Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) Resume Guide

Applicant Tracking Systems Article

Optimizing your resume for applicant tracking systems makes a massive difference in landing interviews.

If you could automatically be in the top 25% of candidates when you applied for a job, would you do it?

That's exactly how much of a difference that an ATS resume format can make.

What are Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS)?

Applicant tracking systems are software used to manage job postings and applications.

Their purpose is to identify the candidates that are most likely to be the best match for an available job.

To do this, ATS converts every submitted resume into a standard basic format. 

It removes fancy text styles and formatting before matching your resume content with the job description.

Applicant Tracking Systems automatically reject 75% of applicants.

By optimizing for this technology, you can put yourself in the top 25% of applicants - a significant advantage!

Which companies use ATS?

We all use software to streamline our lives. 

When we search for something on Google, they sort through all the matching websites to try to give you results that are the best match to what you're searching for. 

When you look up a product on Amazon, it sorts through sometimes hundreds of thousands of similar projects to recommend the best match for you.

Companies want this same efficiency when they're looking for candidates to fill a position.

That's where Applicant Tracking Systems come in. They help employers sort through dozens, hundreds, even thousands of resumes to find the handful that are a good match. 

Over 90% of large companies and a quickly growing number of small companies use ATS to manage all their applicants. 

How do Applicant Tracking Systems Work?

Applicant Tracking Systems are set up for each specific job opening a company has available. 

Key skills for a position are identified and loaded into ATS.

Sometimes this is done by the hiring manager - but more often it's done by the recruiter. This can make a big difference if the recruiter isn't very familiar with the type of position as they won't identify additional keywords.

Keywords can be weighted to give more value to certain words or terms. Words used multiple times in a job description are very likely to be considered more strongly in ATS.

Once the system is loaded and the job is posted for applications, ATS takes in the resumes submitted and strips the down to their basic content. 

A match score is created for each resume to identify those which best (and worst) align with the desired skills.

This allows companies to narrow down which candidates are most relevant to the position.

If a resume is considered to be a good match in the system, it is then sent to a person for review.

They confirm whether the applicant will be contacted to take the next step.

Applicant Tracking System - Technical Function

ATS usually uses optical scanning of characters - i.e. recognizes text within a document, even if it’s a pdf.

It’s very smart in this way, but not sophisticated enough to recognize fonts that are more complicated.

Because ATS scans for characters and words, it doesn’t play well with pictures.

ATS works best with simple formatting and clear wording. 

It looks for certain resume sections to check qualifications, and relies on standard naming of those sections. For instance, "Work Experience" for your job history, not “Jobs I've Held”.

ATS doesn’t play well with columns or anything other than the simplest of formatting. It is likely to miss some of your information if you use columns, tables, etc.

Do Applicant Tracking Systems Matter?

On average, ATS identifies less than 25% of all resumes as a close enough match to move forward in the hiring process.

This means that if you set up your resume to match the position well, you have a huge advantage over other applicants.

Because ATS creates a score for each resume on how well it matches for desired keywords, it’s key that you take time to modify your resume to reflect each job for which you apply.

Once you have your resume set up in an ATS friendly format, this should be a relatively quick process as you’ll be starting from a strong foundation.

On the other hand, if you don’t take the time to tailor your resume for each position, the most likely outcome is that ATS will reject you automatically for not being a match.

You will have wasted your time with applying by not taking the time to adapt your resume

Applicant Tracking System Resume Format

How do you apply information about how ATS works to your own resume? 

Resume Section Titles

ATS works best with clear wording and the section titles are no exception. 

Use common naming for your resume sections so that ATS can easily identify what is contained underneath. 

For instance, use the title Work Experience, not “Past Jobs” or “Fun Job Things I’ve Done”. This triggers ATS to extract the contents below this title and identify them with past jobs. 

If you include sections that aren’t standard for ATS, they normally will be completely ignored.

There are some times when this is ok. You can find out more about these exceptions in our resume course.

Font Types & Sizes

Applicant tracking systems use several different technologies depending on the manufacturer and how you submit your resume. 

Most use some version of Optical Character Recognition (OCR) to translate the text on your resume into characters and words.

OCR works the best when you use a straightforward, common font.

These types of fonts also appear professional to people reviewing them and are commonly installed defaults.

This is especially helpful if you send a text / word document version of your resume.

Columns and Pictures

There are many stunning graphic resume templates available for purchase and download.

While these look fantastic, they do not work with ATS.

ATS does not play well with columns or pictures.​

Avoid including them on your resume as their contents will not be counted toward matching the requirements.

There are certain jobs where a highly creative looking resume will stand out and make a difference - but this will be very industry specific and uncommon for most careers.​

It is much more important to make sure that your resume matches how companies recruit today.

Content Tips for ATS

Incorporate skills in your Work Experience

ATS does have a level of sophistication to its design. 

It may be tempting to make an extensive list of skills on your resume to match the job description.

However, a separate skills section may not have as much impact on ATS scoring as when the skills are contained within the Work Experience.

Incorporating the skills you have into the Work Experience gives you the opportunity to show how you’ve used those skills to accomplish different things.

Consider these two alternatives:

  • “Leadership skills”
  • “Led team to 10% performance improvement through increased employee engagement.”

Which stands out more to you?

Don’t try to be too clever

Remember that ATS is the starting point, not the last step.

A person will end up looking at your resume if you pass through ATS

Increasing your resume length excessively may increase the number of matches that are made during the ATS phase.​

However, an excessively long resume indicates to a hiring manager that you may have difficulties being concise and identifying key information.

Some candidates get around a long resume by adding words in white text in the footer of their resume.​

While this may increase the match score, it doesn’t convey the same information that a well-written Work Experience does. 

Additional Resources

Want even more help making your resume work with Applicant Tracking Systems?

Check out my step-by-step training to quickly write an effective resume.