How to Optimize a Resume for ATS Systems

Have you been struggling with the job application process? Wondering what could be holding you back from getting any type of response to your applications? Take a deep breath and relax, because the problem might have absolutely nothing to do with your qualifications, experience level or character. It’s very possible that ATS systems – or Applicant Tracking Systems – may be the source of your difficulties.

ATS systems are one of the most crucial components of the resume review process. These algorithmically-driven computer systems are designed to scan through and search for specific keywords (skills, phrases, experiences or tasks that are indicative of expertise and competency) in every resume from a specific job opening’s applicant pool. 

By doing so, these systems establish an automatically-ranked list of candidates for hiring managers to review at their leisure. Using these lists, employers can determine whether they want to learn more about a candidate in a matter of seconds.

Although ATS systems are undoubtedly an effective means of discovering high quality candidates for any job, there are numerous pitfalls to the technology which can lead to some of the most qualified candidates receiving zero consideration for a job. So if you’re a qualified candidate who’s struggling, listen up!

Here, I will outline five categories of focus that any job applicant can utilize to draft the most ATS-compliant resume possible.

Visual Formatting

When most job-seekers prepare their resumes, they are primarily concerned with the immediate reactions of hiring managers. This often leads candidates to emphasize elements such as formatting or graphics in order to appear unique or sophisticated. Have you ever been told that you needed to include fancy colors, tables, headers or other graphic design elements in a resume in order to get an employer’s attention? Although this advice is well-intentioned, it is completely false. In fact, doing so will actually put you at a strong disadvantage when facing any ATS system.

Your resume will be reviewed, processed and evaluated by a computer program long before it ever reaches the eyes of a human being. Therefore, resumes must always be formatted in accordance with what computer programs would consider valuable. And from the perspective of an ATS system, elaborate graphical schemes are not only meaningless but can also negatively interfere with the program’s functionality.

The truth is that although ATS systems continue to be improved and built upon to increase efficiency and accuracy, many of the algorithms and programs are simplistic, dated and limited in capability. Most ATS systems are not equipped to parse through complex or unusual formatting schemes. Sure, your revenue growth table or the bursts of color in your elaborately-crafted header might look impressive to the eye, but there is virtually zero chance that they will actually help you score an interview. In reality, they might actually cause your most important qualifications to be overlooked. 

With ATS systems, the positive human reactions to visual touches will not only be lost entirely, but the added elements will only make it more difficult for employers to receive and accurately review your resume. This means you should avoid including headers, footers, colors, tables, charts, images and other elaborate formatting elements in your documents.

Textual Formatting

In addition to visual elements, you will want to follow a general set of formatting guidelines to ensure that your text will be straightforward and easily-parsable for both ATS and employers.

First and foremost, work experiences should always be listed in reverse chronological order, beginning with your most recent position. With different chronological structures in place, ATS systems become vulnerable to confusion and may detect non-existent employment gaps in your career history.

With regards to visual style, most ATS systems are designed to scan only common and simplistic fonts. It is always most appropriate to use a traditional font such as Times New Roman, Palatino or Helvetica for your resume. ATS scans can produce unpredictable results when less common or unusual fonts are present.

Lastly, you will always want to label each section of your resume with the most direct terminology possible. For example, you should always label the section containing your job history as “Work Experience”, “Professional Experience”, “Professional History” or another similar short phrase. Unusual labels such as “The Story of my Career” or “All of my Jobs” can confuse the ATS system, causing your information to be mislabeled or placed out of order.

Job Description Keywords

Typically, ATS systems will scan for two categories of keywords: job description-based or field-specific. Depending on which ATS system is in place, the algorithms will scan for either one or both types of keywords. To ensure that your resume complies with the specifications of every ATS system, you should prepare to include both job description-based and field-specific keywords.

Before submitting a resume, applicants should always plan to carefully read their job descriptions and highlight any standout phrases or required skills. From there, you can determine which keywords and phrases most accurately apply to your professional profile, then work them into your resume. In order to implement a large amount of keywords with ease, include a “Skills” section in your resume. Not only does this section help optimize your resume for ATS systems, but it provides hiring managers with a coherent and comprehensive glimpse into some of your most valuable attributes as a worker.

Field-Specific Keywords

Some ATS systems focus more heavily on keywords that are broadly applicable to a particular career field. Generally the more high-level, hyper-specific and versatile your skill set is, the more likely that you will achieve a higher ranking in an ATS-produced applicant list.

Consider doing research into your target career field. It’s important to understand which abilities and experiences are most heavily emphasized and valued by recruiters and hiring managers in your professional realm. If you were in their shoes, what would be the most crucial and significant skills and assets to seek out in candidates? 

Additionally, there are numerous transferable skills which function as keywords in almost every career field. For example, phrases such as “interpersonal communication”, “problem-solving”, “adaptability”, “team leadership”, “staff supervision” or “cross-functional coordination” are universally sought-after by employers and can apply to almost any job opportunity.

You should avoid excessive inclusion of keywords, especially those which are not applicable or suitable for your experience level. Some applicants will even attempt to include “invisible” keywords in white text. Doing this will not help you get hired. Maintaining honesty and integrity is always crucially important, and hiring managers will surely take notice if you are exaggerating or blatantly trying to cheat the system. ATS optimization is an incredibly useful tool, but overdoing it will only yield negative results.

Writing Style

There are several key stylistic elements to keep in mind when writing an ATS-optimized resume. All documents should be written in a direct, professional and concise tone in order to leave a confident, sophisticated impression. This means eliminating all colloquialisms, idioms and other informal language from your writing. Although resumes should always be written in first-person point-of-view, first-person pronouns such as “I” and “my” should be eliminated from all text and treated as implied words.

In order to boost your ATS ranking, any phrases, skills or titles which involve acronyms should be notated with both long-form and acronym formats. For example, an acronym such as CRM should be written as both “CRM” and “Customer Relationship Management”.

To ensure that your resume is effective, include four key sections: overview, skills, work experience and education as well as add sections for any additional relevant information. This may include volunteer experience, certifications, technical proficiencies, awards, organizational affiliations, publications and media appearances. All of these lead to ATS systems noticing your resume over the rest.

Looking to have a professional optimize your resume for ATS systems? Click here.

Henry Klein is an experienced professional resume writer who currently manages the Chicago Lakeview office of A Better Resume Service. He is passionate about his work, dedicated to helping clients achieve their career goals and gain valuable knowledge about the job search process. In his free time, Henry likes to cook, produce various styles of music, read novels and go running.

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