What Is an ATS Resume? How To Build a Bot-Proof Job Application
by Haley Lyles
We've all experienced it: after submitting endless job applications, you anxiously wait to hear back but only receive radio silence in return. While you're probably aware that high competition amongst job seekers has led to sky-high numbers of applications — an average of 250 per opening — you may not be sure why you've been sending resume after resume, without a response.
Many companies have turned to applicant tracking systems (ATS), a hiring software that functions as a screening system for employers, allowing them to look at only the best job applications.
While these systems can have significant benefits, they've also added a layer of complexity when it comes to crafting a winning resume. Now, your resume needs to be written both for people and for bots.
What Is an Applicant Tracking System (ATS)?
An applicant tracking system (ATS) is software used during the hiring process to sort and rank job applicants automatically. This software can screen applicants, test them, check references and complete new hire paperwork.
Many large companies use an ATS to preliminarily screen applicants so hiring managers can spend more time looking at qualified candidates. This isn't always a bad thing — in fact, hiring managers make up their mind about a candidate by looking at their resume for an average of just 7.4 seconds, and companies that use ATS software can often afford more time than that to each resume that makes it past the initial screen.
But applicant tracking systems are far from perfect — 62% of companies admit that qualified candidates slip through the cracks with an ATS, and only 25% of resumes screened by an ATS are eventually seen by a real person. However, it's clear that the ATS is here to stay, with 94% of companies saying that using an ATS has improved their hiring process.
How an ATS Works
An ATS isn't able to read your resume the way a human would. Instead, it picks up on keywords from the job description and matches it to their list of prerequisite skills and metrics.
For example, your resume summary might read:
"Detail-oriented marketing professional with 5+ years of advertising agency experience in end-to-end campaign management. Led a team of media buyers and media planners to implement cross-channel digital marketing campaigns."
While a human could pick up on the subtle nuances and context clues, an ATS is trained to scan and pick out keywords. Here's what the ATS would likely see:
- 5+ years of experience
- Advertising agency
- Led a team
- Cross-channel digital marketing campaigns
The ATS will then cross-reference your qualifications with what the company is looking for and rank you against other candidates. If you pass a certain threshold, your resume is likely passed along to the relevant hiring manager to take a closer look.
So how can you create a resume that gets you past the applicant tracking system? Keep reading to learn about how to target your resume to beat the bots.
How To Write an ATS-Friendly Resume
Since applicant tracking systems are designed to look for keywords and metrics, they sometimes miss the nuances that a person reading your resume might have picked up on. Additionally, some resumes are in formats that an ATS can't recognize, meaning they end up in the discard pile without being given a fair chance.
Here's how you can optimize your resume to give yourself the best chance of landing the interview.
1. Pick the Right Layout
Did you know that up to 75% of qualified applicants have been rejected because the ATS software couldn't read their resumes? Picking the right template with a simple layout, logical hierarchy and easy-to-read font can be the difference between getting the call for an interview and having your resume discarded before it's even seen.
- Headers and Footers: A major formatting culprit for applicant tracking systems is headers and footers. While humans may be easily able to contextualize information in these areas of a resume, some applicant tracking systems cannot identify vital details like contact information, which is commonly stored in the header or footer. When choosing your resume template, it's best to avoid any that have information stored outside of the body of the page.
- Columns: You should also be wary of layout options like columns. Some applicant tracking systems will read columns left to right instead of column by column, meaning that your neatly arranged columns will become jumbled and indiscernible to the ATS. Instead, stick to a simple layout to ensure the information on your resume isn't scrambled by incorrect formatting.
According to Nielson Norman Group, people tend to read content in an F-pattern — that is, paying most attention to the first two paragraphs and skimming subheadings after that. This makes F- or E- pattern layouts the best choices for ATS resumes since they provide a clear information hierarchy — making these an easy win to optimize for both people and bots.
2. Use Easy-to-Read Font
Similar to the layout, applicant tracking systems can scan your resume best when you use a clear, easy-to-read font like Times New Roman, Helvetica, Calibri, Arial, Tahoma or Garamond.
In addition to style, you should also consider font size. While some people use the smallest size possible to fit more information, it's best to stick to the standard 12-pt font on your resume. For important text like your name or section headings, it's good practice to size these headings no more than double your smallest font — keeping these titles in 24-pt font or smaller is best.
It's easy to underestimate the importance of fonts on your resume, but these days, you need to design your resume for both humans and bots. If it's done right, hiring managers probably won't even notice — but when it's done wrong, your font choice can significantly detract from the quality of your application.
3. Use Standard Formatting
While beautifully designed resumes may be striking to the human eye, some applicant tracking systems may be unable to gather necessary information from your resume. Creating a resume that is both eye-catching and ATS-compatible is a balancing act, which is why it's important to understand how you can use resume formats to your advantage.
When creating an ATS-compatible resume, it's best to avoid fancy formatting like:
- Tables: An ATS may not read the information in a table in the correct order.
- Logos: The ATS won't pick up what the logo says, meaning it equates to wasted space on your resume.
- Images: Many image files aren't compatible with ATS software.
- Graphics: The ATS may not be able to interpret information in a graphic correctly.
- Text boxes: The ATS may be confused by the information hierarchy of a text box.
Instead, try using formatting styles that won't confuse an ATS if the resume is converted to a plain-text file, such as:
Many applicant tracking systems will convert your resume to a text-only file, meaning much of the fancy formatting you use will get lost. Using text-only modifications will ensure that the ATS doesn't miss out on valuable information in your resume.
4. Use Clear, Concise Headings
While a human may be able to gather context clues for section headings like "Where I've Been" (Work History) or "Hit Me Up" (Contact Info), an ATS isn't programmed to decode this language. Instead, stick to conventional headings like "Work Experience," "Education" and "Certifications" to convey your message clearly.
The top half of your resume is the most valuable space on your resume since it's what a hiring manager likely looks at first, which is why you should also list your headings in order of importance.
If you've been out of school for more than a few years and have significant work experience under your belt, your work experience should sit in this prime real estate. However, if you're a student on the hunt for an internship, it might be more prudent to put your education in the top spot.
5. Incorporate the Right Keywords
Using the right keywords correctly just might be your golden ticket to getting past the bots. Now, up to 75% of large companies automatically scan resumes for keywords to determine candidate relevancy. However, it's important to know how to incorporate these keywords correctly. Keyword stuffing is a recent phenomenon that occurs when people try to stick too many keywords in a sentence, so even though it might look great to bots, it would likely sound unnatural and repetitive to a human reader.
To avoid keyword stuffing, it's important to incorporate your keywords with context. While you could pull keywords from the job description and list them all under a "skills" section, some applicant tracking systems automatically assign a mere six months of experience to any skill listed without an exact date. Instead, incorporate your keywords into your work history or other relevant sections by following a "show, not tell" mindset.
Using context is especially important for showcasing soft skills [internal link]. While you could just list soft skills like collaboration, teamwork and attention to detail, showing these skills in your work history will provide much more value than mentioning them in a skills section.
6. Get the Name Right
While it may be tempting to create a generic "one-size-fits-all" resume to save time, 18% of recruiters have said they will immediately discard a resume that isn't customized to the job.
An easy way to customize your resume is to use a standard, customized file name. However, many job applicants make the mistake of sending in an unprofessional or untidy sounding file name. Take a look at the below examples:
Now compare the above resume file names to these:
- Sarah-Smith-Marketing-Coordinator.pdf (or .docx)
The second set of file names clearly looks more put together and personalized. Many people make the mistake of including dates or numbers in their resume, and while this may not seem like a big deal, it might leave recruiters thinking that your so-called skill of "attention to detail" may not be as accurate as it sounds.
7. Use the Right File Type
You may have heard that submitting a resume as a PDF is the safest way to go. While it's true that submitting as a word doc opens up the possibility of formatting discrepancies, applicant tracking systems sometimes have difficulty decoding PDF resumes as well. This rings particularly true if you're using additional formatting styles like textboxes or graphics, which the ATS may skip over altogether if it can't understand the information hierarchy.
It's best practice to create multiple file types of your resume and submit whichever seems most prudent in your particular situation, but the default file type should be a word document. A PDF resume can sometimes be advantageous if you have extra formatting, but for companies that use an ATS, word documents are the safest way to go.
Be sure to convert your resume to a plain-text file as well. To do this, copy your resume into a plain text document with no formatting and check the results. You'll want to look for things like disorganized headings, scrambled words or missing details from the original resume.
Tailoring your resume to each position is a crucial step to create a bot-proof job application. One-size-fits-all resumes are a thing of the past, and these days, the best applicants are taking keywords from the job description and contextualizing them on their resumes to get past the ATS.
If you're ready to get your resume in the hands of hiring managers, check out our ATS-compatible resume builder to get started — you might just be one step closer to landing your dream job.