Is the 6-Second Resume Scan a Myth?

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Oct 20, 2020

I was in a sales meeting with a well-known company that was touting its latest AI tool. One of the sales people (there were several in the room) casually mentioned that recruiters only look at resumes for six seconds. I bristled at his comment and suggested that the statistic he offered did not ring true for me. 

I’m a talent acquisition professional who has led large teams and hired for vastly different industries, organizations, and position types. And it’s true that a resume may not get much attention beyond an initial evaluation for all sorts of reasons. However, I fear that this statistic has perpetuated the idea that recruiters are shallow thinkers who only look for keywords or job titles as a way to assess a candidate. And that couldn’t be further from the truth. 

The 6-Second Origin

The Ladders first conducted an eye-tracking study in 2012. Findings showed that recruiters spent six seconds scanning a resume. 

They redid the study in 2018 using a two-stage process. They focused on speed in the first stage and in the second stage, through eye-tracking technology, they focused on what recruiters paid attention to when reading a resume. They found that the time a recruiter spends on a resume increased to 7.4 seconds.

A closer review of the study’s results shows that the report is essentially a how-to guide intended to help people make their resumes easier to read. And sure enough, there emerged plenty of online resume templates to “pass” the scan. 

A simple Google search of “6 second resume scan” yielded thousands of articles that referenced this metric. Essentially, this measurement was used as clickbait, and many of the articles that I saw referenced “studies have shown” without a link or other details about those studies. Interesting, I thought. 

Also “interesting”: The majority of these articles 1) were not written by recruiters or 2) were selling something. 

One website even offered the chance to “take the 6 second challenge.” I took the challenge. What recruiter doesn’t like a challenge? It turns out that six seconds goes very quickly when trying to read and comprehend a resume. 

Meanwhile, the Ladders 2018 report does not specify the types of positions or lengths of resumes that recruiters were scanning. It also doesn’t state how many recruiters were in the study, their experience, or how many times they repeated the two-stage study to reach their conclusion. 

What Do Recruiters Think?

I posed this question in a recruiter Facebook group. There were three camps that seemed to emerge:

  1. Recruiters who took pride in evaluating resumes very quickly
  2. Recruiters who qualified that their time spent reviewing resumes was dependent on the complexity of the position
  3. Recruiters who agreed that six seconds was not enough time to make a thorough evaluation

My empirical evidence was inconclusive except to solidify further the idea that the six-second scan is not a hard metric that speaks for the talent acquisition profession. And it shouldn’t be bandied about by salespeople or well-meaning websites as a standard. 

What’s more, it damages the profession. Like many broadly consumed and lightly understood beliefs, it does more harm than good by perpetuating the idea that recruiters lack critical thinking skills or that they are just out to make a buck. 

Plus, in these days of unprecedented separations, it does little to build trust in one of the most important relationships a candidate can have because it supports the “I just need to get past the recruiter” mindset. It also fails to position the recruiter as an advocate for the candidate.

So Now What?

If it were true that recruiters will only review a resume for six seconds, would that mean they should be expected to review 10 resumes a minute? Perhaps 300 resumes in 30 minutes? I realize that this is part of the reason that an AI vendor would tout this metric.

I’m not sure if the folks at The Ladders intended to produce anything more than evidence to help people see the value of an uncluttered resume. And if a 2012 study’s results demonstrated a six-second scan and then a 2018 study increased to a 7.4-second scan, do you suppose that a 2020 study would have different results? 

I also wonder what the recruiters in the study were told. Did they think they were being assessed on how quickly they were able to size up a candidate?

The Real Deal

Recruiters are faced with time constraints, ill-defined positions, and outdated job descriptions. They are asked to review all incoming resumes and profiles, source effectively, build candidate relationships, pipeline passive candidates, and in many cases, manage the administrative duties that come along with these responsibilities.

No surprise, then, that sheer volume of resumes can sometimes cause recruiters to panic and feel that they “must” evaluate them quickly to keep from falling behind. Though of course, there are also times when a candidate’s background is clearly unsuitable for a particular job and a recruiter won’t spend much time examining its contents, regardless of the layout. 

These realities may make the idea of a six second or 7.4 second scan more believable. 

But regardless of exactly how long recruiters spend reviewing resumes, all this belies the true profession — which is that recruiters are expected to quickly produce a complete and unbiased assessment of a person’s background based on a few sheets of paper. It’s a tough assignment. And it isn’t easily accomplished in just seconds. It often requires an understanding of a broad range of industries, professions and even companies. (For example, a VP title at one company may equate to a director level position at another.) It also requires a deep understanding of the jobs they are recruiting. 

Ultimately, the six-second metric reminds me of what I call vacuum metrics. Sometimes a simple metric can be repeated often and applied in different situations based on what someone is trying to accomplish. The metric can become a talking point because it’s easy for a wide range of people to understand and for someone to recall when needed.

But it’s no more meaningful than a random number. It just sits there, void of any context or contingencies as people attach their own assumptions based on what they know or think they know about the topic. 

As an alternative, if there were a study of the average time a recruiter spends on a specific job type, I think we’d see a range of results similar to the comments in the Facebook group. If we evaluated the time an executive recruiter spends on a resume review or a recruiter who is part of the academic hiring process or a recruiter who hires for retail positions, I think that the average results would be different in each instance. 

My simple point is that the factors that determine how long a recruiter spends on a resume are as varied as resumes themselves. And it would be difficult to sum up those variations with one measurement. 

Still, if a study like the one I suggest, is conducted, I’ll volunteer.

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