How To Create An ATS-Friendly Resume (With Examples)

By Chris Kolmar - Dec. 8, 2020
Articles In Resume Guide

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We’ve all heard the demoralizing statistic that recruits spend an average of seven seconds reading each resume. What’s even more disheartening is that upwards of 75% of resumes never even get in front of human eyes to begin with.

It’s never been easier to apply for jobs online, but it’s a double-edged sword; with how simple applications are, recruiters and hiring managers are inundated with massive waves of applicants. Since they don’t have time to read through each one, they rely on applicant tracking systems (ATS) to weed people out.

We’re here to help you join the 25% of applicants who actually get their resumes read by real people. Read on to learn how best to please our robot overlords (in the resume department, anyway).

What Is an Applicant Tracking System?

An applicant tracking system is a piece of software employers use to collect, scan, organize, and rank applications they receive. ATS allow employers to quickly evaluate the pool of candidates based on how closely their resumes match the job description.

Larger companies that receive thousands of applications each day rely on ATS to rapidly deliver a shortlist of candidates. Think of the ATS as an employer’s first line of defense against unqualified applicants. Around 75% of large companies use ATS, and 98% of Fortune 500 companies use them. If you’re applying to a smaller company, chances are they won’t bother using an ATS, but it never hurts to make your resume ATS-friendly anyway.

Applicant tracking systems were developed to streamline the recruitment process for employers, but you can turn them to your advantage once you know how they work.

How Do Applicant Tracking Systems Work?

Applicant tracking systems work by parsing a resume’s content into categories, then scanning it for keywords relevant to the job. An ATS’s job is to throw out the least-qualified applicants and leave employers with only the best candidates to review the old-fashioned way (i.e., seven seconds of skimming).

The keyword to keep in mind here is, well, keywords. Generally, an ATS will do whatever the recruiter tells it to do, which typically means identifying the resumes that best match the job description. The software doesn’t have intuition; it just follows a relatively simple set of rules, determining how many of your skills and how much of your experience aligns with the keywords and required experience listed in the job description.

Some ATS programs also have a feature called “knockout questions.” These are questions where a recruiter or hiring manager can tell the program to ask in order to eliminate candidates or lower their score based on the responses.

For instance, a knockout question could be, “how many years of marketing experience do you have?” The employer can then set their desired answer to “three years,” and if the ATS asks this question and spits out a response of fewer than three years, the candidate will be removed from the pool, or it will hurt their overall score. Most ATS will assign six months’ experience to any skill or job that does not explicitly state duration.

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The final score (usually represented as a percentage match) is determined by preset rules the employer establishes beforehand. So a recruiter could set their ATS up to give education more weight than skills, but less than work experience, for example.

Before you get gloomy about robots determining your future, remember that these bots are just following guidelines assigned by humans. And these guidelines are based on what a human recruiter would be doing anyway – scanning your resume for information relevant to the job description.

10 Tips to Make Your Resume ATS-Friendly

Now that you know what applicant tracking systems are and how they work, you’ve probably already got a few ideas for tailoring your resume with them in mind. But we didn’t want to leave you guessing, so we compiled a list of quick, actionable ways to make sure your resume passes muster with ATS.

  1. Use the right keywords. We already touched on the importance of using keywords to optimize your resume for ATS, but it bears repeating. ATS allow employers to search for keywords and automatically rate applicants based on their resume’s keywords.

    Write out job titles in full at least once, rather than solely using acronyms. For instance, if you were an HR manager, make sure to fully spell out “Human Resources Manager” at least once.

    The best way to develop a list of keywords is by reading the job description and highlighting the most commonly used words. Then, alter your resume to include those keywords. If you’re applying for several different jobs and don’t want to edit your resume each time, look for common ground between each job posting.

    ATS will determine your skills’ strengths by using each keyword’s frequency, so it’s good practice to incorporate the most important ones two to three times throughout your resume. If you mention a skill, make sure to include it in your work experience section as well. The ATS will determine your years of experience with a given skill based on when and for how long you leveraged it in a formal position.

    Finally, it’s essential to be specific with your keywords. If a posting explicitly mentions experience with Google Analytics, don’t just put the word “analytics” and call it a day.

  2. Don’t try to trick the ATS. Some will advise the rather cheeky tip of spamming keywords in the white text within your resume’s white space to get picked up by ATS. Do not do this; while it might beat the ATS, it certainly won’t beat the human reader who can clearly see you just pasted the word “sales” 78 times into your resume.

  3. Choose the right format. ATS software is designed to scan your work experience in chronological order. With that in mind, it’s usually best to stick with a reverse-chronological resume format since it emphasizes work experience the most.

    A combination resume can also work well. A functional resume, which emphasizes skills over work experience, is the least ATS compatible.

  4. Keep your layout simple. While you may be tempted to include fancy designs and impressive charts or graphics, note that it may completely ruin the ATS’ attempt to parse your resume’s content. An easy way to test if your resume is ATS compliant is by copy/pasting it into a plain text document (like Notepad). Whatever you see is exactly what the ATS is going to see.

  5. Don’t use headers or footers. It’s especially critical that you don’t put contact info in the header because most ATS programs will be unable to parse this information (immediately disqualifying you). Any other formatting gimmicks you include in your resume to make it look unique will be completely stripped by an ATS.

  6. Use standard section headings and bullet points. Don’t get fancy with labeling your resume sections. For example, don’t label your skills section “the wonderful talents of Amy Baker;” just put “skills section.” If you need help labeling your sections appropriately, check out this article.

    Additionally, don’t try to use unique bullet point designs, or the ATS may become confused. Stick to the traditional solid circle or square bullet points.

  7. Use the right file type. While most recommend saving your resume as a PDF to ensure that formatting stays the same across devices, some ATS are unable to read PDF documents. If the application page doesn’t explicitly request or allow PDF documents, play it safe, and send it as a .doc or .docx.

  8. Stick to basic fonts. If you have to download your font, chances are the ATS won’t be able to parse it. ATS are programmed to read common fonts like Times New Roman, Helvetica, Arial, Georgia, etc.

  9. Don’t apply if you’re not qualified. Look, we get that it’s tempting to cast a wide net and see what sticks. But you’re more liable to become discouraged if it feels like your resumes are being flung into a black hole. ATS programs exist to save recruiters time by screening out unqualified candidates.

    Don’t get us wrong; there’s no harm trying to land a job when you don’t quite meet every single requirement listed in the job posting. But if a truthful accounting of your skill set and experience reveals that you don’t meet most of the job posting’s requirements, then chances are the ATS did precisely what it was designed to do by removing you from the candidate pool.

    Finally, don’t take this as advice to lie, embellish, or exaggerate claims on your resume. You might fool the ATS, and you might even fool the human auditor, but when it comes time to check up on your professional history or interview you, your lies will come to light. Don’t waste the employer’s time or your time.

  10. Online applications aren’t everything. Applying for jobs online is easier than ever. You can easily incorporate the tips above to make a resume that’s perfect for both ATS and human readers. But remember the reason ATS were developed in the first place – to address an ever-increasing candidate pool.

    Think of other ways to cut through the noise, like using people in your network to find a job. If you’re referred for a position, you’ll likely bypass the ATS screening altogether.

Final Thoughts

Applicant tracking systems might seem like another annoying hurdle to consider when you’re on the job hunt. However, with the above advice in mind, you can turn ATS resume screening to your advantage to ensure your application doesn’t slip between the cracks.

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Chris Kolmar


Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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