How to Make Your Resume Talk to Robots (ATS Systems)
Updated: Apr 11
Prepare Your Resume and Cover Letters for Applicant Tracking Systems
In the 1984 movie Terminator, audiences fell in love with Sarah Connor, a timid-waitress-turned-savior-of-humanity forced into life of fighting the robots who are fated to take over the planet and try to extinguish the human race. While in real life, the human race is arguably safe for the time being, robots are beginning to affect our fate -- 75 percent of resumes are rejected before being viewed by human eyes. Before it reaches the hands of a living, breathing person, it may need to pass muster with a computerized approach known as an applicant tracking system.
What is an applicant tracking system?
An applicant tracking system (ATS) is a type of software used by recruiters and employers to collect, scan, and rank job applications. Originally created for large corporations accustomed to fielding several thousand inbound job applications, ATS have become nearly ubiquitous among companies of various sizes. Presently, 95 percent of Fortune 500 companies report using ATS software to streamline their recruitment process.
An ATS is essentially an electronic gatekeeper that parses resume content into categories and then scans it for specific keywords to determine if the application should be passed along to hiring decision makers. In short, the ATS eliminates unqualified applicants to free up time for the recruiter or hiring manager to devote time to evaluating the candidates who are most closely matched for the position. In other words, the ATS is apt to toss the least-qualified candidates, rather than identify the applicants who are the best fit.
If you have sent out several resumes for jobs you know you were perfectly qualified for with little to no response, you likely are being rejected by robots. Take heart – there is a way to talk to the robots and, better yet, convince them to sing your praises.
Writing an ATS-friendly Resume: A Checklist
If you want to ensure your resume is ATS-compliant for an ATS, follow the tips below:
1. Select the right file type.
Sadly, a PDF is not necessarily the most ATS-friendly file type. Thought PDFs work best for preserving the design and format of your resume, they are not compatible with all ATS software.
If “PDF” is listed among the file types you can submit when asked to attach your resume, then definitely use a PDF version of your resume. If the application system does not specify which file types are compatible, stick to a Word document with a .doc or .docx extension. Plain-text files are also ATS-friendly for resumes but greatly limit your formatting options.
You would be wise to write and format your resume for two audiences — the robots who will pre-screen your application and the real-life HR person who will review your resume, should you make it past the ATS. I recommend using a Word document instead of a plain-text file to give you more potential for formatting a resume with a design that will appeal to a recruiter or hiring manager. Don’t dismiss the importance of the overall look of your resume as merely “cosmetic” – your resume is an infographic that should be easily scanned by humans looking for pertinent details. If it is hard to read because information is lumped together carelessly, or it is devoid of white space, you could be giving a stressed-out HR person a reason to add you to the No pile.
2. Don't put critical information in the header or footer.
An ATS cannot always properly read and parse information stored in the header and footer sections of a Word document. Avoid being passed over by making certain your contact information and other critical details are outside the header or footer of your resume.
3. Be careful with tables and columns.
Many resume formats include 2-column formats and tables, but these can be tricky for an ATS to parse, too. Since they sometimes read, left to right, an ATS might lump information together incorrectly when laid out in columns or tables. Your best bet is to stick to a one-column, table-free format or to format a version of your resume for robots that is certain to avoid confusion.
4. Pepper your resume with keywords.
If you get nothing else from this chapter, remember to optimize your resume with keywords. In its simplest terms, keywords represent the soft and hard skills, experience and expertise you have acquired that qualify you for a specific job.
If uncertain which keywords you should use, start by collecting three job postings that represent the optimal position you're pursuing (even if you have no intention of applying for any jobs quite yet). Copy and paste these job description into a word-cloud generator, such as the Google’s Word Cloud Generator or Wordle.net, to identify the terms most frequently used throughout. If you possess these skills or qualifications, incorporate these terms into your resume.
When communicating with ATS robots, you also need to think about the frequency and the placement of keywords throughout your resume. Many systems determine the strength of your skills based on the number of times a term shows up, so add highly prized terms and phrases two to three times. Sometimes, an ATS assigns an estimated amount of experience for a requested skill based on its placement within the resume.
5. Go Full Sarah Connor and format your resume for humans and robots.
Get past the robots by optimizing your resume with both humans and ATS robots in mind. First, create a “Skills Inventory” or “Core Competencies” section that lists your strongest hard skills and soft skills. If there is a common abbreviation for one of your proficiencies such as “QA” (for quality assurance), include both versions. Then, appropriately pepper these same terms into your “Job Experience” or “Education” sections to demonstrate when you developed that skill.
An ATS could possibly associate the length of experience for a skill, based on how long you held a position in which you leveraged it. For instance, if you list a bullet point under a job you held for three years under your Experience section that mentions that you were responsible for QA for a given company, the ATS will assume you have three years' worth of QA experience. If a skill is listed on its own within the career summary or a skills-inventory section, the ATS will assign six months' experience for that skill. This is another reason to reiterate your skills throughout your entire resume, rather than just the skills section.
6. Avoid images, icons, other graphics, and fancy bullet points.
While these may look stylish, resumes with embedded images and icons either get completely omitted from your application or confuse the ATS. A chart or graph that represents your skills or measurable results sounds like a great idea, but your information will likely be ignored or unhelpfully jumbled with other information. This caveat includes bullet points that list your qualifications and highlights. If you choose an elaborate symbol (like a diamond or a chevron, for instance) for your bullets, your important selling points could get muddled. Stick to simple options, such as a circle or square, to ensure your bullet points speak coherently with an ATS.
7. Use a clean resume design with a clearly defined hierarchy.
When it comes to your resume design, think like a minimalist. Complex and unusual formats not only run the risk of confusing applicant tracking systems but can also annoy recruiters accustomed to quickly scanning a resume for specific information they expect to find in particular areas. (See Get Yourself Where You Want to Go for tips on formatting resumes and cover letters.) Use color sparingly, sticking with black and one other color.
8. Create an ATS-friendly resume format.
Use a resume format that includes a professional summary section at the top of the document to outline your key skills and qualifications in a few sentences and is followed by a work history or job experience section that lists your jobs in chronological order, a skills inventory/core competencies section and an education section. The order of the last three sections are interchangeable, according to your preference. (You may want to list your education at the bottom if your experience trumps your education level and vice versa.) You can also include the following sections, according to your preference – a career highlights section that list three to five key achievements, a technical skills, credentials/certifications, trainings, and affiliations.
To keep you resume ATS-friendly, avoid a functional resume format in which the focus is placed on your abilities, rather than a chronological work history. Most robots do a better job at reading and interpreting a hybrid format because they rely on chronological data to parse your resume.
9. Test your resume for ATS-compliance.
Once you have finished your resume, use a job scan tool like JobScan.co to generate an instant report that advises you on how many times to use certain terms and phrases. The report also provide tips on your overall language choices and indicates how well you match the position based on your education level and experience.
TIP: The premium version of LinkedIn also scan your profile and tell you quantitatively how closely you match up with jobs that are posted on LinkedIn. This feature can clue you in on how best to format your resume to also match up with specific positions.
Another option is to copy the content from your resume and paste it into a plain-text document and review the results. If the plain-text version is missing details from your original resume, has characters saved incorrectly, or looks disorganized (i.e. the heading for your “Education” section appears in the middle of your work experience), then assume your resume will require editing before it will be ATS compliant.