Revealed: the third biggest mistake work-seeking contractors make

Contractors are typically a savvy bunch when it comes to winning work, but in a rapidly evolving market, keeping abreast of change is absolutely crucial to success, writes Matt Craven, founder of The CV & Interview Advisors.

We have identified ten common mistakes that contractors make when seeking contract work and this article will focus on mistake number three -- Failing to Optimise CVs for Recruitment Software.

When delivering our webinars, the slide I use for CV optimisation often makes reference to Arnold Schwarzenegger and his 'Terminator' films -- the ones where machines are taking over the world. Now, despite all the concerns over AI and its threat to the human race, the machines haven’t quite taken over the world yet -- although they do have a large part to play in the recruitment process. And that process, however you slice it -- and a bit like the shotgun-wielding Terminator, affects lives!

You versus ATS

A quick Google search reveals that 75% of recruiters use recruiting or applicant-tracking software and of that big chunk, an even bigger chunk -- 94% -- believe the software has improved the hiring process. So get used to it, because it’s not going anywhere fast.

When contractors apply for an opportunity, their CVs are typically viewed by an Applicant Tracking System (ATS) before they are seen by a human, and those ATSs have their own individual algorithm. This looks for certain pieces of information that is then used to shortlist the most relevant candidates. That means the machine is matching you against the spec of the contract or job before your CV is ever seen by the recruiter!

In order to optimise your CV for an ATS, it is important to correctly ‘sign-post’ your CV so that the algorithm can easily find the correct information. Here are some tactics that you can adopt in five key areas.


Use headings that are universally accepted rather than obscure. For example, Professional Summary, Key Skills and Career History are common place but Executive Profile, Relevant Expertise and Contracts Held are not. If you use the wrong headings, the ATS may not ‘parse’ your CV correctly, which will negatively impact its effectiveness.

Your expertise

Tell the ATS what you are an expert in. Often, the ATS is looking for what it thinks you are an expert in but frankly, what it finds can be very random. The idea here is to sign-post it to what you want the results to show. If you state that you are “An experienced IT Project Manager, expert in delivering multi-million-pound IT infrastructure projects within the financial services sector,” then this is what it will show the recruiter. Make sure you use the phrase “expert in”. Leaving it to chance might throw up something random such as IT Project Manager who is an expert in 22 Apple Crescent, London, W1 3XZ. Stranger things that have been thrown up by ATSs, believe me!

What are you?

Make it clear what you are, specifically. No client company I know has ever set out to hire “An experienced IT professional with experience across the entire technology stack.” End-users have something much more specific in mind. If for example, you are applying for an IT Infrastructure Business Analyst opportunity, then make sure you have put IT Infrastructure Business Analyst after your name, and also in the first line of your Professional Summary / Personal Profile.


Make sure the skills listed on the job advert or contract brief/specification are listed on your CV and that the correct keywords are listed throughout your CV. A good way to do this is to have a Key Skills section as the second section on your CV where you have between 14 and 16 skills listed. These skills should be written in passive voice and be no more than two to three words long e.g. Stakeholder Management, Budget Management, ERP Systems etc. You should also make sure that the “duties” and “responsibilities” on the job spec match the duties and responsibilities under each position/contract on your CV.


Make sure you include a postcode somewhere on your CV -- ideally in the personal details section where you would add your address (this should be at the end of the CV, not at the start). The inclusion of your postcode is vital because the ATS may have been programmed to only consider candidates within a certain radius of where the job or contract is based; if you don’t include a postcode, you may miss out on the shortlist altogether regardless of how good the rest of your CV is.

‘I’ll be back’ (on the 27th)

These tactics to help you get to grips with the ATS are as good as having Arnie on your side when trying to take down SkyNet! But if you would like more ammunition to help you achieve your mission as a freelance consultant by finding out the other nine mistakes that contractors typically make when seeking work, ContractorUK is running a webinar, hosted by us at The CV & Interview Advisors on Tuesday March 27th at 7.15pm. You can find out the details and register here:

Printer Friendly, PDF & Email

Sign up to our Weekly Newsletter

Keep up to date with everything in the world of contracting.


Contractor's Question

If you have a question about contracting please feel free to ask us!

Ask a question