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Your Resume and Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS)

Your Resume and Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS)
Your ATS-optimized resume is your best chance to “beat the bots” and land a face-to-face meeting with the decision maker who holds the key to your dream job...

If you believe the first obstacle to overcome in getting that job interview is a recruiter’s judgment, you’re not seeing the big picture. 99% of Fortune 500 companies and a growing number of small and mid-sized businesses filter all resumes through an applicant tracking system (ATS) before a hiring manager ever sees them… if they ever do. To optimize your chance at landing the interview, you should be aware of applicant tracking systems and how they work. More importantly, you should be prepared with a resume that can “beat” the ATS and be seen by a human decision maker.

An ATS is a software-driven system that streamlines recruiting and hiring activities for companies. Among other functions, the system collects and sorts thousands of resumes. When you apply for a job online, your resume typically doesn’t go directly to a recruiter or hiring manager. Instead, it is processed by the ATS. Whether or not the human recruiter ever sees your resume can depend largely on how well your resume is optimized for ATS algorithms.

Top employers hire for multiple jobs at a time and receive hundreds of resumes for any given opening. Because applying for a job online is easier than ever, many of these applicants are unqualified, yet taking a “shotgun” approach to landing an interview. Consequently, applicant tracking systems do help hiring professionals narrow their applicant pool, but top candidates tend to slip through the cracks.

If you’re applying to a large organization, chances are your resume will be filtered through an ATS. If you’re applying through any online form, you’re applying through an ATS. Even job sites like LinkedIn have their own built-in ATS.

Applicant tracking systems collect and store resumes in a database for hiring professionals to access. These resumes may be stored long after the original jobs are filled. Recruiters or hiring managers can then search and sort through the resumes in various ways, depending on the system they’re using. Some recruiters still choose to glance at every job application that comes through their ATS. In this case, most take a quick look at the applicant’s past highlights, job titles, and employers. The recruiter can determine whether they want to learn more in just a few seconds, so it’s important to make sure your top skills and qualifications are readily identifiable. Some applicant tracking systems can automatically compare your resume to the job description, ranking you on how well your resume scores in that comparison. Instead of reviewing each and every application, the recruiter can focus squarely on candidates the ATS has identified as best matches.

Another common way for recruiters to filter resumes in applicant tracking systems is by using keyword searches; that is, searching for key skills and titles. For example, if a recruiter is hiring for an Administrative Assistant position out of 400 resumes, their first step will probably be a search for “Administrative Assistant”. This will isolate candidates that have done that exact job before, while anyone whose resume does not include that exact term is out of luck.

Candidates who can predict the correct resume keywords will have the best chance of being included in a recruiter’s search results, and the best way to determine which skills and keywords to include is to follow Tip #1…

Tip #1: Carefully analyze the job description.

When you upload your resume into an APS, the recruiter won’t necessarily see the file; some systems parse the documents into a digital profile to make the data uniform and searchable, which can cause big problems for job seekers. Many ATS parsing algorithms are outdated and unintelligent, causing your resume information to get distorted or discarded altogether, which means vital keywords or details might not be imported. Imagine your most important qualification slipping through the cracks!

Modern applicant tracking systems are improving, but it is still in your best interest to create an ATS-friendly resume that can be accurately parsed by these outdated systems—just follow tips #2 through #4…

Tip #2: Keep section headings simple.

Tip #3: Use consistent formatting for your work history and dates.

Tip #4: Use a .docx or .pdf file format.

There is no universal trick to “beating” applicant tracking systems; getting past an ATS and into an interviewer’s office requires a well-written resume that is mindful of ATS algorithms as well as the people pushing the buttons. You can stay ahead of the curve by following tips #5 through #10…

Tip #5: Optimize for ATS search and ranking algorithms by matching your resume keywords to the job description.

Tip #6: Use both the long-form and acronym versions of keywords (e.g. “Master of Business Administration (MBA)” or “Search Engine Optimization (SEO)” for maximum searchability.

Tip #7: Use a chronological or hybrid resume format, avoiding the functional resume format.

Tip #8: Use a traditional resume font like Helvetica, Garamond, or Georgia.

Tip #9: Don’t use headers or footers, as this information can cause parsing errors or be lost altogether.

Tip #10: Use standard resume section headings like “Work Experience” rather than being cute or clever (“Where I’ve Been”).

We’ve covered some good tips on how to make your resume stand out among many others in an applicant tracking system; now let’s look at some mistakes to avoid.

There is a difference between optimizing your keywords and formatting for applicant tracking systems and keyword “stuffing”. In theory, you can trick ATS algorithms by stuffing your resume with keywords. Some do this by secretly adding additional keywords using “invisible” white text or by unnaturally overusing certain phrases. These tricks might help get you a better initial score in the ATS, but they’re unlikely to fool recruiters. You should always focus on crafting the best resume possible based on your actual skillset rather than risking getting blacklisted from the company.

It is also wise to always avoid using the following elements in your resume:


  • Graphics and photos

  • Icons and symbols

  • Text boxes and tables

  • Graphs

  • Underlines, horizontal lines, and long vertical lines

  • Side panels

  • Dark colors

  • Italics

  • Quotation marks

  • Hyperlinks

  • Small font sizes (less than 11 points)


While outdated applicant tracking systems are still in use at some large companies, new systems are being developed for the modern age. As employers compete for the best talent, candidate experience is becoming more of a priority. Automation and ranking systems aren’t going away; they’re just becoming more technical as recruiting software begins leveraging artificial intelligence (AI).

Your ATS-optimized resume is your best chance to “beat the bots” and land a face-to-face meeting with the decision maker who holds the key to your dream job.


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