How to optimize your resume for an applicant tracking system

As our world becomes more and more automated each day, so does the hiring process. Sure, there are still actual humans involved, but it’s imperative to learn how to optimize your resume for an applicant tracking system (ATS) in today’s competitive job market

If you’re not already familiar, an ATS is an automated tool used by hiring professionals like recruiters and hiring managers. Although every system is slightly different, they generally collect resumes and information during the application process and pull out specific keywords, phrases, and data to show which applicants are best-suited for specific positions. 

“The main goal of ATS is to make life easier for recruiters or hiring managers,” Career Branding Consultant and Executive Resume Writer, Javeria Qamer says. “When a recruiter receives hundreds and thousands of resumes, it’s not humanly possible for them to read each one carefully. With an ATS, they can sort through applicants. ATS makes searching easier or even automated, saving time while avoiding human error.”

No matter what job you want to land, when you want to stand out in a pool of applicants, it is now imperative that your resume can stand up against an ATS. 

“Corporate job postings typically receive over 250 applications. That is why 80% of large corporations are now using the ATS as part of their recruitment process — and small companies are quickly catching up,” Resume writer Jade Williams with Miss Resume explains.

 “Applicant Tracking Systems are not going away; they are becoming more popular than ever. So, it’s extremely important to be prepared.”

Why optimize for an ATS?

Applying for a job used to be a completely different process than it is today. “Before, you would get the hiring manager or human resources director’s name, fax number, and even mailing address where you could send your resume,” Paulette Piñero, Owner and Principal Consultant of LEAD Media LLC explains. “Now, you hit the ‘Apply Now’ button, and you are sent to a page where you are prompted to create an account, upload your resume, and answer questions before submitting it. Most times you are asked to write every single thing you had on your resume again even though you already uploaded the file.” 

It’s infuriating for applicants, but these extra steps typically happen when your resume is not optimized for an ATS

Additionally, when an ATS is used, it is possible that only the ones optimized for these specific systems will actually end up with human eyes on them, which in the end is what will land you an interview. “Resumes that match what the employer is looking for in terms of skills, experience, qualifications will score better on an ATS test and appear to be a better match for the job,” Caitin Proctor, a career expert at Zipjob says. “On average, 75% of resumes will not pass this test. Only the top 25% of resumes will be reviewed by an actual person, who will then decide who to interview.”

So, if you want to ease the added stress of taking the time to re-type this information and increase the odds of landing your dream job, it’s important to optimize your resume for an ATS by paying careful attention to your resume’s formatting, content, and keywords.

Formatting

Experts agree that if your resume is not properly formatted, an ATS may not actually accept the information presented in your file. “An ATS ranks applicants based on their experience and skills required for the role, and if the ATS cannot interpret your resume, it will miss important information that can position you as a top candidate,” Piñero says

If important information is included within formatting that isn’t recognized by the system, it can be to the applicant’s detriment. “Embedded charts and images, fancy font styles, and unique bullet styles will get scrambled or simply skipped over during the ATS screening process,” Quamer says.

When it comes to resume formatting, simplicity is key when considering how an ATS will analyze your resume. “Hiring managers still print resumes once they have an applicant they want to follow-up with, so following these rules will allow the ATS to provide a copy that also works for them,” Piñero says. 

Keep the following formatting tips in mind when creating your resume:

  • Use 1” margins
  • Remove headers and footers
  • Avoid tables, boxes, charts, images, text boxes 
  • Choose a plain, simple font style
  • Do not use columns 
  • Upload in .doc or .docx format
  • Include phone number, email, and your job profile URL immediately after your name

Content

One of the most important things that experts agree applicants can do in order to best optimize their resume for an ATS is to carefully examine the company’s job posting. Then, you can tailor the contents of your resume accordingly. 

When it comes to optimizing your resume for an ATS, Piñero says, “It’s all about the style and content.” She suggests that when describing previous job experience, applicants “focus on the impact that you had at your previous jobs verses describing what the role was.”

The actual words you use can also make an impact when it comes to an ATS scanning your resume for included content. Williams suggests using standard titles in lieu of creative ones — one example would be using “‘Professional Experience’ and not ‘Awesome Jobs I Held,’” she explains. “The ATS is programmed to decipher certain, standard titles and will have difficulties reading unusual titles.”

Keywords

“So, the cool thing about the ATS (and a little hint for job seekers) is that it compares the standard format of the resume to the job posting you apply to, to see if the resume is similar and the best match for the job,” Williams says. “So, by studying the job posting and looking for specific keywords and key phrases you can determine what should be on your resume.”

It is especially important to utilize keywords within areas such as the core skills and professional experience sections on your resume. Be sure to include keywords both when talking about hard skills like technical training and experience, as well as when describing soft skills like communication style and time management

“The easiest way to add keywords to your resume is to create a flexible core competencies section and tailor it for each job description,” Proctor explains. “Use your best skills within your work experience section as well, because the number of times you use key skills will likely impact how well you score on an ATS scan.”

What not to do

Now that you know how your resume should look with regard to an ATS, it’s important to note that there is also a major “don’t” when it comes to optimizing your resume for an ATS — namely, don’t try to outsmart these automated systems. 

“Do not try to cheat the ATS by pasting keywords and job description in white, repeating the keywords zillion times, or creating a ‘keywords’ section where you include words from the job advertisement,” Qamer says. As tempting as it may be to overload your resume with keywords to try to circumvent the system, it could make your application stand out in a negative way.

“All such tricks will immediately be discovered,” Qamer explains. “ATS will display all text in the same color, so even if your application gets to a human recruiter, they will see how you have tried to play with the system by adding the full text of the job description or flooded your resume with keywords; they will immediately move on to the next candidate. Through such tricks not only are you failing to prove you’re fit for the job, but you’re also showing that you’ll cheat to get ahead!”

Final tips

If you’re concerned about the time that revamping your resume to optimize it for an ATS will take, it might be helpful to consider it an investment in your future career

“As professionals continue to lose their jobs at alarming rates, companies have seen a surge in applications and ATS software use will likely increase,” Piñero says “Optimizing your resume for the job search will help you get your resume in the hands of real people, not just a software, and position you as a top candidate for the job.”

In addition to utilizing these tips for resume optimization for an ATS, you should also supplement your application efforts with other job search methods like networking and referrals. “For example, if you can get a job referral or send your resume directly to the hiring manager, you might bypass the ATS altogether,” Proctor says. 

However, even Proctor notes that when going that route, you will still want a resume that is properly optimized. “Your information will be easy to visually scan and understand, and incorporating all the necessary skills and qualifications will impress a human audience as well,” she says.