If you’ve applied to an online job listing, chances are the company uses an applicant tracking system (ATS) to parse through information about candidates. These programs collect data from hundreds of resumes and create streamlined profiles for each applicant. Employers can then search through the profiles using specific keywords, like a job title or skill, which instantly narrows their focus. Some programs even use an algorithm to rank candidates based on their perceived qualifications and relevance to the job listing.
Unfortunately, ATS software is far from perfect, and qualified candidates often slip through the cracks. On average, every job listing draws around 250 applicants, and of those candidates, less than a quarter are reviewed by a recruiter or hiring manager. To ensure you make it past the first cut, you need to design your resume with two audiences in mind: the ATS software and a hiring manager.
Cracking the Code: How to Write a Resume That’s ATS-Compatible
Even though employers use ATS software to help organize candidate information, real people are still responsible for making hiring decisions. The first round isn’t about beating the ATS—it’s about making your resume searchable.
Keywords are the phrases a recruiter might enter into a search query to find a relevant candidate. For example, if the recruiter needs to fill a position for a Senior Product Manager, they might enter the following keywords into an ATS system:
|User Experience||AB Testing|
Most employers are looking for candidates with previous experience, so they’ll probably search for the same title as the position they wish to fill and a variation of that phrase (like project manager and project management). If the position requires a degree, that could also be a keyword, in addition to some of the tasks the candidate will be expected to perform in their role.
When you’re trying to determine which keywords to include in your resume, it pays to do some research. Start with the job listing that you’re applying to and highlight the key qualifications. Then expand your search to include job listings for other positions that are comparable. You’ll probably notice a pattern emerge that shows which skills are the most valued in the industry—these are the areas you want to focus on in your resume.
Here are a few quick tips for using keywords effectively:
1. Match keywords exactly.
Some ATS algorithms will only pull the results that match a search query exactly. So if a recruiter enters “multivariate test” as a search term, candidates who use the phrase “multi-variate test” might not show up. Carefully review the language on the job listing and description. The person screening applications will likely follow the same spelling and grammar standards.
2. Use the long-form and abbreviated form.
If a keyword has an abbreviation, use both forms of the word. For example: “Used Agile to design the user experience (UX) in a series of sprints.”
3. Pay attention to keyword density.
Try to use the principle keywords at least twice throughout your resume. Some ATS programs measure the keyword density, which means the software will favor applicants who use the search term more than once.
4. Don’t force keywords.
Keywords need to appear in your resume if you want to pass the ATS screening—but at the same time, you don’t want to overuse keywords. Keyword stuffing can happen if your resume includes too much repetition, which makes the document unclear or unengaging. It can also occur if you use keywords that don’t speak to your experience. For example, if you use the phrase “product manager” throughout your resume, but you haven’t held that position before, this will raise concerns that you’re trying to rig the system. These tactics might help you rank higher with an ATS algorithm, but they’ll make a bad impression on the recruiter.
The best policy is to use keywords naturally without forcing them into the content.
Formatting your resume is almost as important as the information you include in it. On average, recruiters only spend 10 seconds or less reviewing each resume during the first round of screening. You only have a brief moment to make your most valued skills and qualifications stand out on the page. Formatting plays an important role in making sure your resume is easy to understand at a glance.
ATS programs add another layer of complexity because they can’t import rich text.
Here are a few tips on how to format your resume so you don’t lose any material in an ATS conversion:
1. Use plain text.
Most ATS programs can only import plain text, which means images, graphs, charts, columns, and text boxes could become distorted or be left out completely. You also don’t want to include essential information, such as your name and contact details, in a header or footer—these fields might not transfer at all.
2. Create headings that are descriptive and easy to navigate.
Use simple headings, like “Work Experience” and “Education.” These headings help the ATS program navigate the document and put the corresponding information into the right fields on your candidate profile. If you don’t follow a clear and consistent hierarchical structure, some of that information will probably be misplaced, which will make it more difficult for the recruiter to review your application.
3. Don’t reinvent the wheel.
Stick with a familiar resume structure, like a chronological form with a career summary at the top. A functional resume might help you disguise gaps in your work history, but it probably won’t filter appropriately through an ATS program.
4. Stick with a consistent format.
Be consistent about the layout for each section. For example, if you include the month and year for the start date of one position, you should follow the same format for the rest of your work history. This approach makes it easier for the ATS to parse through data, and it also helps demonstrate to a recruiter that you’re detail-oriented and organized.
5. Avoid special characters.
Use simple bullet points, like an empty or filled circle, instead of something less common, like an arrow. Special characters might not import properly into a plain-text field. On a similar note, you should choose a standard, legible font, like Arial, Helvetica, Garamond, Georgia, Times New Roman, or Verdana, and don’t use ampersands, asterisks, or other symbols.
6. Upload the right file format.
Your best option is to save your resume as a .docx file before you send it to a potential employer. Most ATS programs can read PDFs now, but some still view these documents as one large image—which means the information won’t be imported into your profile.
How Do You Know if Your Resume Will Import Correctly Through an ATS Program?
Today there are over 350 different types of ATS programs, so it’s impossible to prescribe one set of rules that guarantees your resume will get the attention it deserves. But taking these precautions will boost your profile and dramatically increase your prospects with a recruiter and hiring manager. You can double-check your work by saving a copy of your resume as a plain-text file (.txt). Then, reopen the file using Microsoft Notepad or Mac WordPad. If all the information from your resume is complete and formatted correctly, then an ATS program will probably import your material without a problem.
It’s also important to remember that there’s more than one way to approach the job search. If you have any contacts at the hiring company, ask for their help to make sure a recruiter reviews your resume directly. Additionally, you can optimize your online presence to help employers find more information about your work.
Getting a new job is challenging. For every online listing, only 4-6 candidates will probably get an interview. But with a little expert guidance, you can advance your efforts and find a career you love. Ivy Exec offers a suite of programs to help you meet your ambitions, including career coaching, resume writing, and more. Click here to learn more about our supportive community of high-caliber professionals.
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