Optimizing and Formatting Your Job-Search Resume for Applicant Tracking Systems

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Special to Quintessential Careers

The series of articles accompanying our Annual Report: Have Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) “Ruined” Recruiting, Hiring, and Job Search? include Applicant Tracking Systems 101: Understanding the ATS Technology That Dominates Online Job Search and Preparing Job-Seeker Resumes for Applicant Tracking Systems: Checklist and Critical Do’s and Don’ts.

The easiest way to ensure your resume will be accepted by an ATS is to submit a resume that is both ATS-friendly and human-reader ready. The two are not mutually exclusive; however, ATS-friendly resumes are formatted much more simply, while human-reader resumes may contain graphic elements that make the document easier to read and more appealing to the reader.

Because the ultimate goal is to have the resume reviewed by a human, even an ATS-friendly resume needs to be readable — and attractive — to human eyes. If you are given the choice to copy-and-paste the resume or upload a file, choose the upload option. Uploading will ensure the human-read resume retains the formatting you originally intended.

Some applicant tracking systems can manage graphics (or simply ignore them), but since many systems can’t handle graphics of any type, it is best to omit them if you suspect an applicant tracking system may be used to handle the application.

One way to ensure a match with a posted job is to “mirror” the job posting in the resume submitted online. Some ATS experts once recommended copying-and-pasting the targeted job posting at the end of the resume, listing it as a job. However, this technique is no longer recommended. A resume that matches too closely (that is, a 95 percent or higher match) may actually be flagged by the ATS. Instead, work to incorporate the job posting information into the resume organically.

Even if hiring managers aren’t using a formal applicant tracking system, they often file documents on their hard drive. Use your name and a keyword or two in the file name (i.e., JohnJonesSalesManager.doc) instead of the generic “Resume.doc.”

Hiring managers may use Windows Search or Apple’s Spotlight to help find a document on their hard drive. You can include search terms in the Keyword field in Microsoft Word. Under the “File” menu, choose “Summary Info” and insert the information in the keyword file. Separate the keywords and terms with semicolons.

Adding keywords to document summary of resume

The main body of the resume is critical — some ATS software cannot read header/footer information, so if you include contact information in those sections, it may not be read. (And note that geographic location can be used as a filter.)

Does an ATS-friendly resume have to be boring? Not necessarily — although formatting has to be carefully considered.

Format is extremely important. The employer name must appear before the date.

Work experience — your current and previous jobs — should appear in this format:
Company Name Date

The date should always appear to the right of the company name for optimum reading by the applicant tracking system. Dates can be included in almost any standard format — for example: November 2013, 11/2013, or Nov. 2013.

Work experience sections should also include the skills used in the role (including computer software and hardware, if relevant).

One nice thing about applicant tracking systems is that they are not sensitive to the length of the resume, so two or more pages are fine. However, they are sensitive to formatting issues.

Formatting a Resume For ATS Compliance:

  1. Open the file in Microsoft Word. Under the “File” menu, choose “Save As.” Rename the file (recommended format: LastNameJobTitle.txt) and save as “Text Only” (.txt) format.
  2. Close the Microsoft Word window. Open the .txt file in Microsoft Word.
  3. Fix any obvious formatting issues.
  4. List your contact information at the top of the document, with each piece of information on a new line. Label the phone number with “Phone:” and email address with “Email:.”
  5. Create section headings (if they did not previously exist in the resume). These can include “Summary,” “Work Experience,” and “Education.” Use one heading per section (do not combine “Education and Training,” for example), and include an extra return (an extra line) between sections.
  6. Use simple bullets or keyboard characters (*, -, or >). Do NOT use dingbats or other special characters, as these will not be read properly by the ATS.
  7. Highlight the text and choose a more appealing font than Courier. (Suggested fonts are Arial, Georgia, Tahoma, or Verdana.)
  8. Re-save the file as a .doc. (Under the “File” menu, chose “Save As.” Make sure you choose “Word Document” under the “Format” option.)

The easiest way to see how an applicant tracking system works is to try it out yourself. But since applicant tracking systems cost anywhere from $5,000 to several million dollars, we recommend using Jobscan, which gives job seekers an instant analysis of how well their resume is tailored for a particular job, along with how it can be even better optimized for an ATS.

Using Jobscan to Assess Your Job-Search Resume for ATS

Go to Preptel and click on the gold “Get Started Today” button.

Go to Jobscan and paste in the text of your resume plus the text of the job posting you’re interested in.

Adding resume to Jobscan Website for ATS comparison

After two resume scans, you’ll be prompted to create an account. Signing up for a Jobscan account is much simpler than most other online signups; all you have to do is enter your email address, ZIP code, and a password.

Signing up for ATS comparison with Jobscan

Once you’re signed up, you’ll be able to choose from three different membership levels. The first option is free, and offers 5 resume match rate calculations per months, 5 skill comparisons per month, and 5 keyword comparisons per month.

The second option is free for one month, and $49.95 per month after that. It offers unlimited resume match rate calculations, skill comparisons, and keyword comparisons. It also offers a 10 percent discount at CareerFoundry and listings for jobs that are a good match for you.

The third option offers the same benefits as the second option, but at the price of $89.95 every three months. That works out to $29.98 per month, which is a significant savings. No matter what membership option you choose, Jobscan offers 10 free scans for every friend you invite who joins Jobscan (up to 10 friends or 100 scans).

Jobscan ATS membership levels

The resume match rate is a score, on a scale of 0 percent to 100 percent, of how well your resume matches up with the job description you selected. Jobscan recommends aiming for a match rate of at least 80% to increase your interview chances. On the match rate chart, the light blue represents the words used on your resume, and the black represents the words used in the job description.

Jobscan's ATS resume match rate

The skills comparison compares the skills listed in the job description to those listed on your resume. The keyword comparison compares the keywords in the job description to the ones used on your resume. The more frequently a skill or keyword appears, the more important it is assumed to be.

ATS resume-skills comparison results

If you think that Jobscan has missed a skill listed in the job description, you can manually add it and then re-scan your resume for an update analysis.

You can also rephrase things in your own resume to take Jobscan’s recommendations into consideration. This can include changing section headings, adjusting the word count, and prioritizing keywords, among other things. Read through the skills and keywords that Jobscan’s analysis points out you are missing. In some cases, you may actually have the qualifications, but wrote them in a different format than used by the job description. Echoing the exact phrasing used by a job description can help increase your chances of being scored highly by an applicant tracking system.

Final Thoughts: Better to Connect with Humans in Job-Search

An applicant tracking system can be a real barrier when pursuing a position. Even if you are qualified, if your resume is not “read” correctly by the ATS, you won’t be considered unless you can reach the hiring manager directly.

Although applicant tracking systems are being used more and more in the hiring process, ultimately, people hire people. The computer might be used to conduct the initial screening, but the resume ultimately needs to be written to appeal to human beings. That means you can’t just stuff in keywords (to appeal to the applicant tracking system) and have it make sense to human readers.

If you are targeting a company with fewer than 100 employees. When you email your resume to one of these “small” employers, it’s likely to end up on a computer, but in someone’s email inbox, not in an applicant tracking system.

Which leads to the next important point: In addition to spending time making your resume more attractive to an applicant tracking system, you should also invest the other 50 percent of your time by making real-world, in-person connections (i.e., building your network) — or, at least, taking that time to develop a 100 percent complete LinkedIn profile and making virtual networking connections.

Keep in mind that some companies do not allow hiring managers to accept a resume unless it is submitted through an applicant tracking system — and that policy applies even if the candidate networks his or her way to the hiring authority or connects through social media. So we recommend today’s job seekers to focus on having an ATS-compatible resume while networking your way to your next job.

Gain additional insights into how you can improve your resume and succeed with ATS using these free Applicant Tracking System Tools for Job-Seekers.

Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.

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