One of the most popular sessions at The National Resume Writers’ Association Conference last week was Pat Criscito’s presentation on how to write ATS-Compatible Resumes. ATS (or Applicant Tracking Software) systems are used by the majority of companies in this country to determine whom to interview. If your resume does not pass the ATS test, you will not get an interview.
Thankfully, how to write an ATS-compatible resume is not a complete mystery. This article will teach you how to sell yourself to an ATS system and get your phone to ring for an interview.
- MOST IMPORTANT TIP FIRST: Use keywords that match the keywords in the job description! This means you’ll need to edit your resume for every job you apply for. No joke. I know this task is time-consuming, but it will pay off.
- Use keywords in context, in your experience section. ATS systems count the number of years of experience you have for the skills the company cares about. If you have “project management” listed in a bullet under a job where you spent 10 years, you’ll get 10 years of credit for project management. If you list it in a Skills list, you’ll get zero. So even if you have a separate skills list, be sure to include all your skills in your bullets as well!
- Whenever possible, put your keywords on page one and at the top of subsequent pages if any. They will be ranked higher in these locations.
- There’s no need to use every possible version of your keywords. ATS systems are so smart that a keyword search automatically finds all relevant words. For example, a search for “RN” will also recognize “nurse practitioner” and “registered nurse”; a search for “attorney” will capture “lawyer” and “general counsel” and “GC”; and a search for “finance executive” will find “CFO” and “Controller.” The systems are also smart enough not to count “executive assistant” when searching for an “executive.”
- Abbreviations are okay. It doesn’t matter if you insert periods or not, and you don’t need to write things out if they are common. For example, either “MBA” or “M.B.A.” is sufficient, without having to write out Masters in Business Administration.
- If a job description calls for expertise with a specific program, such as MS Word, list the specific program, not just MS Office. And remember to put it in your Experience, not just in a Skills list!
FORMATTING TIPS FOR ATS-COMPATIBLE RESUMES
- You can use any font and style—bold, italics, shading, even white text. All will be read as text.
- You can submit your resume as a Word or PDF document. In a PDF, any information that is editable in a PDF editor will be read by an ATS system.
- Don’t use the columns feature. Period. Use tabs instead. And don’t use text boxes. They won’t be read.
- Tables are okay ONLY if they have only one row, and if the header and content are in the same column. Never use the format where you have your headers on the left and your content on the right. Here’s an example of an acceptable use of tables:
Biopharmaceuticals ◾ CMOs ◾ Market Analysis ◾ Contract Negotiation ◾ Business Process Creation ◾ Manufacturing Operations ◾ Logistics ◾ Lean Manufacturing ◾ ERP ◾ Process Automation ◾ Quality Control
Senior Tech Company Manager with 8 years’ experience in development, manufacture, informatics and licensing of biopharmaceutical equipment technology. Led transformation of small technology firm into mature business, negotiated licensing agreement with multinational ABC, and led due diligence during acquisition by $13B diversified industrial giant XYZ.
- Put your contact information in the main body of the document on the first page—not in a header! ATS systems do not read headers or footers. It’s advisable to repeat your contact information in a header on the second page, which will not confuse the ATS but will appear nicely if a human prints out and reads the original document.
- If you have credentials, it’s okay to put them after your name as long as you precede them with a comma. The comma clues the ATS in that your name is complete. So write “Brenda Bernstein, JD, CMRW,” not “Brenda Bernstein J.D., CMRW.” Same applies with suffixes like Jr., Sr., or III.
- Charts and graphs will be ignored. If you have information you want to convey, there’s nothing wrong with using a chart or graph as long as you also convey the same information in your bullets, which will be read.
- Use more space between major sections that you do between jobs. Be consistent! This will help the ATS figure out what’s what and know when to look for a new job or a new section.
- It’s okay to list company names, job titles, and dates in any order, as long as they are consistent.
Click here to see a sample of an ATS-compatible resume.
TIPS FOR ORGANIZING YOUR INFORMATION
- Don’t combine several sections together. Use just one word or phrase in each header, and keep them standard: Profile or Summary; Experience or Work History; Education; and Certifications. If you want to insert continuing education courses under the Education section, that’s fine. A “Skills” section doesn’t have particular value but you can include one.
- Never omit the dates of your experience. The positions won’t be read or counted for anything.
- If you’ve held more than one position at a company, list the company name multiple times—once for each position. Otherwise the ATS won’t know how to read the information. One trick you can use is to put the company name in white text so it’s not visible; but if you do this, make sure to insert enough space before the white text that the ATS will know it’s a new position.
- As a general rule, unless specifically requested to do so, do NOT make the first page of your resume your cover letter. This advice seems not to hold true universally, however. I have a client who applied to a position through LinkedIn Easy Apply using this strategy, and she got a call for an interview the next day.
- If you have held many short-term jobs, combine them wherever possible. ATS systems are programmed to recognize job hoppers, and you don’t want to be one of them!
If you think all these tips will result in an awkward resume that doesn’t look the way you want it to, never fear! You can have two versions of your resume: one “presentation” version that you can hand out to people or email as an attachment to your network, and another version that you use to submit to online applicant systems.
If you apply my top 20 ATS system tips and find you’re getting better results from your online applications, please let me know!
Brenda, thanks for your great article! Someone mentioned that an ATS system cannot recognize words when there is a “/ ” between the words unless extra spaces are added (e.g.,”finance / accounting” rather than “finance/accounting”). Is this true or false?
Ljo, I’m investigating the answer to your question – please stay tuned!
The jury is still out on this one, but the best resource I could find said to use spaces to be safe!
I am a electrician and also have experience as laborer foreman.if I am applying for a laborer foreman position how can I change job title?.
Electrician/Laborer foreman. It is ok apply this way.?
I am a Electrician and also have experience as a laborer foreman.If I am applying for Laborer foreman position how can I change my job title?
Electrician/Laborer foreman .is it ok apply this way?
Hi Praveen, yes that should be fine!
Despite being told my resume is perfect as is, I am not getting enough activity. I’m tweaking it to be more ATS friendly. How would you suggest I handle the gap in my employment from my last position to now. I returned to school full time and spent time for family. Should I add dates to my education to explain? You suggest no skill section but what about competencies? I’ve been using a more functional format because of my experience and the gap. Thanks!
Hi Rebecca, a lot of your questions need to be answered on a case-by-case basis. We’ll reach out to connect! Note I don’t say not to have a Skills section; you just need to include the skills in your Experience section as well, and not rely on the list of skills to “prove” you can do those things.
I retired for almost 3 years and am now trying to return to work. How do I list this on a resume? Also, I did very little except enjoy for the first 2 years, so little to no v
Hi Katherine, sometimes the best policy is just to put your last work experience on the resume and leave it at that! You will most likely get your next position through networking, which will make your employment gap less of an issue.
Hi Brenda! I am going apply to a recruitment event for cabin crew. I’ve been told they also use ATS system but as we will hand our CV as paper would that still matter that it has to be ats friendly. I mean can paper resume be scanned as well as electronic ones?
It’s possible they will scan your resumes into a system that can read them, so I would recommend submitting an ATS friendly resume just in case. In general, you do not have to consider ATS when you’re submitting a paper resume, but better safe than sorry!
I have just completed a volunteer work assignment in which I have volunteered for one year and 5 mos working in a field I really I like to do and which I had been doing for more than 10 years. In addition, there are 2 gaps in employment history before my volunteering work. I am also looking for a permanent job in the same field and I am taking online classes to help me in the field as well. How can I use the date format in my resume to hide my employment gaps and should/ how can I list continue education in my resume regarding my online class while still looking for job? Thanks for your help
Hi Bruce, you have a unique situation that I wouldn’t feel comfortable addressing without seeing your full resume and knowing more information. I think my $50 resume review service would be valuable for you. If that’s something that interests you, please go to https://theessayexpert.com/resume-review-special/. I’d be happy to speak with you about your choices and strategies!
I was laid off from a contract job through staffing agency working for a big company. I have gotten a few interviews for over 10 months, but no job offer.
I used a resume that was approved by the certified resume writer. I am sure you or other certified resume writer will offer a different opinion which format would be best suited for ATS. Would you take a look at my resume and share your feedback if I send you my resume?
Hi Nik, I have a $50 resume review service that might be useful for you. See https://theessayexpert.com/resume-review-special/. Otherwise please go through the tips in this article carefully and you should be in good shape!
I’ve been recently applying for executive assistant jobs in the “corporate world”. My most recent experience (15 years) has been working in the administration office for a large school district. (I had 5 years of corporate experience prior to that). Some of the feedback that I’ve received is that there are applicants for the positions with “significantly more corporate experience” than I have. Is there a way arrange my resume to overcome my work experience being with a local government agency and not corporate? Thanks for your help!
Hi Kris, you can use a hybrid resume format. I would recommend looking in that section of my book, How to Write a WINNING Resume. These don’t work as well with ATS – they are better for humans!
I’ve got three points of inquiry:
First, during my school years I did no professional work, and I haven’t worked in an office since my sophomore year’s summer. Other summers, I did odd jobs like canvassing for campaigns. Should I include those odd jobs so it looks like I didn’t only work for a summer?
Secondly, my friend in hr for a finance firm told me that columns are actually more preferred than tables (at least where he works). I was wondering if maybe all ATS are not the same? In that case, how would we decide whether to use columns or tables?
Lastly, what about custom resumes? I’ve heard that many people in the tech industry landed their jobs because of how “exciting and refreshing” their resumes were. In no way did their resumes look like they would pass an ATS, and they were all in PDF form. I was wondering if ATS isn’t used in the tech sector (tech people sound like they should be using such systems though..)? Should people applying in the tech field conform to ATS standard guidelines, or make their resumes unique?
Hi Daleth, yes I believe if you don’t have any other experience, you would need to include the “odd jobs” like canvassing.
Both columns and tables can present problems for ATS systems, so I would avoid both to be safe.
Custom resumes are great to send to decision-makers and to use at networking events. If you use one, you also need an ATS-friendly version to submit to online applications. The tech sector definitely uses ATS systems! PDFs can be ATS-friendly, depending on how they are formatted, but again, you need to be careful.
I hope these answers have been helpful!
Thanks for the article; really helpful. It’d be great if you can share a sample copy of the resume.
Why has ATS lagged behind all other technologies in that it can’t handle tables? They are a fundamental part of web pages and all search engines can handle them perfecly for decades, so the tech is there.
My CV looks horrible without tabular information, which in my industry is essential and I always get feedback from human agents that I need to have better formatting.
How do you satisfy both the bot and the human? Will ATS ever improve to handle 2018 document formatting?
Eddie, thanks for your comment. Your resume doesn’t have to look horrible without tables! Please send it to me and we’ll see what we can do to make it both attractive and ATS friendly. Note that ATS systems can read tables. They just don’t know what order to read the information so it can come out scrambled.
What is the best format to list employment dates?
As long as they are consistent, you can use any date format you’d like.
Hi Brenda. I know you emphasized key words being important. One format I found online actually had me put the role I’m applying for close by my name at the top of the document (not the header). Is this correct? Or should I avoid doing that?
I would need to see the format, Meghan, but it sounds like it would be okay.
Thanks for the help! Here are couple things many people probably like help with including me: (1) I list the points in jon descriptions by using the bullet feature which puts symbols in (big black dot). Should those be replaced by periods? (2) Confused re using tabs- they appear in the bulleted list between symbols and text. Should they also be removed and just use space bar? I also use tabs in the Core Competencies section so they appear as three columns – should this be removed and use space bar and put dash or asterisk between each skill and not try to make them line up? (3) unique problem – I leave out first 15 years of career and only show last 20. Unlike most people, I changed professions – law to business – and immediately held senior roles Director and then Corp VP. Since several of them were for 3-4 years not sure how excluding them affects AST system. Shows more job hopping but including them would add years for each skill , for example created marketing strategy in two of those jobs each held for five years. What are your thoughts for someone who is older with many good early positions (4)You noted not to combine cover letter with resume when attach resume to online application. Most online applications ask to attach just resume. But say nothing re cover letter. I have attached both as one document which you say is very bad since AST cannot utilize it and might then not read resume. If make it past ATS, will be very hard for HR to understand my “story” and how I can help company (I research the company) without cover letter. FYI, I have networked to no avail. I continue to try to send resume and cover letter to someone in LinkedIn network to get it past ATS when see there is a job. How can get cover letter included if apply for position online since cannot make one doc with resume due to ATS?
Kindly share what your service does.
Hi Max, answers to your question are as follows:
(1) No need to use periods. Bullets work!
(2) Tabs are fine as well. Line up those core competencies!
(3) If you need more years of a particular skill, then it makes sense to include the earlier positions. If not, it’s no problem to leave them out.
(4) Tough question. Have you gotten responses from any companies when you’ve included a cover letter? Some companies might allow you to include more than one document, or you might be able to send a separate application that includes a cover letter, if you know the name of the company.
My service writes “presentation” resumes and ATS-compatible resumes, as well as LinkedIn profiles. What services are you looking for?
It seems the key words are really important to ATS. Do you think to combine the resume with cover letter in one document and submit it as resume (there will be more key words) will in crease the success rate with ATS scan? Or does the ATS only read the resume format, and can not properly process a document with combination of normal sentences (cover letter) and bullet points (resume)?
Hi Vic, keywords in a cover letter would not help because they would not be associated with a position and a span of years. Combining the resume and cover letter when a cover letter was not requested would not be my recommendation. Your application could potentially be rejected.
I created my own resume which looks fantastic to the human eye but I realize now that I need to make a more ATS friendly resume. I’m currently using a large table for all of the formatting then convert it to PDF. The table basically puts a column of information on the left edge from top to bottom and Skills and Work Experience on the right-main body. You have addressed most points here that I’ve wondered about except for shading. I’m trying to figure out whether or not to use shading even when I get rid of the table. As an example, can I use light shading at the top where my name is? Or perhaps could I use a dark shading and put my name in a white font?
I’m also considering keeping 2 versions of my resume but I’m quickly getting overwhelmed seeing as how they should be updated for each position.
Hi BJ, the good news is that ATS systems nowadays can read text in any font and with any formatting such as shading, italics, etc. So use shading in whatever ways work well on the resume! It won’t affect ATS readability.
For keywords matching, I would suggest using CVScan UK. It’s a free tool specifically designed to compare a CV against a job description.
Thanks, Seb. In the U.S., jobscan does the same thing.