How to Build a Resume for Applicant Tracking Systems

It’s a new world. It’s a digital world. A very digital world. It’s also a competitive world, especially when it comes to your job search. With an ever-growing population, there are more people than ever vying for that one coveted position. That makes your resume one of the most important pieces of content you’ll ever craft.
Yesterday’s resume just doesn’t cut it anymore. Not even close. Today’s resume needs to do the obvious — highlight your experience — but it also needs to contain the right keywords in the right places. Why? Because sophisticated hiring teams are using resume parsers.
Do you know how to create a digital resume for modern-day resume parsers (aka applicant tracking systems)? We can help.

What is an ATS?

ATS stands for Applicant Tracking System. Recruitment agencies can receive hundreds of applications to a single job posting. To keep data organized and streamline processes, an Applicant Tracking System is used. It’s a piece of software that collects and stores resumes and acts as a search engine for hiring managers, allowing recruiters to recall profiles through keyword search. Simply put, it’s a resume parser. So how do you craft a resume that’s compelling to humans but also feeds an ATS the information it needs to identify you as a strong candidate?

The Importance of Keywords

Just like search engine giant Google, resume parsers use keyword matching technology to return results based on a query. Back in the day, you’d print your resume and mail or fax it to the hiring manager, who would review it and make a decision whether or not to move forward. It was a manual process completed by a human being.
Today, keywords matter. When you submit your resume, it’s likely put into an applicant tracking system. The ATS scans and ranks every job application it receives for current job openings. When the hiring manager searches the ATS, it “parses” the information (scans the words on the resume) and serves up the resumes that best match the keyword or phrase that was searched. For example, XYZ company has an opening for a Senior Web Developer with experience building e-commerce sites for Fortune 500 companies. After placing the job listing and accepting resumes, the recruiter or hiring manager will then search the ATS to find the best matches. They might search for keyword phrases like, “web developer” or “fortune 500” or “eCommerce web dev.” 
Perhaps search engine optimization is a skill set the recruiter or hiring manager would also like candidates to have. In that case, they might search the ATS for “SEO web developer” for example. As a candidate, you want to be sure you’re using keywords two or three times on your resume. Try to think logically about skills you possess that hiring managers might find useful. 
Common sense would say that if you’re submitting your resume for a job posting that requires SEO, web development and eCommerce experience, you’d better be sure your resume mentions those things at least a few times.

Design, Structure & Format

Just as important as using the right keywords throughout your resume is structuring your resume properly and designing it in the right format. Here are some tips on how to design, structure and format your resume to get noticed by ATS robots:
  1. Save your resume as a Word document. Sure, PDFs are “fancier” but robots don’t appreciate your effort. In fact, they’re not interested at all because it takes them more effort to “read” fancy formatting than it does to “read” plain text. Keep it simple. Take the path of least resistance. Give robots what they want — simple, clean text.

  2. Make sure your contact information is in the main part of the document, as opposed to the header or footer. Some applicant tracking systems aren’t programmed to read what’s in the header or footer, so that information could well be lost to the robot. What if the recruiter or hiring manager is searching for someone local? You want your contact info (ie: city) to be visible by the robots. 
  3. Don’t fill your resume with images and custom fonts. Again, ATS robots aren’t impressed by your fanciful efforts. They’ll skip right over important information that’s difficult to parse. Less is more. Use common fonts like Arial or Times New Roman — there’s a great list of safe universal web fonts here —  and make sure important information (like contact details and keyword-rich skills) is in text format, not images.
  4. Avoid Tables. Sure, some parsers might be able to read the information inside the cells, but accuracy will likely be lost. If at all possible, try to avoid using tables in your resume.
  5. What about templates? Just say no. Yes, they can be great for inspiration, but you don’t want to use a template because their layouts are usually complicated and filled with graphics, unknown typography and other characters and elements that are likely to trip up the software.
  6. Avoid including your references’ contact information in your resume. As a rule of thumb, unless explicitly requested, you shouldn’t include references in your resume. Adding the names, titles, or any contact information of your references can confuse the resume parser and cause issues when importing your resume and creating your profile within the ATS.
Whether you’re a Boomer or a Millennial, you need to understand how automation works in order to get your resume seen and, better still, recognized as a quality candidate.

Looking for a job is tough under the best of circumstances. Arm yourself with the very best resume possible so you can get past that first gatekeeper — the ATS. Once you climb that first hill, you can move on to the interview process with your potential new employer. And let’s face it, that’s where you can really show off your skills and land your dream job!


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