How to Optimize Resumes to Get Through Applicant Tracking Systems

Doug Horn on January 14, 2015 10:53:00 AM EST


Applicant tracking systems are a useful and oftentimes necessary tool for companies who receive hundreds of thousands, or perhaps millions of resumes per year. A service that breaks down the information on each resume and subsequently groups candidates into easily-searchable fields? It’s a no-brainer (when it works).

Sometimes, however, a Captain America candidate will get chewed up by a company’s ATS simply because his resume is not formatted properly. This happens so often, in fact, that a whopping 72% of resumes are never even seen by the intended hiring manager or human resources representative.

Does that sound a little high? Well, it is. The fact of the matter is, most candidates do not take the time to format their resumes so that they may endure the grueling, “Lord of the Rings”-length journey through the average ATS. Considering 75% of large companies use applicant tracking systems to review resumes, candidates should heed this advice. It is not only a candidate issue, however. Recruiters must work with their candidates to ensure their resumes are met with the maximum amount of success.


Considering how pervasive this problem is with job-hopefuls and recruiters alike, we’re going to cover the best tips and tricks to give a resume the absolute best shot at getting through an organization’s applicant tracking system.


1) Get Rid of All Images

Listen, it doesn’t matter how good you looked in that picture from last Fourth of July or how funny you think a particular meme is. Nor does it have any business being on a resume. Applicant tracking systems read the information they are given and then place resumes into similar groupings. Thus, they are unable to process images. Pictures of any kind will automatically put a resume at a severe disadvantage and should be replaced with more informative text.  That means no logos, creative watermarks, or fancy monograms.


2) Use Traditional Web-Friendly Fonts

Again, we're dealing with machines here, and they're only as smart as they're programmed to be. That Brush Script font may make your name look regal, but it also makes it unreadable.  Stick to your standard fonts like Arial, Georgia, Impact, or Courier.


3) Use Keywords Listed in the Job Description

Applicant tracking systems are looking for keywords listed in the job description, so be sure to use the main ones wherever they apply. For example, if a specific job description requires that its future employee works well in a team environment, that phrase should be on the submitted resume. That’s not to say that a resume should say “Fluent in Spanish” if the candidate doesn’t speak a lick of it; the keywords should have truth behind them. It may be a pain tailoring a resume to each individual job, but it sure beats being unemployed.


4) Use Basic Section Headers

Applicant tracking systems parse information by taking it and dropping it into applicable databases. Because of this, section headers should be as simple as possible. If the ATS cannot understand what it is receiving, impressive achievements or specific training may go overlooked. Phrases like “Education,” “Skills,” and “Experience” should be prioritized over more witty headers. Resumes are not the place to get cute with wording.


5) Standard Formatting is King 

Applicant Tracking Systems typically look for a standard format.  Anything outside of a linear top-to-bottom format with all info in the body of the document could cause clipping or disorganization with parsed.  From top to bottom, start with your full name followed by contact info, standard section headers followed by standard info.  Don't use page headers (not to be confused with the section headers discussed above), footers, or sidebars.  If "Education" falls in a sidebar to the left, there's no guarantee that the ATS will associate that header with your Harvard MBA on the right.  Wouldn't it be a pity to spend a small fortune on your grad school and then not be able to brag about it?

File formats also matter.  PDFs can still be unreadable by the ATS.  As much as it pains me to say this, Microsoft Word .doc format is your best shot at having your resume parsed correctly and having it seen by the hiring manager.


6) Abandon Irrelevant Information

Irrelevant information on resumes winds up as wasted space. Applicant tracking systems are not checking whether a candidate’s outside interests include skiing or culinary exploration, so extraneous information such as that is best left off. If a resume looks sparse without it, a good idea would be to bulk up the skills section with keywords for which hiring managers may search.


7) Keep it Short and Simple

Length is not that critical of an issue when it comes to applicant tracking systems, but it is extremely important to hiring managers. The ideal resume is one page long--two if you have at least ten years of work history. Hiring managers don’t have the time or patience to read twelve pages when they open a resume. In fact, I've personally watched an old hiring manager reject candidates because they went beyond one page.  When I questioned his logic, he responded with, "If you can't sell yourself in an elevator pitch, how are you going to do it for our clients, or fight for new inititiatives internally.  I don't have time for that kind of inefficiency on my team."  Remember that a resume should feel more like a snapshot of everything a candidate brings to the table, not a Faulkner novel.


If you follow these seven tips on how to get a resume through the ATS, you or your candidate are in pretty good shape.  Getting through the gatekeeper and into the right hands won't guarantee anyone a job, but it prevents them from being disqualified for a technicality.  It's not a perfect system and technology differs from company to company, but it's best to play it safe.  Sharing this information with your candidates and helping them to reformat their resume in an ATS-friendly manner will go a long way towards making your candidate happy and improving your own bottom line.