How To Format Your Resume For Applicant Tracking Systems

Format Your Resume For Applicant Tracking Systems

How To Format Your Resume For Applicant Tracking Systems

Have you heard of ATS? Probably not, but you really need to know what it is and how it effects your chances of getting a job. In this article, you will learn how to format your resume for applicant tracking systems.

An applicant tracking system or ATS for short is a system that the human resource department uses to help select the best, most adequate resumes for a specific position. On a typical job, (let’s use a marketing analyst job at GE for example), they will probably receive several hundred resumes for the position. If it is a position that is in higher demand, they might get 1k or more (I’m being conservative)! This makes it very hard for the HR department to read and scan through each individual resume. That is why an ATS can save human resources so much time.

The Problem: One of the drawbacks to using an ATS (at least from a candidate perspective) is that 75% of resumes don’t make it past the ATS. It is a binary system – or maybe better put, “a gatekeeper” that says “yes” or “no”. Unfortunately, many resumes are not adapted to follow formatting nor have content relevant to the job description, so they are deemed irrelevant and never seen by a “physical person/recruiter”.

Am I still under consideration for the job

If you are lucky enough to have your resume get past the ATS, you can count on the recruiter spending close to 6 seconds reviewing it. Yes, you read that right – six seconds. This is called the six second test. If your resume seems relevant, you will probably be contacted and invited to an in-person interview, Skype interview or phone call. So far you can see the challenge you are up against: the gatekeeper and then a mega fast reader. So, the question remains, “How can you format your resume for applicant tracking systems?”

Does my resume pass the 6 second test?

Not All ATS Are The Same

As you learn how to format your resume for the applicant tracking systems, one thing you will quickly realize is they are not all the same. Some are much better than others. As you start to apply on sites, you will realize which sites use good ATS’ and which have clunky ones that waste your time. Here are some things to look for in a well-thought out, effective, user-friendly ATS.

Identify via name or header on page: A good ATS will quickly parse your resume and fill in some of the basic information like your name, phone number, address etc. Whatever was up in the header will be parsed and added into the respective fields on the page, thus saving you time.

Single page submit: My favorite. You shouldn’t have to go to 12 pages adding your info in a thousand different fields. Such ATS’ are clunky and do not consider the user experience for the candidate. Great ATS’ are able to collect the necessary information on a single page and have that magic submit button at the bottom. Fast, easy, and effective!

apply now

Documents are easy to attach: Have you ever noticed that there are separate pages on a site: one to add your resume, another page for your cover letter, then another page for your additional attachments. ATS’ that use these once again have not thought of the candidate user-experience because these take a long time to fill out. A good ATS will allow you to easily upload your info all in one spot with no surprises.

resume upload

Add social profiles: One nice addition of some of the newer ATS’ is that they allow you to add your social profiles. If your Linkedin profile is complete, you can extract your professional profile and add it to the fields. You can also just connect your profiles to make it easy for recruiters to find out more about you. They do this anyway, but this just makes things easier. If you have a great profile, why not make it easier to show off?

social media

Basic questions: Some ATS’ add a few basic questions at the bottom of the form for you to answer. This is normally on the single page form. This is once again a nice addition and easy to fill out.


How ATS Work

The basic concept of an ATS is to electronically handle recruitment needs. Recruiters can save resumes, information about the interviews and a series of other things. On the candidate side of things, which is our focus, it parses your resume and then fills in specific fields with your information that it extracted from the resume.

The ATS also scans for specific keywords. Basically, it knows exactly what the job description is/was and then scans your own resume to see if it is relevant. Using key words and phrases to mirror the job description will increase your chances to getting past the ATS.

The ATS is binary and functions as a gatekeeper. It dictates whether a resume will be seen by a recruiter or tossed into the irrelevant pile.

Summarizing: If you don’t write your resume to beat the ATS, you won’t get it viewed by a recruiter.

Tips To Format Your Resume For Applicant Tracking Systems

Here are the main tips to get your resume through the gatekeeper and seen by the recruiter.

Tailor your resume for each position: I can’t stress this enough – for every job you submit a resume to, you need to tweak your resume to closely match the job description. This is of utmost importance because the closer it is to the job description, the higher likelihood of it passing the gatekeeper. Review keywords, phrases, and other content in the description and match your resume to it. Obviously, make sure if you do this, you do in fact have that experience!

Naming sections: Use common names for each section. If you are listing your education, name the section “Education”. For your professional experience, name it as such. Do not use oddball names as it won’t be understood by the system. Use the names that are used in the job description.

If you are labeling a bachelor’s or master’s degree that you got, see how it is labeled in the job description. For instance, it might say Master of Business Administration preferred. If you have one, label it exactly the same as in the job description.

For your summary statement or professional objective, (if you choose to use one) you should use specific keywords that both represent your skills and are included in the job description. You should then have these keywords in some of your own work experience and achievements. That makes them even more relevant.

Review other employees’ profiles: It is important to see what kind of skills your colleagues or other people with the same position have at the company. Map out these skills and try to mirror their profile/resume/experience and add it into your resume. Often, companies are looking for that similar experience. Do this, obviously if your experience matches. No BSing here.

Do not add titles after your name: In many cases, the system understands this to be part of your last name and jumbles everything. If you have a PMP or other certification, leave that for another section.

Philip Ches MBA, PMP, PMI-ACP

Resume Formatting Tips

Avoid headers and footers: Most people use Microsoft Word to create their resume and that is absolutely fine, just don’t use the header or footer. Many times, the ATS has a hard time extracting this information. It may get your name right, but some of the other info like address, phone number etc. are not parsed.

No tables: A table can be a nice way to organize information in a clear and concise manner, but it isn’t read by ATS’. Avoid them.

Avoid fancy fonts: Certain fonts are not read correctly. Not sure why, but the safest approach is to go with typical fonts like Times New Roman, Arial, Calibri etc.

Other things to avoid: Charts, graphs, border lines, symbols, and other graphics are not read correctly in most cases. It is best to avoid them altogether to guarantee your resume is read and viewed by a recruiter.

Spellcheck: Make sure you proofread your resume before submitting. Use the spellcheck to correct things and get another pair of eyes to review it. It is possible that certain ATS’ may give you a lower grade if they encounter many spelling errors. I can’t prove this, but it is entirely possible, so why risk it?

spell check

Use bullet points: Bullets are a great way to organize your work. Use them.

Dates: Write out the full dates if possible. This makes your job easier because the ATS should extract this info and add it automatically in the fields.dates

Save your resume in two formats: Save your resume as both a PDF and a Word doc. Certain ATS’ don’t read PDFs or vice versa. Always see which file is requested and send that one.


Always fill in all fields on form: There are some fields that aren’t mandatory, but you should fill them in. You never know if the ATS ranks resumes higher for having filled in all fields.

Check if you know someone at the company: Try to get a recommendation for the job. This is a great way to skip the line and be guaranteed to get your resume reviewed by the recruiter, and in many cases, get called in for an interview. Some companies prefer recommended professionals as opposed to those who submit their resumes online.

Clean up social media: If you added your social media handles, someone may review it. Make sure you are not giving the wrong impression with your posts and pictures.

Additional Tools

As mentioned in some of the previous sections, you should always try to mirror the job description with your resume. There are some new tools out there that can help you identify the main keywords used in a job description.

Wordle and Tagcrowd are both sites that create word clouds. The best way you can use this is copy and paste the job description into the text field on either of these sites. They will then display the main words used throughout the description. Sometimes this can be helpful to help tweak your resume to better match the job description with the relevant key words.

Wrap Up

Nowadays more than ever, you must take time to craft a solid resume. You must know how to format your resume for applicant tracking systems to help get yourself past the gatekeeper and into the hands of the interviewer. Obviously, it may seem cumbersome to tweak your resume for each post but doing this helps solidify yourself as a potential candidate and will raise your chances of getting an interview (as opposed to others who don’t adjust their resume).

Take the time to adjust your resume and go get that position!

Have you had an experience submitting your resume through an ATS? How was it? Was it a simple, straightforward process, or was it a thousand page, never ending form to fill out? Share your experience so the community can learn from you. Drop any comments or questions you have in the comments below!

For more job search and interview tips, check out the CareerPrep blog, and for more videos check out the CareerPrep and EnglishInterviews Youtube Channels.

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