degree.

  • Not Enough Experience — The job listing says 3–5 years but you’ve only been working 2.5.

  • Age — Just out of school or 50+.

A pretty unforgiving list, isn’t it? It really is a game of making it to the final cut and this is where you have to play the game right back. You can counteract these so-called issues by avoiding shedding light on them in your resume.

Rethinking Your Strategy

In games, there are rules and it’s no different in the game of writing and submitting resumes. Here, though, the company and hiring manager set the rules and you don’t necessarily get to know what they are as you play along. Fun, right? For that reason, your resume game has to be all about strategy.

1. Analyze the job description.

You’re looking for anything you can use to your advantage. Are they looking for certain software or hard skills? You should mention these by their exact name in your resume, no abbreviations or shorthand. What keywords does the description use to talk about the position? You should use this same language in your resume, without outright parroting what the job listing says of course. Keep that keyword scanner in mind. You don’t want to get weeded out just because you used a synonym.

2. Make your resume ridiculously easy to understand.

If someone can understand your resume just by reading the headings and quickly scanning the bullet points, you’re doing it exactly right. Because that’s actually all most hiring team members are going to do.

Don’t feel the need to include every little thing. Feature the highlights from each position and include significant accomplishments that match the job listing. That’s all you need. Avoid the inclination to fill every square centimeter with information. Use two pages if you really need to (if you’re an experienced professional with a long work history, you probably will). We’ve had one-page resumes drilled into our heads, but that’s what leads to nonexistent margins, 9-point font, and no room for the resume or the person reviewing it to breathe.

3. Address the so-called issues.

So maybe you have a gap in your work history or maybe you’re applying from out of town. Maybe you’re 22 and applying for your first job or maybe you’re 55 and looking for the job that will take you through retirement. All of these things can be “red flags” to hiring teams. Don’t raise that flag in your resume. There are ways to downplay anything that might land you in the no pile. Here are some tactices to address the most common resume “issues” I regularly see from my clients:

  • Play with how you display dates— Maybe you only list the number of years you were at a position instead of actual year numbers. This makes it just a little harder to do math and determine work gaps or your exact age — a bonus for you when someone is reading your resume at lightning speed.

  • Decide what comes first — Don’t have the education requirements the job asks for but have a long, successful history in your field? Maybe you want to put your education last.

  • Leave your physical address off — This is the new millennium, who gets job application correspondence via the postal service? If you’re applying to a new market, include in your LinkedIn profile instead. Then you can have the conversation about your move when you’re talking with a real person.

  • Don’t mention filler positions — If you worked a job outside your field for a while to earn some income, don’t list it. It can be distracting from the rest of your experience and raise hiring team eyebrows. If you feel like you gained relevant experience in that job, you can mention that during an interview or briefly in a cover letter.

Playing Your Best Hand

None of these tactics — or others like them — are dishonest. They are a way of putting your best foot forward to land the interview. In a game of poker, you wouldn’t show that you have a card you don’t like. The same goes for the resume game. Once you get in a room with a real person who’s already identified you as a good candidate, you can discuss any of these things — but only if your interviewer brings them up first.

Play the Game, Get the Interview

Really, playing the resume game boils down to speaking the same language as the organization you’re applying to. While you’re removing any potential reasons to put your resume in the “no” pile, you’re also showing that you’ve paid attention to what they’re looking for and that you’re on the same page. And that is an excellent reason for them to offer you an interview.