Resumes & Cover Letters

How to Write an ATS-Friendly Resume

November 23, 2020

When you submit your resume to an employer, it often goes through an applicant tracking system that looks for specific keywords. Applicant tracking systems help employers sort through large quantities of resumes by only allowing resumes meeting certain criteria through. Creating ATS-friendly resumes is possible, however. In this article, we define applicant tracking systems, discuss what ATS-friendly resumes are and explain how to write them.

What is an ATS?

An applicant tracking system is software used by many employers to collect, sort and rank the resumes they receive. Originally, large employers used ATS technology to narrow down large applicant pools. ATS technology is more prevalent than ever now, as it aims to highlight the most qualified candidates for positions and can save time during the hiring process.

Related: 6 Universal Rules for Resume Writing

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How does an ATS work?

Applicant tracking systems collect all incoming resumes. With their help, employers target a list of specific keywords. The system categorizes each resume and ranks them according to their use of the specified keywords. Resumes with the least amount of keywords or those not formatted for an ATS are tossed away. Its duty is to identify those best fit for the position and only present those resumes to the employer. The recruiter has more time to evaluate candidates rather than skim through dozens, if not hundreds, of resumes.

The system doesn't come without faults, however. Many employers and applicants alike disprove of it, as the software may unintentionally discard a qualified candidate due to their resume's formatting. This makes it especially important for job seekers to reformat their resumes with applicant tracking systems in mind.

Related: 27 Proofreading Tips That Will Improve Your Resume

How to write a resume for ATS

The bulk of internet traffic finds its way to blog posts through search engine results. Writers and webmasters format their blogs with unique, high-ranking keywords so they appear higher in search. The closer their article gets to the top result, the higher their traffic might be. Resumes and applicant tracking systems work in the same manner. Resumes built with both the ATS and role-specific keywords in mind rank higher than others. The following steps outline how to make an ATS-friendly resume:

  1. Consider the job description
  2. Collect a list of keywords
  3. Use standard headings
  4. Avoid complex formatting
  5. Make multiple resumes

1. Consider the job description

When applying for jobs, take a more in-depth look at their job descriptions. Instead of skimming, study them thoroughly, looking at how they describe particular duties and the kind of individual they're looking for. Read the description multiple times if necessary and look for patterns or repetition.

2. Collect a list of keywords

After studying the job description, the next step involves creating a list of keywords. Start with the keywords you know by default for the role, then identify which words or phrases the job listing repeated the most within the description. Sort them by order of importance and spread them accordingly throughout your resume.

3. Use standard headings

Applicant tracking systems often import data from resumes into an online profile. When translating information, they scan for specific headings and formatting structures. Keeping the resume simple ensures that information translates appropriately. For example, headings such as Work History, Work Experience and Experience are easily identified, as they're the most common headings.

4. Avoid complex formatting

Tables, columns, headers and footers are great methods of organizing complex information on a resume. However, when an ATS translates this information, information within such complex formatting gets scattered or lost. If some of your most critical information resides in similar formatting, the ATS might miss it.

5. Make multiple resumes

Even if you're applying to all of the same positions, not all employers check for the same list of keywords. Analyze every job posting and identify its common keywords. Make a copy of your original resume and input the new posting's keywords where applicable. Creating copies and minor adjustments adds an additional step, but it can make for a more competitive application each time.

Related: How to Write a Resume Employers Will Notice

Frequently asked questions about ATS

Many job seekers don't yet fully understand the importance of applicant tracking systems. With that uncertainty comes many questions about the process, the system and how it works. The following list includes some of the most common questions regarding ATS:

  • Are there different types of applicant tracking systems?
  • Are applicant tracking systems always right?
  • Can resumes be over-optimized?
  • Are applicant tracking systems here to stay?

Are there different types of applicant tracking systems?

Due to their high demand, there are dozens if not hundreds of brands of applicant tracking systems. Each one comes with its own pros and cons, such as pricing. Some come with other integrations, such as a database that users log into. Others have unique additional benefits for better handling of candidates in specific industries.

Are applicant tracking systems always right?

This is often a challenging question to answer, but there is plenty of room for error with applicant tracking systems. For example, if employers are too strict with their keyword requirements, they may lose the vast majority of their applicants. In this case, the employer never gets to see many prime candidates. The same is true for qualified applicants who don't understand the importance of having an ATS-friendly resume.

Can resumes be over-optimized?

While optimization is good, it has its limits. Don't place keywords in odd places simply for the ATS. When a resume passes the standards set within an ATS, a recruiter or employer reads it themselves afterward. If the resume makes little sense due to keyword-stuffing, they'll toss it. Alternatively, if the reader spots deceptive tactics, they might even blacklist the applicant from their system.

Are applicant tracking systems here to stay?

With job competition on the rise in the U.S. and abroad, there's no reason for employers to turn away from ATS. Even small to mid-sized companies now see a large number of applicants for new positions. The average manager doesn't have enough time to sift through dozens of resumes, so they resort to ATS. While not every employer uses one, job applicants should do their best to adapt their resumes for the best chance of getting noticed during a competitive hiring process.