Beating the Résumé-Elimination Game: Where Do Recruiters’ Eyes Go?

April 22, 2012 at 10:47 pm 6 comments

A while back, I wrote about how job-seekers get screened out or eliminated based on someone looking at their résumés. [Read: “The Brutal Truth About How Résumés Get Eliminated.”] In my many years as a recruiter, I’ve certainly read my share of résumés. There were times when I went through over a hundred a day. I certainly know how the elimination game works! This process is even more brutal now in the current candidate-flooded market caused by the economic downturn of the last few years. It’s been said that the average résumé-reader will give your résumé less than 15 seconds of eyeball time on the first pass. If they don’t quickly see exactly what they think they want or need right up front … bye bye – delete key for you!

I recently read a fascinating report about a study sponsored by The Ladders purporting to be a scientific analysis of how recruiters actually read résumés. I say “purporting” because one must always consider the source of such studies. Since The Ladders is a for-profit Job-Seeker Service which commissioned and paid for this study, it’s not surprising that their conclusions supported using their own services. It suggested that job-seekers should use The Ladders’ own professional résumé-writing service, and that The Ladders’ online profiles were more effective than LinkedIn’s free online profiles. Their study made use of a technique called “eye-tracking” which produced visual “Heat Maps” showing where and for how long the recruiters’ eyes lingered on the résumés and online profiles they were reading. (See the bottom of this article for an example of such “Heat Maps.”)

Here’s a link to the report that describes the actual study: “Eye Tracking Study.”

Thirty recruiters were studied over a ten-week period. The researchers tried to determine how long the recruiters spent looking at each résumé, what items caught their attention, how quickly their eyes moved from item to item, which items were overlooked, and how quickly they made a basic yes/no decision on a candidate. I imagined a room full of recruiters all chained to desks, forced to stare at computer monitors with their eyes propped open! The whole thing reminded me of a certain iconic scene from the movie Clockwork Orange:

Despite its obvious bias, there were several things in this study that jumped out to me as information I felt could be very useful to all job-seekers. Here are my observations:

How long did recruiters actually look at résumés?
When surveyed, the recruiters told the researchers they spent 4 to 5 minutes on each résumé … but when actually observed, the average time spent on each résumé was a mere 6 seconds for the initial “fit / no fit” decision!!! So much for that masterpiece you slaved over for so many hours writing, re-writing and perfecting. Pretty depressing, eh?!

What parts caught their attention, and where did their eyes linger?
The recruiters in the study spent almost 80% of their résumé review time focusing on the following six things:
1) Name
2) Current Title/Company
3) Current Position Start and End Dates
4) Previous Title/Company
5) Previous Position Start and End Dates
6) Education
Sadly, beyond those six things the recruiters did little more than scan for keywords that matched the jobs they were trying to fill. They characterized the rest of the descriptive details in the résumés (the parts you probably spent the most time perfecting!) as “filler that had little or no impact on their initial decision-making.” Again, kind of depressing, eh?

Why did “professionally-written” résumés seem to be more effective?
In a word — it’s the formatting. Look at the Heat Maps below. What distinguishes the one on the right from the one on the left? When you consider the low importance placed on the actual descriptive details (as noted in the answer above) the only thing left is the physical look and feel of the page. On the right-hand example, notice the use of bold type and grey boxes for the headings, the lines separating the different sections, the way various keywords are bolded throughout, etc. Those are the elements that guide the eyes and focus the attention of the reader. The entire format looks organized and logical. By comparison, the one on the left looks like a big jumble of words, with no clear path to follow. It takes too much work for the reader to figure it out. (Hint: if you click on the graphic below you’ll see the full-sized image, where it’s much easier to examine the different elements on each résumé.)

How can you create your own “professionally-formatted” résumé without paying someone else to do it for you?
There are many resume-writing services out there who will be happy to charge you lots of money to re-format and re-write your résumé for you. I’ve never been a big fan of such services. I’ve seen way too many crappy résumés created by such so-called “professionals.” This is one of those rare cases where the old phrase “you get what you pay for” really does not apply at all. The truth is that anyone can create a professional-looking résumé themselves — totally for free. The easiest way to do it is to “borrow” someone’s professional résumé that you like and then copy the format! Just get a good résumé from someone you know — or simply search for professional résumés on Google — and then save them to your computer. Then just replace the text with your own words, retaining the nice-looking formatting of the original! Another fairly obvious source for pre-formatted résumé templates is Microsoft Word, or other desktop writing and publishing programs. Just open the program and search for templates when you choose to create a new document. Microsoft has even more free résumé templates available online. Here’s a link to a generous number of free, great looking professional résumé templates designed for users of Microsoft Word: “Microsoft Résumés and CVs.” Numerous other free examples and templates are out there online, ready for the taking.

Final thoughts … some résumés actually do get read more carefully!
Keep in mind that the focus of this entire study was the initial “yes/no” assessment process … that first quick scan where the elimination often happens. But not every résumé gets eliminated. When a résumé does pass that first test, then the descriptive details that were completely overlooked the first time will actually get read and considered. So in the end, the experiences and achievements you write about on your masterpiece do really matter a great deal. The trick, of course, is to beat the résumé-elimination game and get to that next step!

For more tips on creating an effective resume, read: “The Résumé Test & Checklist: Does Yours Pass?”


Above: These “Heat Maps” show where recruiters eyes go (yellow areas), and where they linger (red areas) when reading résumés. The one on the left is a “self-written” résumé, and the one on the right is a “professionally-written” résumé. Note the formatting differences. (Click on the image to see a full-sized version.)


Entry filed under: Advice for Job Seekers. Tags: , , .

20 Surefire Ways to Blow an Interview “Help … I Need a Job!” A 9-Step Guide For Newly Minted Job-Seekers

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. kelli clark  |  April 23, 2012 at 5:22 pm

    I like this blog Michael! Good writing!

  • 2. Antonio  |  May 1, 2012 at 8:07 pm

    Congratulations for the meaningful lines. Most articles on this topic are exceedingly redundant and/or extremely basic, just useless. Your article is useful. Nevertheless, there is no way to win a game against silly people or inappropriate methods. To grab an extra chunk of attention does not change very much, when the reader is so tired of her/his work, or overloaded, or superficial. Because there are hundreds and even thousands of applicants per announcement. Raising chances from 0% (badly written résumé) to >0% (decent or good) it’s always a worthwhile effort, this is no doubt. While raising the chances from “OK” to “a bit more” may cost a huge time, without to pay off. Let’s consider that to do a truly good job, one should tailor her/his CV to each single job application. Format optimization is surely recommended, but is not going to solve much. Applicants do not own a whole company dedicated to file and tailor super-efficient applications.
    It’s the system, that should change. Otherwise screenings will keep selecting the most obvious profiles, excluding all the others. Mediocrity should never be the goal.

    • 3. Michael Spiro  |  May 2, 2012 at 9:41 am

      Thanks for the positive feedback on my article. It certainly would be great if we could “change the system” for how resumes are reviewed. However, since that is not likely to happen anytime soon, it is probably wiser to simply recognize how things actually work in the real world and take appropriate steps to deal with that reality. Making sure your resume is attractively formatted is one way to maximize your chances of being noticed. And yes, tailoring each resume to match the language of the specific job you are applying to is also a great strategy!

  • 4. Antonio  |  May 3, 2012 at 12:07 am

    Hi Michael, I do not disagree with you. Moreover, I agree that we cannot know how and when the search/selection system will change. Nonetheless, I know that if people “swallow” the system just as it is now, nothing will ever change. Changes are seeded in the present, they take place in the future. As this is a “discussion”, I thought that it is relevant to highlight that we are not “obliged” to eat the current meal, we could reclaim a different menu. Any point is a potential starting point.

  • 5. Mark Slack  |  July 2, 2014 at 4:37 am

    Hi Michael,

    I wrote an article about this study as well, however I looked at it from a different angle. I wanted to see if their study’s methodology was sound.

    I found that it was very lacking in scientific methodology, and that some of the stats they calculated don’t make mathematical sense. Maybe you’d be interested in my article?

    I think that the advice you’ve given in this column absolutely still applies. And even if the study is methodologically weak, it’s commendable that they approached it from a scientific angle (designing bulletproof studies is very difficult, so I don’t think it was malicious.)

    Hopefully in the future someone can design a stronger experiment and bring even more facts to the table to help people find jobs.


    • 6. Michael Spiro  |  July 2, 2014 at 1:57 pm

      Your analysis of The Ladders’ Eye Tracking Study is great. You’ve clearly identified a number of obvious scientific flaws in their methodology. My own point of criticism was simply that since The Ladders is a for-profit Job-Seeker Service which commissioned and paid for this study, it’s not surprising that their conclusions supported using their own professional résumé-writing services. To use your analogy, it would be like the Martha Stewart company commissioning and paying for a study comparing brownies baked by Martha Stewart with ones that were baked by a twelve-year old. Guess which brownies would come out being more popular in that study?! I also love your final conclusion — that the real test should be to find out if improving someone’s résumé by using a professional résumé-writing service would actually increase their chances of getting interviewed and/or hired. Now THAT would be a great study!


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Michael Spiro

About the Author:

Michael Spiro has been a 3rd-Party Recruiter and Account Executive for over 15 years. He is currently the Director of Recruiting / NE Ohio Region for Experis Finance, a dedicated business unit of ManpowerGroup. Other recent positions include President of Midas Recruiting, a boutique head-hunting firm, Director of Talent at Patina Solutions, and Executive Recruiting positions with two of the largest search firms in North America. Before his career in the staffing industry, Michael was a manager in a large non-profit social-services organization. And in a former life, Michael was active in the entertainment industry, with extensive road-warrior experience as a touring performer (singer-songwriter / guitarist / comedian) and as a recording artist, producer and booking agent.  [More...]

Index (by Topic):

Résumés & Cover Letters:
 The "T" Cover Letter - The
         Only Type Worth Sending

 The Brutal Truth on How
         Résumés Get Eliminated

 Explaining Short Job Stints
         and Employment Gaps

 The Résumé Test &
         Checklist: Does Yours

 Beating the Résumé-
         Elimination Game: Where
         Do Recruiters' Eyes Go?

 The Truth About Lying on

 How to Network: A
         Step-by-Step Guide for
         Job Searching

 Looking for Networking in
         All the Wrong Places

 Targeted Networking: How
         to Effectively Reach Out

 The Art of Giving: the Key to
         Effective Networking

 Face-to-Face Interviews:
         Secrets, Tricks and Tips

 Phone Interviews: Secrets,
         Tricks and Tips

 Skype Interview Tips ...
         Welcome to the Future!

 Nuggets: A Secret
         Interviewing Technique

 Answering the Dreaded
         Salary Question

 20 Surefire Ways to Blow
         an Interview

 "So, Do You Have Any
         Questions?" Nailing the
         Interview Closer

 Cool InfoGraphic: "What
         You Wish You'd Known
         Before Your Job

Age Discrimination:
 Age Discrimination: Secret
         Conversations Revealed

 Age Discrimination:
         Exposing Inconvenient

 Are You "Overqualified?"
         Handling the Age Issue

 Baby Boomers to the
         Rescue! An Idea Whose
         Time Has Come ...

 Overcoming Job-Search
         Obstacles and
         Redefining Your Career
         After 50

 Advice for Recent Grads
         and Career-Changers

Switching Jobs:
 The Proper Way to
         Quit a Job

 Counteroffers: Just Say No!

General Job-Seeking Info:
 The Real Truth About
         Working with Recruiters

 Contract/Consulting Jobs
         Explained ... Available in
         3 Different Flavors

►  What Recruiters Say
         vs. What Job-Seekers

►  The Dirty Truth About
         Misleading Unemployment

►  Let the Jobs Find You:
         Making Yourself More

 "Help ... I Need a Job!" A
         9-Step Guide for Newly
         Minted Job-Seekers

 Avoiding the "Black Hole
         of HR"

 Is Your Elevator Pitch
         Taking You UP
         or DOWN?

 Time Management: Recipe          for a Well-Balanced Job          Search
 Getting Un-Stuck from your

 The Double-Whammy of
         Rejection and Isolation

 "Unemployed Need Not
         Apply" - Working Around
         This Scary Message

 Using Social Media to
         Enhance Job-Searching

 Warning: That Rant You
         Posted Just Went Viral!

 The Golden Rule for
         Business: Never Burn

 The Power of a Positive

 Why Job Hunting is a
         Consultative Sales

 Top 10 Most Helpful Things
         for Job Seekers

 Top 10 Most Annoying
         Things for Job Seekers

 New Year's Resolutions for
         Unemployed Job-

Job-Seeking Humor:
 Comic Relief: Volume 1
 Comic Relief: Volume 2
 Comic Relief: Volume 3
 Comic Relief: Volume 4
 Comic Relief: Volume 5
 Comic Relief: Volume 6
 "In Transition" and Other
         Awkward Euphemisms

 Candidates Gone Wild:
         Recruiter Horror Stories

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