Crafting Your Resume to Get Past an Applicant Tracking System (ATS) Resume Scanner

FT Contributor
: A stylized image of one online resume standing out among the rest
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Applicant tracking systems (ATS) are used by companies to appraise and sort resumes (among other things ). Increasingly, employers are using ATS software to ease the burden of vetting resumes. However, this can be a huge problem for job seekers. According to some estimates, as many as 75% of resumes are discarded by ATS software before they can reach an actual human.

At this phase in the selection process, the algorithm is built simply to thin the herd. The most efficient way to do that is to immediately eliminate candidates attached to resumes that lack certain keywords, as well as any resume that the program simply cannot read. Therefore, any job-hopeful’s first order of business should be to take a closer look at their resume keywords and formatting — or face the digital paper shredder.

Appease the Resume Scanner With the Right Format

The best format for an ATS to read is a simple one. In fact, employers tend to prefer simple resumes anyway. Being flashy does not help anyone’s prospects; at best it is unimpressive, and, at worst, it will be more difficult to read for both the recruiter and the ATS software.

The format that ATS software is most likely to be able to read is a Microsoft Office .docx format. Headers, footers, graphics, and unusual fonts are all liable to trip up an ATS as well. Headers especially are common culprits of ATS discardment. People tend to put contact information there, and an average ATS generally cannot read headers correctly.

A decent way to test how well the ATS can interpret the document is by copying or converting the whole thing into plain text format. You can do this either by saving the file as “plain text” or by copying the document into a program such as Notepad. If it translates well, and you can read the information without confusion, the ATS will likely be able to read it as well. If the prospective employer is asking that resumes be submitted in a certain format, always abide by that request.

Show the Bot Who’s Boss with Keywords

ATS software is looking for specific keywords when it scans a resume. As such, it is important to mention key terms that are applicable to the job. For example, when applying for a writing job, some good keywords might be “copyediting,” “research,” or “B.A.” Also, if an acronym is used, it is best to use both the acronym and the long-hand version, e.g. “SEO (Search Engine Optimization).” It is possible that the ATS could be looking for one or the other.

Which keywords will be the best to use depend on the specific job. There is no one-size-fits-all cheat sheet, but there are some rules of thumb regarding how one can discover good job-related keywords.

Perhaps the most helpful tool a job seeker has on this front is the job posting itself. Through this posting, the employer is telling prospective employees almost exactly what they are looking for.

Example: A job listing for a restaurant says, “We are looking for a full-time prep/line cook — food safety certification preferred.”

There are a few keyword clues one can glean from that. Some are straightforward. They are looking for a prep/line cook. Therefore “prep cook” and “line cook” are likely good keywords (however, as with all abbreviations on a resume, it would be best to include both “prep” and “preparation” in the document, in case only one is an ATS target keyword).  

As for the latter part of that statement, the keywords to look out for are “food safety certification.” However, most importantly, the poster likely wants to know which certifications the candidate has. Safety certifications can be federal or local. For a restaurant in Idaho, for instance, a better possible string of keywords would be something like “Idaho Food Handlers Card.”

Resume keywords are often associated with skills, titles, degrees, or certifications.

This technique, though effective, can feel nebulous. For those who prefer a slightly more concrete method, it can also be helpful to cross-reference the job posting with others that are very similar. If our hypothetical prep/line cook wants to work at Generic Restaurant A, they may want to look at job postings from Generic Restaurants B and C as well. They will probably find that all three repeatedly use the phrase “prep cook.” Therefore, that phrase has a great chance of being a target keyword.

The modern job seeker should be wary of keywords and their importance. However, it would be a mistake to hedge one’s bets by heavily packing a resume with keywords — especially the same ones over and over. It may get the resume past the gatekeeper, but it will then look awful to the human recruiter.

Be Specific — the ATS Is Watching

It is in an applicant’s best interest to create a specialized resume for each job they apply for. This is another thing that is relevant to both the machine and human elements. Recruiters want employees who will fit in with their company.

Check and recheck spelling with every resume update. If it was not already important enough to spell everything on a resume correctly, it is even more so in the face of ATS software. It is crucial to always keep in mind that ATS software does not appraise a document like a person does. To an ATS, a spelling mistake is not just concerning. It means that the system will not be able to understand the intended word or phrase at all.

Remember the Human Behind the ATS Curtain

Just as it is important to not forget how the machine views a resume, it is critical to not forget that the ultimate goal is to get the page in front of a human — and, moreover, to impress that human.

ATS software is mostly just looking for what does not work, rather than what does. When a resume reaches an actual person, that is the applicant’s opportunity to actually “wow” during the recruitment process, rather than just avoid a burn pile — Unlike software, a human being is capable of being impressed.

Additionally, employers may even assume, to a degree, that if a resume has gotten through the ATS at all, the person likely passes minimum requirements. As such, they are going to be more concerned with which candidate really stands out. Don’t miss the forest for the trees. A resume should awe the recruiter as well.

Image Source: Deposit Photos







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