If Your Resume Isn't ATS-Friendly, It Doesn't Stand a Chance — Here's Why

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April 16, 2024 at 10:58AM UTC
If you’ve spent hours working on a job application for a position you really want, it’s heartbreaking to hear you’ve been rejected — without even getting an interview. What’s even more upsetting is considering a human didn’t even read your application. Instead, the only eyes that looked over your hours of hard labor were a robot’s — and for less than 10 seconds, at that.

What is an applicant tracking system?

According to Jobscan, over 98% of Fortune 500 Companies and many mid- to large-sized companies use applicant tracking systems (ATS) to go through applicants’ resumes quickly and “efficiently.” The system is a software the collects applications, scans them and then sorts and ranks them based on qualifications. ATS puts the resume into categories and scans it for specific keywords, attempting to weed out any applicants who are completely unqualified and rank the rest to rule out the least qualified.
The ranking system automatically rates applications to see how well they match the job description. Resumes with higher matches will get higher rankings and move to the top of the pile — where an actual human is more likely to see them. Resumes with little to no match get scrapped quickly from the pile. It’s possible that no human from the company will see these resumes, even to take a second glance.
ATS systems are rapidly growing in popularity, specifically at large companies where thousands of applications come in regularly. The system helps these companies sort through applicants faster and ensures the top picks will have experience relevant to the position.
Despite the supposed ease and efficiency of the system, leaving the first round of resume reviews to a robot can prove frustrating to applicants who don’t know how to hack the system. Luckily, creating an ATS-friendly resume is simple — and crucial for getting the job you want.

Why you need an ATS-friendly resume.

If you’ve worked hard on your resume and believe you’re a good fit for a career position, you don’t want to waste your time and destroy your dreams with simple formatting errors. While the concept of ATS can be discouraging to applicants, it’s important to beat the system if you’re hoping to get hired. Making an ATS-friendly resume ensures you’ll get past the first round of applications and to human eyes, where you’ll truly shine.

How to write an ATS-friendly resume.

Start with your word choice.

Because ATS looks for keywords, it’s important to infuse these words into your resume. What words, exactly? Your best bet is combing through the job description. Descriptions use terms to help qualify what kind of applicant they’re looking for and what skills they hope that candidate possesses. By including these terms, you’ll make it clear that you’re a good fit for the position. You’ll also be optimized for the ATS system because it functions on this word search.
Before you throw these words onto your resume, carefully consider their frequency and placement. You should incorporate them 2-3 times; any more will throw off the human who’s reading your resume once you’ve passed ATS. Instead of bunching the key terms together, separate them into different sections of your resume. In a “Skills,” “Areas of Expertise” or “Core Competencies” section, list your hard and soft skills and include one of these terms. Then, repeat the term in your relevant work experience section. Some tracking systems associate skills with the timing of your relevant experience. If you just list the term as a soft or hard skill, the system might default and read your proficiency as only six months. If you include the term in your work experience as well, however, the system will believe you’ve had that skill for as long as you’ve worked at that company. Reiterating the term in different sections of your resume therefore gives you a couple chances to demonstrate your skills and ensure the system picks up on them.

Use simple, clean formatting.

Once you know what information to include on your resume and how to word it, it’s important to format it correctly. To both beat the ATS system and impress a human reviewer, you’ll need a clean, simple design, one that’s not too minimalistic but also won’t trip up a computer.
Here, font matters. Some ATS systems have trouble reading serif fonts: fonts that have a little extra line or stroke added to them. Popular serif fonts like Times New Roman or Garamond might be the default for your documents, so be cautious and make the change to a sans serif font, like Helvetica, Arial or Geneva. It might seem like a minuscule adjustment, but changing the font might be the reason ATS is able to read your resume.
To get even smaller, make sure you use simple circular bullet points. Bulleted phrases often contain the most important information in a resume, so it’s crucial to make sure these are easily read and understood by ATS. While intricate bullet styles might jazz up your resume and really make it “pop,” the style isn’t worth a low ATS ranking.
The same goes for fancy charts, graphics and images on your resume. ATS can’t process this type of media and might simply skip over the entire section of your resume. Consider how you might portray the same information in the visual in a text format.

Review before you submit.

While you should always review application materials before submitting them, it’s important to check your resume numerous times before sending it to ATS. One great way to check is putting your resume up to an ATS test. While you probably won’t know what type of system the company uses, there are many free resume testers online. Using these tests can help you see how your resume performs in the system and what changes you might need to make before submitting.

3 ATS-friendly resume templates.

Credit: HLoom Resource Center
Credit: HLoom Resource Center
HLoom’s Resource Center provides a resume with two columns so there’s lots of space to showcase skills and achievements. The multiple sections offer a great way to diversify where you put your key terms. Finally, the light blue gives the resume a pop of color to make it pleasing to a human recruiter but still readable to ATS.
Credit: Jobscan
Credit: Jobscan
This ATS-optimized resume from Jobscan has a clear hierarchy in its presentation. Work experience and skills are in two separate sections but both below the top line, which distinguishes the information from the resume’s contact information and summary.
Credit: Resume Worded
Credit: Resume Worded
The resume from Resume Worded is great for giving contextual information about your positions. Unlike other resumes, it has space for short introductory paragraphs before the bullet point summary. These paragraphs can help provide extra insight to and detail about your relevant experience.

Final tips.

While the idea of having a robot rank your resume might not be the most pleasing, making your resume ATS friendly can ensure you’re not written off as a lesser candidate. Hacking the system takes a little extra effort, but that can go a long way if you’re hoping to get into the human hands of a recruiter.

Make your contact information a priority.

Once you’ve put in your keywords, clarified your formatting and checked your file type, make sure you remove important contact information from a default header or footer. This information can still be at the top or bottom of your resume, but make sure it’s out of the header and footer range — where many ATS systems don’t reach.

Know what to submit.

Note every company’s ATS is able to read every file type. First, check the file submission type in the application. If there’s no specification on what type of file to submit, do not submit a PDF. Many ATS systems can’t convert PDFs to readable text. Instead, submit a Word document file as a .doc or .docx to be safe.

Put personality into other aspects of your application.

Just because you need your resume to be ATS-friendly doesn’t mean your application should lose its flair. Even if it’s optional, use your cover letter as a place to be more creative and demonstrate your personality. ATS can’t read cover letters quite yet, so they’re a great place to show off the real you to a human eye.
If you still want to make your resume fun, make a second copy with the same information but add the graphics and style you want. While you shouldn’t submit this to ATS, bring a hard copy with you to the interview and wow any recruiter you meet.

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Zoë Kaplan is an English major at Wesleyan University in the class of 2020. She writes about women, theater, sports, and everything in between. Read more of Zoë’s work at www.zoëkaplan.com.

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