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Written by Karl KahlerKarl Kahler

Resume ATS optimization: How to build an ATS-friendly resume

17 min read
Resume ATS optimization: How to build an ATS Friendly resume
The best resume ATS checker: Read our full guide and beat the Applicant Tracking Systems with our ATS-friendly resume builder.

ATS doesn’t really stand for “Always Target Specifically.” But that’s what you have to do to build a resume that passes the tests of the Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) that most employers use to filter resumes. An ATS (sometimes referred to as an “application tracking system”) is a software program that saves employers time and trouble by searching resumes for keywords that describe the qualifications they’re looking for in a job candidate. 

These systems scan resume content looking for desired keywords and then rank the resume according to how many it contains. The resumes that get the worst scores will usually be rejected without any human review, while those ranked highest rise to the top of the pile for a hiring manager to start reading.

For example, a magazine may be looking for “an art director with five years of experience, proven talents in illustration and design, and excellent skills in Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator and InDesign.” All the words bolded here are likely to be input by the employer into the applicant tracking system so that it can search for these resume keywords.

You may meet all of these qualifications in spades, and in fact you may be the ideal candidate for this job. But suppose you describe yourself as “a graphics artist with a proven track record in creating striking vector drawings and layouts using the latest industry software.” The Applicant Tracking Systems software is likely to rate your resume poorly because it doesn’t recognize that you meet any of the qualifications! 

You've described your work experience using words the system may not recognize because they weren't in the job description, starting with the job title (art director vs. graphics editor). This can either lead to being ranked at the very bottom of the pool of candidates or rejected outright if the requirements for this specific position are especially narrow.

An estimated 75 percent of all resumes are automatically rejected by ATS systems for reasons like this — without ever having been reviewed by a human being.  This is why it’s imperative for job seekers to understand how ATS programs work and how to optimize their resumes to pass their tests. Here are some tips to building an ATS-compliant resume that will help you “beat the bot.”

Check out this YouTube video with an introduction to the ATS:

Expert tip

How do I optimise my resume for ATS?

To optimise your resume for ATS, you use keywords that are relevant to the role. For example, skills and experience on the job spec.

Study job listings closely, and wherever possible use their language to describe your job qualifications

Fishermen who use bait that fish aren’t interested in will never catch a fish. And job applicants who ignore what employers are interested in will never land a job. It’s imperative to study every job listing closely to understand exactly what the employer is seeking. Obviously, you should never lie on a resume by claiming to have qualifications you don’t. But wherever you do have the skills mentioned in a job description, you must highlight these on your resume. This is what it takes to create an ATS-friendly resume. 

Take note of the precise language used in the job listing, and use the same phrasing in your resume. Some ATS programs will recognize synonyms, abbreviations or acronyms, but it’s best to take no chances. For example, an employer looking for expertise in search engine optimization may enter those precise words into the ATS resume scanner, or it may just enter the shorthand “SEO.” In such a case, it’s best to mention both the full term and the abbreviation: “search engine optimization (SEO).”

In some cases, your job search may have led you to a desired employer without a specific job description to work from. If so, do some research by studying its website or other relevant sources. To identify frequently used words on a web page, you can copy them all and paste them into a “word cloud” generator like WordClouds or Wordle.  Do your homework. Don’t fly blind.

ATS Resume optimization

Resume optimization is similar to SEO in that both are focused on using keywords and phrases that search engines will be looking for. However, if you overdo it your efforts will backfire. In the world of SEO, “keyword stuffing” is the practice of overusing desirable keywords to try to influence search engines to send you more traffic. However, this is considered a form of spam, and it ultimately does more harm than good. It causes search engines to down-rank your content — the precise opposite of the desired outcome.

Keyword stuffing results in sentences written in a way that nobody would write naturally. Remember that if you do “beat the bot,” a human being will read your resume next, and he or she is the one who actually does the hiring. Once you’ve identified the keywords you need, insert them thoughtfully into your resume, ideally within different sections. Some may be a good fit for the bullet points under your work history, others may belong under the skills section and others may work best in your profile. 

Use keywords in a way that sounds natural to the human ear. It doesn’t hurt to repeat them if appropriate, but do not repeat them over and over.

Customize your resume to each job application

One file type you never want to choose for your resume is stone. Your resume needs to be a dynamic, adaptable document that is customized for each prospective employer. In the old days, a resume was a piece of paper to be sent through the mails. Your parents may have gone to a print shop and had 50 copies printed on fine paper. That became their one-size-fits-all resume, the one they sent to every employer. But those days are long gone. A resume is an editable document that should be prepared individually for each prospective employer. This is what we mean by “Always Target Specifically.”

Expert tip

How do I know if my resume is ATS friendly?

If you are using skills and experience taken directly from the job description, the chances are that your resume is ATS friendly. Of course, only use those that you actually have!

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ATS resume formatting tips

There are many potential pitfalls in design and formatting issues, including file types, fonts, bullet styles and graphics that ATS programs can’t read. Some sources claim that ATS programs have trouble reading serif fonts, but this appears to be untrue. But using an exotic, avant garde font that looks weird is a bad idea in the first place, and in addition may confuse ATS software. For guidance on good and bad fonts, read our article on “What is the best font to use in a resume?”

Here are some more format tips:

  • Use a simple and clean format: Avoid using graphics, images, or complex designs. Stick to a standard font (e.g., Arial, Calibri, or Times New Roman) and use proper headings for different sections.
  • Avoid using tables and columns: ATS software can have difficulties reading information presented in tables or columns. Use bullet points and simple text layout to organize your content.
  • Tailor your resume to each job: Customize your resume to match the specific requirements of each job posting. Incorporate relevant keywords and phrases from the job description into your resume.
  • Use standard section headings: Stick to common headings such as "Summary," "Work Experience," "Education," and "Skills." Avoid using creative or non-traditional headings, as the ATS may not recognize them.
  • Save your resume in a compatible file format: Use a widely accepted file format like .docx or .pdf. Some ATS systems may not support less common formats.
  • Use appropriate keywords: Integrate relevant keywords and phrases from the job description into your resume. This helps the ATS identify your resume as a good match for the position.
  • Avoid acronyms and abbreviations: Spell out industry-specific terms, acronyms, and abbreviations, as the ATS may not recognize them. For instance, instead of writing "SEO," write "Search Engine Optimization."
  • Unusual bullet points — the small typographic symbols used to introduce items in a list — can also confuse the ATS. Stick with a solid round bullet, a hollow round bullet or a square bullet, but beware of anything fancier.

Graphics are also unreadable by ATS programs. You may have turned your name into a fancy logo that you want to place at the top of your resume, but if it’s a .jpeg, .png or .tif file, it’s unreadable by a machine. Text should never be converted to an image file in a resume.

Professional resume templates provide a resume guide to how to organize your resume. It should have A) a header with your contact information, B) a profile or summary, C) work history, D) education and E) skills. By the way, in case you’re tempted to rename the “Skills” section “Superpowers,” resist the urge. The ATS needs to know which section of your resume it’s reading, and it relies on simple terms like those listed above.

The file type you choose to save your masterpiece can also be your downfall. A PDF file is usually preferred, although some Application Tracking Systems programs can’t read PDFs and prefer Word documents. Check before you upload. If an employer specifically asks for a Word document, then by all means send a .doc or .docx file. Otherwise, stick to PDF. The best way to avoid all these pitfalls is to use a professional, field-tested template from resume.io. We’ve solved all these problems for you in advance — all you need to do is fill in your information.

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Questions people ask about ATS

These are some of the top questions that people ask about ATS programs, according to Google:

What is an ATS-friendly resume?

An “ATS-friendly resume,” or “ATS-compliant resume,” is one that uses the keywords in a job listing that the employer is likely to have input into its ATS scanner. It basically means that your information will get through to the hiring manager, but it doesn't mean that it will look exactly the same.

How do you write an ATS-friendly resume?

You write an ATS-friendly resume by reviewing a job listing (i.e., a “help wanted” ad), and including most of the key words and phrases used in the job listing in your resume. Also, make sure that the format of your resume is compatible with most ATS software. You don't want it disappearing into a black hole.

Are text boxes ATS friendly?

Use text boxes with caution. Some ATS programs may see them as objects and ignore them. Tables and columns can definitely also confuse the ATS. If you have a complicated story to tell with data, offer a summary and say that you are keen to share details during an interview. You can maybe share more detail on your LinkedIn profile. Links to external websites do not always work, so make sure to write out the full web address.

Do ATS systems scan cover letters?

An employer may or may not run both resumes and cover letters through its ATS software. It’s best to make your cover letter ATS-friendly just in case, but it’s more important that the ATS keywords be in the resume. The ATS will likely have the capability to store the cover letter, but it may not always upload it for the hiring managers to see at first glance. If in doubt, attach your cover letter.

Key takeaways

There is software available that will check whether your resume will pass the ATS test and what information will be parsed by the various software packages. Be aware that hiring managers may not be viewing your resume exactly as you are presenting it to them, so take care with fancy graphics or images. Certain software settings may simply convert your information into plain text to standardise every application.

  • Don’t be cute. Don’t use unusual fonts, splashy graphics or other gimmicks.
  • Don’t reinvent the idea of what a resume should contain. Stick to a proven ATS resume format with a logical hierarchy.
  • Don’t pack too much in. Nobody wants to read a resume that is wall-to-wall black text. Leave room for white space.
  • Don’t confuse keywords with buzzwords. Avoid resume clichés like “team player” and “self-starter.”
  • Don't forget to include a one-page cover letter. The failure to include a cover letter is one of the leading reasons resumes are rejected.
  • Don’t make any English mistakes. Surveys of recruiters have found that the most common reason a resume is rejected is because of typos, misspellings and bad grammar.
  • Don’t forget that the final arbiter of your resume will be a human being. Create a resume that is eye-pleasing, well-written and memorable.
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Resume.io is a leading provider of professional, field-tested resume templates for all occupations. We publish detailed, free resume-writing guides for every occupation imaginable. And our builder tool enables anyone to create a professional resume from start to finish in surprisingly little time.  

To get started, browse through our professional templates, choose one you like, and start filling in your own information. You still have to do the hard part — writing the resume — but we provide a proven framework and phrase suggestions as well. Eliminate the guesswork by choosing a pre-designed format that’s been proven effective.

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