How To Write an ATS-Friendly Resume

Jamie Birt

Updated July 7, 2022

Published February 25, 2020

Jamie Birt is a career coach with 5+ years of experience helping job seekers navigate the job search through one-to-one coaching, webinars and events. She’s motivated by the mission to help people find fulfillment and belonging in their careers.

When you submit your resume to an employer, it often goes through an applicant tracking system (ATS) that automatically scans it for specific keywords. These ATS resume scanners help employers sort through large quantities of resumes to identify the most relevant applicants.

In this article, we explain what applicant tracking systems are and how they work and show you how to create a resume that aligns with their filters to help you closer to being selected for a position.

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What is an ATS?

An applicant tracking system is recruitment software often used by employers to collect, sort and rank the resumes they receive. According to the Society for Human Management, when the first ATS resume scanner launched in the 1990s, it immediately revolutionized the industry.

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 save organizations time during the hiring process.

How does ATS work?

Applicant tracking systems use targeted keywords specified by the employer to sort through incoming resumes for a position. The system categorizes each resume and ranks them according to their use of the specified keywords.

Resumes with the least amount of applicable keywords or those not formatted for an ATS are often removed from consideration. If your resume does get selected during this process, a recruiter or hiring manager will likely move you to the next stage in hiring. Because there are fewer resumes at this stage, hiring managers often have more time to review each one carefully.

Related: 10 Best Skills To Include on a Resume (With Examples)

How to write a resume for ATS

Here’s how to write a resume optimized for ATS:

1. Consider the job description

When applying for jobs, analyze the job description. Study it carefully and note how it describes particular duties and skill sets and characteristics of their ideal candidate. Read the description multiple times if necessary and look for patterns or repetition.

2. Collect a list of keywords

Next, create a list of keywords. Start with the keywords listed in the job description, then identify which words or phrases the job listing repeated the most within the description. Sort them by order of importance and use 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 your 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 can be effective methods of organizing complex information on a resume. However, when an ATS translates this information, information within such complex formatting can get 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 then optimize it with the new posting's keywords where applicable. Creating copies and minor adjustments to your resume adds an additional step, but it can make for a more competitive application each time.

Related: Top Resume Formats: Tips and Examples of 3 Common Resumes

Frequently asked questions about ATS

Here are answers to common questions you might have about ATS:

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 today. 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 room for error with ATS resume scanners. For example, if employers are too strict with their keyword requirements, they may lose the vast majority of their applicants. 

Can resumes be over-optimized?

While adding keywords to your resume can be effective, it’s important to know how to use them. For example, consider keyword placement according to both ATS and user experience. For example, you might add keywords throughout your resume to catch the ATS filter, but when it passes to the recruiter or hiring manager, those same keywords might be nonsensical based on where you added them.

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