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Got a Minute? If So, Spend it Looking at Resumes

by
Carol Schultz
May 3, 2012, 6:33 am ET

I recently read an article suggesting that recruiters only spend six seconds reviewing a resume to determine whether or not a candidate was a fit to the job they were attempting to fill.

6 Seconds?!

My initial thought was, “How can a recruiter get enough information to determine whether or not a candidate is worth talking to in such a sparse amount of time?”

Upon further investigation into the original research by TheLadders, it occurs to me that the study is little more than an attempt to sell its resume writing services and show that recruiters have an easier time reading TheLadders profiles than LinkedIn profiles. It suggests that if a recruiter is only spending six seconds reviewing a candidate’s resume or online profile, then it better be professionally written. And it has a service that can do that for you.

The fact that the study happened over a 10-week period and only had 30 participants is of concern to me. This can’t be an accurate representation of professional recruiters; however, the results bring up some interesting points having to do with the six-second reviews that are definitely worth discussion.

First, let me provide an overview of the research.

Thirty recruiters participated in the study over a 10-week period. They investigated three areas:

  1. Did recruiters perceive and process professionally written resumes differently than resumes written by the job seekers?
  2. How long did recruiters take to review each resume?
  3. What process do recruiters use to scrutinize online profiles?

Recruiters gave professionally written resumes a 60% higher “readability” score than candidate written resumes. Professionally written resumes scored higher from an organizational and visual standpoint. Recruiters were distracted from pertinent candidate information by ads and pictures on online profiles. The researchers used “gaze tracking” technology and determined that recruiters spent nearly 80% of their time reviewing the following items:

  • Name
  • Current title/company
  • Previous title/company
  • Previous position start/end dates
  • Current position start/end dates
  • Education

After looking at these six items, “recruiters did little more than scan for keywords to match the open position…” Consequently, the rest of the resume copy had little to no impact on a recruiter’s decision to move forward or not. This was where the six-second review came in.

Additionally, the research indicated that Ladders profiles were 55% easier to read than LinkedIn profiles due to the higher levels of visual complexity on LinkedIn profiles, and 19% of time was spent looking at LinkedIn profile pictures.

The net of the research was to use professional resume writers and omit distracting visuals. In summary, use the format that TheLadders uses.

There is certainly validity to having a quality resume, and in the spirit of full disclosure I employ a resume writer for the work I do with my private clients. I don’t have the skills to write a quality resume for them so I employ a professional. That said, she writes each resume based on what the client and I decide is best and will be most effective.

Who Were These 30 Recruiters?

After reading the results I wondered who these recruiters were, whether they do retained or contingent work, whether they are corporate or third party, and what types and levels of candidates they were screening. When I was recruiting full time, the only time I spent a mere six seconds on a resume was when it was total crap, and that was few and far between.

There’s a Bee in my Bonnet

Since the six-second thing had clearly put a bee in my bonnet, I decided to do a study of my own to see what results I would get. I asked three questions that would take about five minutes in order to encourage the greatest number of responses. Here are the questions I asked:

  1. How much time do you spend reviewing each resume? Is there a period of time in which you initially look at it and then read on or not? What are you looking for when reviewing a resume (keywords, past companies, education, etc.)? Please be as specific as possible in your response.
  2. Are you a third-party recruiter, or corporate recruiter? If you are a third party, please note if you do primarily retained or contingent work.
  3. How many years have you been a recruiter? Please only include time you were directly recruiting, not managing recruiters.

In hindsight, the one question I neglected to ask was the types and levels of candidates each respondent recruits. It would have provided further insight into the question of review time. I know a good number of the respondents and will provide my assertions to this missing question.

I kept the survey open for one week and had more respondents than TheLadders survey did.

In House or Agency

Of the total number of respondents:

Corporate Recruiter — 59%

Third Party Recruiter — 41%

Of the third-parties, 90% do primarily contingent work. The other 10% do primarily retained work, which included RPOs.

I must admit that I was hoping for more responses from the retained folks I sent this to, as I think it would have provided more comprehensive results.

Nearly 41% of respondents have greater than 15 years’ experience, and 70% have greater than 10 years’ experience recruiting.

The table at right compares the percentage of respondents in each “years of experience” category:

And below that table, is a look at the time spent in resume review (click to enlarge any of these).

Quick Decisions on Fit

There were some commonalities for both corporate and third-party recruiters. The more recruiting experience a recruiter had, the more time they tended to spend in the initial review. The only exception to this were corporate recruiters with 3-5 years experience; they spend less time in review than corporate recruiters with <3 years experience. There were exceptions on each end of the spectrum for both types of recruiters that skewed the data a bit, but I did not exclude it. For example, in all but one experience category for corporate recruiters, there was one respondent who reviewed resumes for less than 10 seconds.

The most interesting finding was that corporate recruiters consistently spend less time in resume review. Given this information, I will assert that corporate recruiters, by and large, have a much greater number of open requisitions they work on concurrently than third parties; consequently, they don’t take as much time reviewing resumes because they don’t have the time. It’s also likely that they are trained to look for certain skills for their companies. This theory also holds true with third-parties. I know some of the respondents spending the smallest amount of time in resume review and they are reviewing lower level candidates. They can determine “fit” in a small amount of time. Those who generally spend more time in review are looking for more complex qualities, skills, and abilities, which take a bit more time.

3-Second Scan

My assertions were confirmed by the feedback I received. Here are some examples:

“I wish I had more time to go over each resume but I can get 100s in a day sometimes.”

“ … very specific requirements and if they have not been this type of admin before, they are disqualified.”

“I am recruiting for 15 top priority openings, so I have to be as speedy as possible…”

“If it has the right buzzwords in the first summary paragraph I can say in three seconds I’ll decide to continue reading.”

“In six seconds I’m able to scan for companies, position, education, and keywords.”

“I look for education, keywords and past companies.”

“When I am reviewing a resume I am scanning for keywords, education, minimum requirements, preferred requirements, and dates of service.”

“I look for key experience and education upon first review of resumes.”

“I review current position and if it is a match of skills, I continue looking at past work history to see how many changes they have made in their career.”

“I look for relevant buzzwords, relevant companies to my current searches and most of all — very specific accomplishments.”

“I pay no attention to long lists of keywords or functional paragraphs at the top of the resume that are not in context of company.”

“I look at companies listed, are they known, Tier 1, etc. I typically pass on a resume with no tier 1 experience.”

“Keywords are CRITICAL.”

It is clear from these responses that the common denominators are keywords, education, companies, and skills. These comments confirm what TheLadders’ study indicates: 80% of time is spent on these items. These qualities are important, but I have to wonder if this isn’t limiting/excluding quality candidates who may not have the “right” words on their resumes. What if a candidate has worked for a company that is a great match but the recruiter reading it isn’t familiar with the company? Will it get discarded because it doesn’t have the “right” companies on it?

Ultimately, this is a far more complex subject (there’s just not time or space here) and it loops back to the processes that companies have in place to attract, recruit, and retain talent. Too many companies merely look to duplicate skills and abilities of their successful employees without looking at the common denominators of all their people, which includes cultural fit. There is no clear alignment between talent strategy and business strategy. Clear alignment and a talent process that supports it opens a window into what companies truly need to be looking for. If you are committed to making a difference at your company and with your clients, take the time to talk to your decision-makers and offer to help them do this. It will increase revenue for you and them in the long run. 

Got a Minute?

Given my results, I now feel more skeptical of the research done by The Ladders as well as its validity; however, in case there are great numbers of recruiters out there spending an average of six seconds to determine candidate fit, I’d like to request that you commit to more time. There may be candidates who could be perfect for you who haven’t gotten a resume professionally prepared. Make an attempt to read between the lines. Candidates are far more than just a resume. Think of how you’d want to be viewed. Take an extra minute or two.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  1. Estella Writecress

    Really great analysis Carol and appreciate you took it upon yourself to investigate the “6 seconds” assumption. This has been the root of a lot of tension recently in my opinion on the topic of working with a recruiter or applying for jobs as a whole.

    Similar to others, we are inundated with resumes daily. Each resume we receive is reviewed by one of our recruiters and scanned for key pieces of information – Bachelors Degree, Experience in the Finance Industry, Job Continuity / No Gaps and accomplishments not tasks. Because of the volume, we have to have a system to filter through them to find what you are looking for. If we had more time in the day, we would love to spend more time with each candidate, ask questions to learn more to see if they are a right fit. And if they arent a right fit, if we had all the time in the world we would help them improve their resume so they do not get bypassed by the next recruiter or hiring manager.

    You also mentioned something very interesting toward the end, “Too many companies merely look to duplicate skills and abilities of their successful employees without looking at the common denominators of all their people, which includes cultural fit.” This concept of ‘cultural fit’ is extremely important especially if you are a 3rd part recruiter. After 25 years in the industry working with some of the top banks in NYC, we have found that culture is key. We know what certain banks look for and what their true needs are when trying to fill a position. These needs are often not in the job description so it is the recruiters job, our job, to read between the lines and deliver the right candidate. We’d love to learn more about how to improve this process and apply it to the resume review of sourcing candidates.

    Wall Street Services
    Recruiting Financial Consultants for Top NYC Investment Banks for Over 25 Years
    http://www.wallstreetservices.com

  2. Dave Rosewall

    There is one other difference between corporate and third party recruiters that’s worth mentioning. Corporate recruiters, because of the high volume of openings and resumes, need to focus on fit for the particular job for which the candidate has applied. Thus, the parameters are tighter and it’s easier to determine quickly that the candidate does not meet the basic requirements of the job. (Still no excuse for simply scanning for keywords, of course.)

    TPR’s, on the other hand, are more likely to be checking a resume to see if the candidate might be a fit for any number of positions that their firm might be working on currently or in the future. Hence, they’ll dig a little deeper. (And, of course, a good corporate recruiter will be doing the same.)

    Broad-brush generalization, I know, but this might help to explain the 9% shorter time spent by corporate recruiters.

  3. Van Treadaway

    Interesting article. I’m a retained recruiter, and have been for over 20 years and generally recruit for professional, managerial, and executive roles. I can safely say that it only takes me 6 seconds reviewing a resume to decide if I need to spend more time reviewing the resume, regardless of who prepared the resume, or whether it’s in Word or on LinkedIn. It is very easy, and quick, to separate the wheat from the chaff. To learn more requires more attention to the detail. But I don’t want more detail on chaff. Only on the wheat. Make sense?

  4. Rene Beaulieu

    For what it’s worth this is my experiment : In july 2011 I put my resume in web form with DoYouBuzz ant had it tracked by Google Analytics. Here are some numbers. My resume has been seen 888 times by 702 different people. The average time spent on my resume is one minute and 48 seconds. It has been seen in 15 different contrys. These are not all HR specialists so a broad range of people have taken a short period of time to lokk at a 1 page resume. If you want to try to see how long it takes to look at my resume this is the web site : http://www.rene-beaulieu.com

  5. Darielle Pettem

    Great article, thank you. I agree with you – good candidates can have poor resumes. As a contingency high tech recruiter, I try to look past a poor resume but balance it with the fact I have to focus on candidates who have the skills our clients require. So there has to be something on the resume that grabs me – a rare skill set or working at companies I know hire skilled / great people.

    I have had success helping candidates improve their resume before we represent them to our clients. I do not do their resume for them. Not just because I don’t have the time but also because their response and willingness to rework their resume is also a decision maker on whether I want to partner with them on their job search.

    I have been in recruitment for 20 years – about 6 years as an inhouse recruiter and the rest as an external recruiter. I would say I spend about 10 seconds on a resume, doing the quick scan for obvious knock out factors (and about 90% of resumes are candidates I can’t work with). If something grabs me, I will then spend a couple minutes looking deeper and deciding if I should move forward.

    Balancing speed and quality is the ongoing challenge on my desk. Finding great candidates (regardless of how their resume looks initially) is the core of my job and when I do, it makes all the steps to get there very worth it.

  6. Ken Peck

    I like this article because it focuses on a single simple issue over the complete spectrum of recruiters and clearly identifies how each group performs this very common task of reading a resume. As a vendor it reinforces my theory that fast and intelligent parsing of resumes to enhance the performance of recruiters.

  7. Bree J

    @Van Treadaway – You are spot on. That is exactly what I find – a resume will clearly tell me whether a candidate is who we are looking for or not. In terms of reading resumes, the executive end of the spectrum makes it much easier (though there are always exceptions). In fact, we often don’t need a resume to know that someone is worth targeting. They already have enough of a public presence to be recognised for their achievements in the relevant industry/market sector.

  8. Linda Hamilton

    You bring up many points about good resume writing and how recruiters or employers determine whether someone is worthy of an interview.

    As a professional resume writer, I’ve been aware of the “6-10 second rule” for over 25 years. I also understand why it’s done and how. When writing a resume, I make every effort to create a fact-based, bulleted portrait that gives the reviewer/recruiter an informed outline of a candidate’s value add and contribution to potential employers.

    While it sounds like the 6-10 second rule is unwarranted, even I’ve done it during job fairs when providing free resume reviews. Well written resumes provide enough pertinent info that a 6-10 second scan is feasible.

    Perhaps the missing point within the 6-10 second scan survey is how well written is the resume? TheLadders is not the typical professional resume writer who takes care to write a focused and accurate portrait of a candidate’s qualities and accomplishments. They look good and sound great, but many miss the mark for the price paid. That’s why so many professional resume writers take time to talk with candidates to retrain them on what’s needed.

    When resumes are written right and focused, a 6-10 second scan can reap tons of pertinent information lending to a recruiter’s choice to schedule an interview. Together they work well to serve both recruiter and candidate.

  9. Carol Schultz

    @Estella: Thanks for your comments. One thing your wrote, however, raises a bit of concern. You say resumes are scanned for, “…Job Continuity / No Gaps…” Does this mean if you have a candidate with any sort of gap in a resume you throw the candidate out?

    @Dave: Great points as well.

    @Van: So we don’t have to assume, please distinguish what you consider wheat and chaff.

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