Computers reading resumes & your job search in 2022

Computers reading resumes? And making decisions about your career?

Welcome to a future (now) in which computers reading resumes can shape job search success.

Around 90% of Fortune 500 companies use Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS). As do an estimated 70% of larger companies. And 20 percent of SMBs.

Still, before you go build a cabin in the woods, let’s take a look at the reality of computers reading resumes. Who else is involved in the process? And how do you impress one?

You should also check out our free resume review and downloadable resume templates at the end of this article, along with the offer of a professional, free resume rewrite from our partners at Leet Resumes.

First, for expert insight, we’ll go straight to Ladders’ Founder and CEO Marc Cenedella:

Image shows the first page of a Ladders resume template, with text examples.

Your Resume Has Four Audiences 

There’s a 23-year-old screener with a couple of years experience in HR who makes a first pass through resumes to determine if basic qualifications are met.

There’s a recruiter, who is either an outside search consultant or an internal HR employee, who reviews the screened resumes to assemble a shorter list for the boss.

There’s the hiring manager herself — while she is the decision-maker with regards to the hire, it’s best to think of her as a client of the recruiting process.

And finally, sitting alongside the entire workflow is the company’s HR computer system, called an applicant tracking system — understanding how the world’s computers read and relay your resume significantly reduces your chance of making mistakes.

The Precocious Computers That Mangle Your Life’s Work

The toughest audience for your resume is a software called ATS, short for “Applicant Tracking System”. Too often, an ATS mangles all the good work that you’ve put into a resume.

Avoid the worst outcomes by having a straightforward presentation that is heavy on getting the words right, and light on unique, quirky, or idiosyncratic formatting.

When you reflect on the pros and cons of technology in your own field, you’ll remember that it’s proven to be an amazing tool at connecting us globally, rapidly, with rich data.

You’ll also be frustrated with how often it sends the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time, or produces an outcome you were totally not expecting.

Same thing goes for the ATS technology at the core of most HR departments today. ATS’s are often criticized by HR people for being difficult to work with, and criticized by candidates who often feel lost navigating through them.

Perhaps the best way to think about an ATS and how it processes your resume is to imagine a company’s ATS as a precocious teenager assigned to re-type your entire resume into the company’s database.

The teenager wouldn’t understand what any of the words mean, might get things wrong if the structure or formatting is too complex, but would “mostly” be able to re-type accurately what they see on the page.

Therefore, crafting a resume that does not get mangled by an ATS is almost entirely about being defensive — avoiding practices, features, or formatting that could confuse the ATS / precocious teenager:

Special characters should be avoided. What’s a special character? Anything that’s in the ‘Special Characters’ tab on Microsoft Word, or ‘Insert > Special Character’ in Google Docs.

Avoid 😂 ⇒ Ω ♬ ⌘, emojis, fancy arrows, Greek lettering, musical notation, and abstruse keyboard notations.

Keep your formatting extraordinarily simple. Tabs are mostly OK so long as you don’t overdo it. But tables, sections, and any other word editor feature that adds hidden structure to your resume is bad.

Please keep it simple with your headings. Your work experience should be called ‘Work’, or ‘Work Experience’. It should not be “Things I Have Excelled and Thrived At In This Life”.

Your educational background should be titled “Education”, not “School of Hard Knocks” or “Degrees Received.” It’s important for the ATS to be able to import this data into the correct sections of the database, and if you use clever or non-standard headings, you may confuse the ATS / precocious teenager.

Only use the basic or default fonts in Google Docs and Microsoft Word. The precocious teenager might not have the fancier fonts installed on his computer, and will quickly get bored trying to find them.

Assume the ATS / precocious teenager has a short attention span and will lose all of the fancy formatting, fonts, structure, columns, and aesthetic balance you create in your resume.


Marc’s expert advice gives us some interesting food for thought.

What’s the difference between computers reading resumes, professionals working through them, and resume writers over-thinking them?

We’ll leave you with Marc’s thoughts on that, too:

In twenty years in the business, I have often heard the media, job candidates or designers gush over a clever resume design.

In that same time, I have never (ever) at any professional event, meeting, function, blog, magazine, email, newsletter, or confab, heard a recruiter or HR professional gush about a great resume format.

There is simply no advantage, ever, to a candidate having a clever, quirky, differentiated resume format.

So save yourself and the ATS precocious teenager a lot of grief and keep your resume extraordinarily simple and straightforward.

Your time and effort are better spent elsewhere.


So with that said, your FREE (computerized!) Ladders resume review awaits.

You can also download and edit one of 73 industry-specific resume templates – complete with optimized example text. Each download page also contains a unique resume cover letter example.

Or ask our partner, Leet Resumes, for your free resume rewrite (tips appreciated!)

For additional resources and support, look under “Resume” at the top of pages in your Ladders account.