An Applicant Tracking System usually referred to as an ATS, is a technology used by many employers to automate and streamline their hiring process. Throughout your job search, you will likely encounter several applications that use an Applicant Tracking System to screen candidates based on the keywords they use.
These systems are quickly becoming the primary way that large companies find qualified candidates online.
This means that job seekers are no longer creating CVs for human eyes alone. Before your CV is seen by any hiring managers it must first pass the initial ATS screening.
Fortunately, you can easily beat applicant tracking systems with a bit of simple optimization. To do this, you will need the right format, the right keywords, and the right strategy for your CV. But before we get there, we’re going to take you through the basics.
What is an Applicant Tracking System?
Applicant tracking systems are software that automate the hiring process. They screen resumes and candidates automatically, making the assessment of new candidates faster and more efficient.
That means scanning resumes for important keywords and qualifications. The general goal is to narrow the applicant pool so that hiring managers can meet the “best” applicants based on a predetermined set of criteria.
ATS software removes the need for any human involvement in the early stages of the hiring process. Candidates provide their CV and cover letter, in some cases answer a questionnaire, and the ATS reads and sorts each application and compares it to the posted job requirements.
After parsing all applications, the ATS selects the applications that best suit the job description. The applications that best match the job description are chosen by the ATS and given to the hiring manager to review. This is when successful applications are finally seen by human eyes, well after most candidates have been rejected. Unless your application is one of the few chosen by the system, your CV will never be seen by a real person.
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To applicants, this automated system may seem ruthless, casting away applications without a thought for the candidate behind the CV. For employers, however, the utility of these systems supersedes their inhumanity.
An ATS can parse hundreds of applications faster than even a team of humans. When a job opening is going to receive hundreds of applications, it only makes sense to automate the selection process. However, there are ways to get past it.
Use keywords customized for the job
The aspect of your CV that the ATS is most interested in is the keywords. The main function of an ATS is to read your CV and compare its content to the relevant job description, looking for the best match. This means that your CV cannot be one-size-fits all; it must be tailored for each position you apply to. Read the job posting carefully and use the same language to describe your skills and experience.
This includes your job title – different companies will have different names for similar roles, so it is fine to adjust your own job title accordingly (but remember: don’t lie).
This does not mean, however, that you should stuff your CV full of the same keyword over and over, or create hidden keywords in an invisible font. The ATS knows when you are trying to fool it. Instead, be subtle with your resume keywords. “Sprinkle them throughout your resume,” advises Big Interview’s Pamela Skillings.
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A good place for keywords is a skills section, where you list your core competencies or abilities. Using the main phrases in bullet points is an excellent way to make sure you are using all of the right keywords in a way that fits in the CV organically and is easy for ATS software to read.
An ATS application also gives you the opportunity to be less ruthless in editing your resume. Because the ATS is an untiring robot instead of an already-bored hiring manager, your resume can be as long as it needs to be as long as the right keywords are there.
Use standard section headings
Applicant Tracking Systems use headings to navigate your CV so that the information in each section can be correctly parsed and understood. For this reason, take care to use simple headings that the ATS will recognize.
Make the parser’s job as easy as you can by using the standard set of resume headings. According to Skillings, the ATS will sort your content into these four categories:
- Contact Information
- Work Experience
So be sure to use these titles for the section headings of your CV. Don’t get too crazy – just call your work experience “work experience” and you education “education”.
Don’t let your CV get too fancy
Keep it simple
It is important not to confuse the Applicant Tracking System. The ATS must be able to navigate your CV easily, without getting tripped up on any complex formatting elements. Unfortunately, certain formatting tricks that look great to a human eye will confuse an ATS.
However much it may hurt to get rid of the graphical details you’ve added to your CV, anything that might create a problem for the parser must go, even perhaps, headers and footers.
Of course, the CV you create for ATS applications doesn’t have to be your only CV. In fact, it shouldn’t be. Any time you know your CV will be seen by a person, not a robot, feel free to send your more stylish resume, with all the graphics and images befitting the company and position you are applying to.
Check your spelling and grammar
Of course, this advice applies to all CVs, but it bears repeating in the context of an ATS application. A typical employer or hiring manager will be fully prepared to throw out any CV with a spelling mistake, but with an ATS, your CV won’t even get that far. Where a human can at least glean your meaning from a misspelled word, an ATS won’t know what you’re talking about.
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The ATS is looking for matching keywords and relevant headings, so a misspelled word won’t register as a match, even if you are perfect for the job. A little proofreading can be the difference between instant rejection and a successful application.
Use full acronyms and titles
Your ATS-friendly resume must be as easy to understand as possible. This means that you shouldn’t take any chances with acronyms. An ATS won’t necessarily know the difference between the full title of a company and its acronym form.
To be safe, include both the acronym and the full title in your CV. This includes everything from titles and companies to industry lingo.
Apply, even if you might not be qualified
The thought of unerring machines reading your CV may cause you to think that your CV must be a 100% match with the job description to apply, but this is not the case. Like with any job application, the ATS is looking for the best match, and the best match is almost never 100%.
Just because you aren’t the perfect match doesn’t mean you aren’t the best possible match at this particular moment. As long as you are a dedicated and enthusiastic learner you can still be a great employee, even if you don’t have all of the recommended professional experience.
Follow up with the employer
Don’t let the robots cause you to forget your own humanity. Just because the employer has decided to use automation to streamline their candidate search doesn’t mean you have to act like an automaton yourself. Finding a way to show your enthusiasm and personality can leave a lasting impression.
Even if you can’t contact the hirer directly, reaching out to someone within the organization could lead to your application getting a second look. Use your network to send a note and make it clear that you are excited about this job. If you succeed in make an impression this way, the employer may make a point of finding your application in the ATS and giving it a look.
Does job searching sometimes feel like you’re flinging resumes and cover letters into a black hole? You may be wondering if your applications are being read at all.
Perhaps you’ve heard that computerized resume scanners reject applications before they even make it into human hands. And yes—at many companies that receive a high volume of applications, that’s true.
The internet has completely transformed the job searching landscape. Long gone are the days when you’d “pound the pavement” or “go in and ask to speak to a manager” for all but the smallest local businesses. Instead, you apply online—which is a double-edged sword for everyone involved. Because you don’t have to physically fill out and deliver an application or send out resumes and cover letters via snail mail anymore, you can apply to a lot more jobs. But so can everybody. This means that an open position can easily get far more applications than companies have the resources to read.
Just ask Muse Career Coach Yolanda M. Owens, Founder of CareerSensei Consulting, who has more than 20 years of recruiting experience in a range of industries, including healthcare, tech, and financial services. When she was a corporate recruiter, she would post a job opening and get back, she says, “over 300 applications for an entry-level position within a week.” She was generally recruiting for between 15 and 20 roles at a time, meaning that she might have 6,000 applicants to track at once!
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So hiring managers and recruiters like Owens frequently use an applicant tracking system (ATS)—software that helps them organize job applications and ensure none fall through the cracks. If you’ve applied to a job any time since 2008, your application has probably passed through an ATS. Over 98% of Fortune 500 companies use an ATS of some kind, according to research conducted by Jobscan. Any time you apply for a job through an online form or portal, your application is almost certainly going into an ATS.
But an ATS does more than just track applications—it can also act as a filter, parsing every resume submitted and forwarding only the most relevant, qualified job seekers to a hiring manager or recruiter. That’s the resume-scanning technology you’ve probably heard about.
Luckily, getting past the ATS is a lot easier than you might think. Follow these dos and don’ts to create an ATS-friendly resume that’ll sail right through—and impress the hiring manager, too.
1. Do Apply Only to Roles You’re Qualified For
ATSs get a bad rap as the “robots” standing between you and your new job, and when you hear that Owens read only 25% of the applications she received for most postings, it might reinforce that impression.
But the reason she looked at such a small percentage of applications? Most candidates were not qualified for the job she was filling. And some were completely irrelevant. “If I’m looking at an entry-level [accounting] position and seeing someone who is a dentist or a VP,” Owens says, it’s totally fair for the ATS to discard those.
So first and foremost, make sure you’re truly qualified for the roles you’re applying to. This doesn’t mean you have to hit every single job qualification or apply to a job only if you have the traditional background for it. Owens says she was always “trying to cast a wide net and not exclude too many factors to pass up a candidate who might not be traditional”— career changers looking for an entry point into a new field, for example, or folks who had impressive transferable skills. But if you don’t have the core skills needed to perform a job, you’re better off not wasting your time or a recruiter’s.
2. Don’t Apply to Tons of Jobs at the Same Company
An applicant tracking system also allows recruiters to see all the roles you’ve applied to at their company. Owens often noticed the same person applying to every single opening the company or one of its departments had. When you do this, a recruiter can’t tell what you’re actually interested in or if you’re self-aware about your abilities.
If a company has two very similar roles open, absolutely apply to both. Or if you have a wide range of skills and interests and would be equally happy in two very different roles, then you can apply to both, though you should definitely tailor or target each resume you submit to the specific job.
But you generally shouldn’t be applying to both an entry-level position and a director-level position, or a sales position and a video-editing position. And you definitely shouldn’t be applying to every opening a company has. That just shows you haven’t taken the time to consider what the right role for you is—and a recruiter isn’t likely to take the time to do it for you.
3. Do Include the Right Keywords
At its core, what any applicant tracking system is programmed to do when it “reads” a resume is the same as what a person would do: It’s scanning for key pieces of information to find out whether or not you’re a match for a job opening. “ATS algorithms aren’t that different from the human algorithms, we’re all kind of skimming for the same things,” says Jon Shields, Marketing Manager at Jobscan. So when it comes to writing a resume that can make it past an ATS, you want to make sure that key information is there and that it’s easy to find.
One of the ways the ATS narrows an applicant pool is by searching for specific keywords. It’s like a Google search on a much smaller scale.
The recruiter or hiring manager can decide which keywords to search for—usually whatever skills, qualifications, experience, or qualities are most important for performing the job. For entry-level roles, that might mean certain majors, whereas for a tech position, it might be certain coding languages.
So if you want to make it past the ATS, you’ll need to include those important keywords on your resume. Hint: Look for the hard skills that come up more than once in a posting and are mentioned near the top of the requirements and job duties. Hard skills include types of software, methodologies, spoken languages, and other abilities that are easier to quantify. (The most important keyword could even be the job title itself!)
Depending on your industry, certain degrees and certifications might also be important keywords. Particularly in fields like nursing and teaching where state licenses are necessary, employers are going to want to know at a glance that you’re legally allowed to do the job you’re applying for.
If you’re having trouble identifying the important keywords in a job description as you craft an ATS-friendly resume, there are tools online (like Jobscan, Resume Worded’s Targeted Resume or SkillSyncer) that can help you.
Note: In some cases, an ATS scanning for keywords will only recognize and count exact matches. So if you have the correct experience, but you wrote it using language that’s different than what the system is looking for, you might not come up as one of the most qualified applicants. For example, if you write that you’re an “LSW” but the ATS is checking for “Licensed Social Worker,” it might drop your resume. (To be safe, write out the full name, then put the abbreviation in parentheses.) Or if you wrote that you’re “an Excel expert,” but the ATS is searching for someone who has “experience with spreadsheets,” your resume might never get to the hiring manager. When in doubt, match your phrasing to what’s in the job description, as that’s likely to be what the ATS is looking for.
4. Do Put Your Keywords in Context
Applicant tracking systems can recognize that a key skill or experience is present. But interpreting the strength and value of that experience is still for people to do. And humans want to see how you used your skills.
It’s obvious to a recruiter when you’ve just worked in a keyword because it was in the posting, without tying it to a specific personal achievement—and it doesn’t win you any points. “Instead of focusing on regurgitating a job description, focus on your accomplishments,” Owens says.
Plus, remember that you won’t be the only one adding those important keywords to your resume. “If [you’re] all using the same job descriptions and the same buzzwords, what’s going to make you stand out from the crowd?” Owens asks. Answer: your accomplishments, which are unique to you.
When describing your current and past positions, “ensure your bullet points are actually achievements, and use numbers and metrics to highlight them,” says Rohan Mahtani, Founder of Resume Worded. Instead of just telling recruiters and hiring managers that you have a skill, this will show them how you’ve used it and what the results were.
5. Don’t Try to Trick the ATS
ATSs have brought up a whole new host of problems with applicants “trying to cheat the system,” Owens says. You might have come across advice about how to tweak your resume to fool an applicant tracking system—by pasting keywords in white, pasting the entire job description in white, repeating the keywords as many times as possible, or adding a section labeled “keywords” where you stick various words from the job description.
Don’t do any of this!
Any tricks that have to do with pasting keywords in white will immediately be discovered because the ATS will display all text in the same color on the other end. So even if this gets your application flagged to a human recruiter, they’ll see that you added the full text of the job description or just wrote “sales sales sales sales” somewhere and move onto the next candidate as quickly as they can. Not only are you failing to prove you’re qualified for the job, but you’re also showing that you’ll cheat to get ahead!
If you were considering adding a “keyword” section, remember that it lacks any context. If you can’t also speak to your experience with the skill, it probably doesn’t belong on your resume, and if this is true of one of the main keywords, this isn’t the job for you. What you can do, however, is include a keyword-rich resume summary—not an objective statement—that concisely puts your skills in context at the top of your document.
You also want to be careful you’re not just stuffing your resume full of keywords. “You can use a keyword as much as you like so long as it’s used in [the] correct context that makes it relevant to the job description,” says Nick Francioso, an Army veteran who mentors other veterans during career transitions and the founder of resume optimization tool SkillSyncer. But if you just cram in random keywords all over the place, you might make it past a resume scanner only to irritate a recruiter or hiring manager with a resume full of nonsense.
6. Do Choose the Right File Type
In the great resume file-type debate, there are only two real contenders: docx vs .pdf. While PDFs are best at keeping your format intact overall, the .docx format is the most accurately parsed by ATSs. So if you want to get past the ATS, use a .docx file. But also follow directions (if the listing asks for a certain file type, give it to them!) and take the posting’s word for it (if a posting says a PDF is OK, then it’s OK).
And if you’re considering using an online resume builder, first check what file type it spits out—Mahtani cautions that some online resume builders will generate your resume as an image (.jpg or .png, for example).
Pro tip: If you don’t have Microsoft Word or another program that can convert your resume to .docx or .pdf, you can use Google Docs to create your resume, then download it in either format for free.
7. Do Make Your Resume Easy to Scan (by Robots and Humans)
In addition to making sure that your resume has the right content for an applicant tracking system, you also need to make sure the ATS can make sense of that information and deliver it to the person on the other end in a readable form.
Fortunately, ATS-friendly resume formatting is very similar to recruiter-friendly resume formatting. Like a human, the ATS will read from left to right and top to bottom, so keep that in mind as you format. For example, your name and contact information should all be at the top, and your work history should start with your most recent or current position. There should be “no surprises about where info is supposed to be,” Shields says.
Among the three common resume formats you can choose from—chronological, combination, and functional—ATSs are programmed to prefer the first two. Recruiters also prefer chronological and combination formats (starting to notice a theme?). “For me, it’s more about storytelling to demonstrate a person’s professional progression,” Owens says. That story is harder to see with a functional resume, which can confuse applicant tracking systems, too. Without a clear work history to draw from, the software doesn’t know how to sort different sections of text.
“Ultimately recruiters just want to find the info they’re looking for as quickly as possible,” Shields says. So making a resume ATS friendly will actually help your resume be more readable to recruiters as well.
8. Don’t Include Too Much Fancy Formatting
It may pain you to hear this, but you likely need to get rid of that expensive resume template or heavily designed custom resume. “If you speak to experienced hiring managers [and] recruiters, they’ll tell you that creative [or] fancy resumes are not only harder for [an] ATS to read, but also harder for them to read!” says Mahtani.
In order to scan your resume for relevant keywords most ATSs will convert the document to a text-only file. So at best, any fancy formatting will be lost. At worst, the ATS won’t be able to pull out the important information and so a person may never lay eyes on your nice designs—or read about the experience and skills that actually qualify you for the job.
When designing a resume to go through an ATS, avoid:
- Text boxes
- Images: In the U.S., your resume should never include your photo.
- Graphics, graphs, or other visuals
- Columns: Since ATSs are programmed to read left to right, some will read columns straight across rather than reading column one top to bottom and then starting column two at the top.
- Headers and footers: Information in the header and footer sometimes gets dropped by the ATS completely. Make sure all text is within the document body.
- Uncommon section headings: Stick to conventional labels like “Education,” “Work Experience,” and “Technical Skills,” so the ATS knows how to sort your information. This is not the place to get creative with something like “Where I’ve Made an Impact.”
- Hyperlinks on important words: Some systems will display only the URL and drop the words you linked from, so don’t link from anything important (like your job title or an accomplishment). Instead, paste in the URL itself or link out from a word like “website” or “portfolio.”
- Less common fonts: Stick to a universal font like Arial, Helvetica, Times New Roman, Garamond, Georgia, or Cambria. Avoid fonts you need to download, which the ATS may have trouble parsing.
Here are some elements you can use without tripping up an ATS:
- Underline: But stick to using underlines in headings and for URLs, Shields says. In general, people have been trained to see any underline within sentences as links.
- Colors: Just know that the ATS will return all text in the same color, so make sure your color choices aren’t vital to understanding the text of your resume.
- Bullets: Bullets are an important component of any resume, but stick to the standard circle- or square-shaped ones. Anything else could get messy.
Still not convinced that you should ditch your fancy resume? To show how formatting can trip up an ATS, we created a resume with many of the “forbidden” design elements—including columns, separate text boxes for the job seeker’s name and contact information, a table, icons, and text in the header—and used it to apply to a job at The Muse. The resume contains all the keywords found in the job posting, and since Victoria Harris is a fictional person, she hits every single requirement, making her an ideal candidate for the job.