3 Tips for Optimizing Resumes for Applicant Tracking Systems

Applicant tracking systems scan resumes and identify the best candidates. Here's how to make sure you're one of them.

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by Evan Thompson

Published April 25, 2022

Edited by Jennifer Cuellar
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3 Tips for Optimizing Resumes for Applicant Tracking Systems
Feature Image: VioletaStoimenova / E+ / Getty Images


Resume writing can be a drag, but it's nice to know that someone will read your resume after all the hard work you put into it, right?

Think again. Your resume has to beat an applicant tracking system first.

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What is an applicant tracking system? An applicant tracking system, or ATS, is software that helps companies sort through resumes. Using an algorithm based on keywords and phrases — usually found in the job listing — an ATS reviews resumes and identifies the best candidates.

For example, an ATS screening for a programming position might look for competency in programming languages like Java or C#.

"Just like a human, it scans through your resume to determine whether you're a good match for a job opening," says Devin Schumacher, founder of digital marketing agency SERP.

According to Jobscan, about 99% of Fortune 500 companies used ATS in 2019 to save time during recruiting and hiring. Many smaller employers also use ATS to filter out unqualified candidates.

Here's the catch: If you make your resume without ATS in mind, it may receive a poor score and get sent to the bottom of the stack. Hiring managers or recruiters may never see it.

Fortunately, it's easy to optimize your resume for ATS. Here are three quick tips for making your resume more ATS-friendly:

Use the Right Keywords

Including keywords related to the job you're applying for will help the ATS scan your resume for skills and experience.

You can usually find the keywords in the job post. These keywords could be basic qualifications, such as "software developer," or hard skills like "Python or "Photoshop."

Once you've identified your keywords, incorporate them into your resume. Your summary statement, past job descriptions, and skills sections are all places keywords can fit naturally.

But try not to overdo it by squeezing in as many keywords as possible. Some applicant tracking systems highlight keywords in a different color once they reach a hiring manager or recruiter. It may not be a good look if they think you stuffed keywords into your resume to beat the ATS.

"Instead, weave these keywords organically throughout your resume, and in such a way that improves readability rather than takes away from it," Schumacher says. "That way, the ATS will give you the green light and move your application to the next stage."

Keep Your Format Simple

Removing complex formatting from your resume will instantly make your resume more ATS-friendly.

Flashy resumes with graphics, pictures, and boxes can make it difficult for applicant tracking systems to search for text, says Daniel Lorenzo, a resume writing expert for Let's Eat, Grandma. Even headers and footers are off-limits because ATS software usually only scans the body text.

To make your resume ATS-compatible, avoid the following formatting elements:

Most applicant tracking systems convert resumes into text-only files, which means a lot of complex formatting will be lost anyway.

Your resume is better off with a single-column format, Lorenzo says. Anything more might be too complex for an ATS to handle, and crucial information will likely disappear when a hiring manager or recruiter reads your resume.

Submit a Compatible File

You might think converting your resume to a PDF file is the best option for keeping your formatting in one piece. But it's not the best practice when it comes to ATS.

According to a 2018 TopResume article, 43% of resumes used a file type incompatible with ATS software. A PDF — which most people use for their resumes — is one of those unreadable file types.

TopResume recommends using a Word document in .doc or .docx format. Plain-text files also work well with an ATS, though they limit your formatting options.

Keep in mind that opinions are split on which file type recruiters prefer: PDFs or Word documents. Look for guidance from the company during your application process to see if there's a preference between the two.

Frequently Asked Questions About Applicant Tracking Systems

What is an applicant tracking system?

An applicant tracking system, or ATS, helps companies sort through resumes. ATS reviews resumes and identifies the strongest candidates, often using an algorithm based on keywords and phrases found in the job listing.

What does an applicant tracking system do?

An applicant tracking system searches resumes for vital skills and experiences that relate to the job description. For example, an ATS screening for a programming position might look for competency in programming languages like Java or C#.

Why do companies use applicant tracking systems?

Hiring managers and recruiters often don't have enough time to go through hundreds of resumes for a single position, especially at big companies. So they use ATS to screen for qualified candidates instead.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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