How to Read an Applicant Resume: Resume Review Tips

Knowing how to quickly and thoroughly review applicant resumes is a valuable skill when hiring a new employee. Like any skill, knowing how to do a resume review — and determine whether an applicant qualifies for the next phase in the hiring process — takes practice. The more time you spend reviewing applications, the more efficient you will be at resume screening.
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Tips for reading a resume

Here are five steps for how to read a resume and determine which applicants are best qualified for your position.

1. Review the cover letter

Even if you don’t ask for a cover letter, candidates may choose to include this document to explain why they’re the best fit for the role. A cover letter can not only clarify skills and experiences but also give you an idea of a candidate’s confidence and self-awareness, their excitement about the opportunity and background research they did before applying. It can also give you a peek into their personality.

2. Perform a resume scan

An applicant resume includes a lot of information, so it’s a good idea to read through it more than once. The first time, perform a resume scan to look for any keywords or specific skills that align with the job description you developed. Check for proper grammar and spelling, which can help determine if a candidate pays attention to details and knows how to present themselves professionally.

3. Deep dive into skills and qualifications

Your second resume read-through allows you to examine specific elements more carefully. First, consider the skills and qualifications and determine whether they’re relevant to the job role you’re looking to fill. Ideally, candidates should tailor their resume to each job they apply for and highlight proficiencies that will help them excel at your company.

Compare their list of skills to the job requirements and consider any gaps. If the job role requires a skill the applicant hasn’t listed, make a note of this. If you decide to pass them through to the next phase, you can ask them about their capabilities in that area.

4. Thoroughly review previous employment

Delve into the applicant’s employment history. Consider job titles and primary duties and consider whether these experiences match what you need. Carefully review dates of employment. Make a note of any gaps in employment or short stints, and consider asking the candidate to expand or explain if you decide to move them on to the next round.

5. Look for customized messaging

When the cover letter and resume have customized messaging, it shows the applicant took time to research your company. Some applicants send out the exact same resume to every company that interests them, or they simply don’t take the time to customize their application materials for a job they really want. That extra time and research show that the applicant cares and will go the extra mile.

6. Determine whether the applicant qualifies for the next phase

After you’ve read the cover letter, performed an initial resume scan and analyzed skills, qualifications and employment history, you can then decide if you want to move the applicant on to a phone screening or interview. Once you’ve made your selections from the stack, be sure to file away other impressive resumes for later. They may be a good fit for another opportunity in the future.

These six steps will help you learn how to review resumes efficiently so you can quickly recognize which applicants are the best fit and move along to the next part of the hiring process.

Using an applicant tracking system for automatic resume screening

An applicant tracking system (ATS) offers a variety of tools to help streamline the hiring process, including the resume review stage. You can use it to manage applications, screen resumes automatically and communicate with applicants. The system works by scanning resumes for certain keywords that you enter based on what you want in an applicant.

Pros of using an ATS

The pros of using an ATS to review resumes automatically include:

  • Saving you time on screening to speed up the hiring process
  • Helping to reduce hiring discrimination because it doesn’t consider names or other factors that could create unintentional bias
  • Narrowing down the applicants to ensure they have the minimum qualifications before you manually review resumes
  • Creating a pool of potential candidates for future positions

Cons of using an ATS

There are some drawbacks of using an ATS, including:

  • Potentially missing candidates that are a good match
  • User errors, such as misspelled keywords
  • Learning curve for your staff to use it effectively
  • Technology issues, such as difficulty reading certain fonts or eliminating candidates due to formatting issues
  • Potential for candidates to keyword-stuff their resumes to make it through the screening even if they’re not qualified

When to use an ATS

Situations when an ATS can be useful include:

  • You receive hundreds of resumes for job postings
  • You don’t have time to look through all of the resumes you receive
  • You want a streamlined hiring process where everything is available in one location
  • You want analytics available to improve your hiring process
  • Your company prides itself on using technology
  • Your application process is difficult or candidate feedback indicates that it needs improvement

Applicant resume red flags

As you search resumes and review resumes you receive, watch for common applicant resume red flags. Note that these “red flags” don’t necessarily mean a candidate isn’t a good match for your role. Consider giving promising candidates the chance to explain their situation before eliminating them from the running.

Job hopping

Someone who changes jobs frequently likely won’t stay at your company long, either. An employee who leaves quickly increases your hiring costs.

Read more: Job Hoppers: What Employers Should Know (and Five Questions to Ask)


Employment gaps

When you look at resumes, check for long gaps in employment. Some applicants try to hide employment gaps by only including the year for employment dates or using a functional resume with no dates.

Regressing career

Sometimes people regress for valid reasons, such as an employee who gets laid off and takes a lower position to provide for their family. Other times it indicates a lack of growth or poor performance.


Misspelled words, grammar errors and other mistakes show a lack of both care and attention to detail. This could affect an applicant’s work performance.

Failure to follow directions

Applicants who don’t follow your application instructions either don’t care enough to pay attention or aren’t good at following instructions. Either option can hurt their performance.

FAQs about the resume review process

Here are some common questions about resume screening:

How long should I spend reading a resume?

The initial resume review shouldn’t take long. It takes less than a minute to determine if the candidate has the skills and experience you need and to spot any red flags. Go back to review the top candidates’ resumes more thoroughly. This can take as long as you need to determine which applicants you want to interview.

What would you look for first when reviewing a resume?

When you review resumes, start with obvious factors that weed out candidates, such as errors or lack of qualifications. This eliminates people who aren’t a good match and lets you focus on candidates with potential.

How can I tell if an applicant is exaggerating on their resume?

Some people are dishonest on resumes, using vague language or buzzwords with no concrete examples of their experience. Look for claims that seem unrealistic or don’t match the position, or job titles that don’t match other experience or education. Review conflicting job timelines and/or a career progression that doesn’t make sense.

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