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The 6-Second Scan: What Recruiters Look for First on Your Resume

The quick glance that can make or break your application

Woman writing something down while holding her phone
Photo courtesy of Marcus Aurelius

In 4 Red Flags in Job Descriptions That Should Make You Think Twice, I introduce to some and confirm for others a controversial and often misunderstood recruiting practice:  

“…when recruiters initially review an applicant’s resume, they do a quick, 6-second scan to determine if the application is going in the “for consideration” pile—the selected few they’ll review thoroughly and potentially advance to the screening portion of the recruiting process.”

  • Introduced – to those who have never worked with a recruiter or resume writer who offered this insight to assist with fine-tuning their resume.

  • Confirmed – for those who may have thought it an urban legend that recruiters are experts who have mastered the skill of honing in on what makes an applicant right for a role.

  • Controversial – because there are bad recruiters who employ this practice with biased or discriminatory intentions and they are often viewed as the standard and not the exception.

  • Misunderstood – because good recruiters are not looking for applicants to disqualify, they’re looking for applicants to advance.  

Now, I’m not asserting that in just 6 seconds recruiters are able to gather all of the information they need to assess an applicant’s ability to be successful in a given role.  What I am saying is that are key things that recruiters look for, which, during the 6-second scan, make them more inclined to put you in the pile that gets a full and thorough review. 

Name and contact information

Believe it or not, there are times when an applicant will leave off their full name and/or contact information.  There are very few instances in which a recruiter will spend the additional time data-mining to gather that information so they can reach the applicant, so please ensure you are discoverable. For anyone who adjusts their legal name for purposes of wanting to remain in the active candidate pool, your apprehension is understandable. Full disclosure: Yes, there are recruiters who view an applicant’s name through a lens clouded by implicit bias. But, rest assured, there are many others who don’t.

Resume heading, title, and summary

After reviewing the applicant’s name and contact information, the next place a recruiter will scan is the resume heading or title. This is the section where the applicant “introduces” themselves. The resume heading or title reveals what type of role the applicant is targeting and the summary usually gives a few highlights that invite the recruiter to move on to the next sections of the resume.

Skills summary

This section is often a list that recruiters use to see how closely the applicant’s most relevant skills mirror the desired and required qualifications as outlined in the job description. When quickly scanning this section, recruiters are taking inventory and matching how many of the top must-haves and like-to-haves the applicant possesses.

Prior experience

Specifically, recruiters are focusing on an applicant’s most recent job title, organization, and tenure during the initial 6-second scan. 

  • Job title – to see if your most recent position aligns with the role the recruiter is looking to fill.  

  • The organization – to see if your current or former employer is recognizable or a competitor, which can provide the recruiter a sense of the type of work an applicant does/did for the organization.

  • Tenure – to see if there has been upward mobility over a period of time at one organization, which can be favorable for the applicant.

Recruiters who are looking to fill specialized roles will look for additional differentiators and qualifications—such as training, certifications, and licenses that aren’t required for the role.

Read more: How to Get a Job Fast & Make Money While You Look

If you're early in your career...

For those just entering the workforce, there usually isn’t much work history, so if a job posting has education and training requirements, recruiters are expecting to see it prominently displayed on the resume. Recruiters also look for expected or completed dates for education and training programs to get a sense for when the applicant may be available to start work. Additional information that sets an early career applicant apart is work or internship experience that aligns with the position, projects completed, field of study, and extracurricular activities (especially when there was leadership).

If you're in a creative role...

While many recruiters still hold on to old “rules” about the way a resume should be formatted, applicants seeking creative roles such as graphic or web design, copywriting, and marketing are well-served by resumes that show their unique individualism and flare. Recruiters who specialize in these types of positions are not only looking for content but also for eye-catching design that gives them a sense of an applicant’s capabilities.

Read more: A Step-by-Step Guide to Formatting Your Resume

Other things recruiters want to know

Listing relevant certifications and/or professional licenses, even those that are above and beyond what is required for a particular role are differentiators that are likely to get an applicant a closer review. When positions require security clearances, recruiters are looking for the clearance level to be listed prominently, because without the appropriate level, they may not be able to move the applicant forward in the recruiting process.  

Style wise, recruiters are looking for consistency in the fonts, margins, and how the resume is organized. Length is also a consideration. It is more common that resumes are too long than too short. The purpose of the resume is to highlight the best of one’s achievements and spark interest to hear the rest of one’s story during the interview. Recruiters are reluctant to spend the time reading a resume that is four or more pages in its entirety. 

Lastly, including publications, patents, inventions, current language skills, community involvement, volunteer work, or professional organizational memberships, to name a few, are sure to get an applicant noticed and set them apart from others.

Read more: The 12 Questions You Should Be Asking Recruiters

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