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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, there's a free online service that job-seekers can use to mimic the ATS.


Preptel is a "candidate optimization service that showcases an individual's strengths and provides the insight to compete in today's competitive job market." It allows job-seekers to assess their resume using the criteria an applicant tracking system uses.


Using Preptel to Assess Your Job-Search Resume for ATS

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


You will be taken to a New Member Registration page. Enter a username, your first and last name, email address, and choose a password.


Once you've entered that information, a screen will briefly appear while the system processes your registration data.


You will now be taken to the Resumeter setup page. The first step is to add your resume. Your resume should be saved in Microsoft Word (.doc or .docx) or text (.txt) format. Do not use a PDF or RTF format.


You will also have the option to use your LinkedIn profile instead of a resume. (When possible, use a resume instead of your LinkedIn profile, since the resume can be changed to fit the specific position you're applying for.)
Adding resume to Preptel Website


Make sure you select the button next to "File Upload" and then click "Choose File." Browse your computer to find the resume file and click the "Choose" button. The file name should now appear next to the "Choose File" button.


Give this document a name. You can upload multiple resumes to the system, so be sure to name the file distinctively so you can tell it apart from the other resumes you upload.


Then click the "Add Resume" button.


That box will now be a darker shade of gray and a "Step 1 Completed" box will appear.


Next, so Preptel's Resumeter can determine whether your resume is a good fit for the type of positions you're seeking, enter information about your desired job in the "Find the Right Jobs" section.
Preptel's Resumeter can determine whether resume is a good fit


When using this section, the fewer the keywords you include, the more possible matches you will receive, since all the keywords listed must appear somewhere in the job description or posting.


Once you've entered the information, the number of job matches will be revealed, the message "Step 2 Complete" will appear, and that section will also be grayed out.


In the case pictured, the keywords "sports management" yielded 10 jobs. (At the right side of the box, you can see, "10 Jobs Found" and a preview of those jobs.)


You will not be able to make any changes to your selection once you click the "Search" button. But you can run numerous searches once you've returned to the main screen.


The next step is optional. You can choose to connect your LinkedIn account to your Preptel account, which will allow you to view how many connections you have at the target company.


If you choose to connect the two accounts, click the "Login With LinkedIn" button.


You will be asked to enter your LinkedIn email and password and then click the "Ok, I'll Allow It" button to connect Resumeter to your LinkedIn account.


If you successfully link the two accounts, you will receive the following message in the "Harness Your Network" section:
Preptel's Harness Your Network


Click the blue "Continue" button. You will get a brief "Step 3 Complete" message before being taken to the Resumeter home page.
Preptel's Resumeter home page


Now, we want to see how your existing resume (that you just uploaded) relates to a job posting you'd likely apply to. The number of stars under the job title indicate likely matches. (If you see multiple positions that interest you, you can analyze them one at a time.)


To compare your resume with a position, click the green "Save This Job" text to the right of the job description.


Preptel's Resumeter will analyze the resume compared to the job. You can quickly see how the existing resume is ranked as well as what information is missing (keywords and other data). You'll also see how many of the existing keywords in the resume match the job description.


Remember, this tool analyzes the resume you uploaded with just one job posting, so it's being compared with just this job to determine how much of a match there would be if the resume were submitted through an applicant tracking system. Do not be discouraged if the initial resume rating number is low.
Preptel's Resumeter initial resume rating


You can fine-tune the resume to be a better match using the four sections listed below the job title: Review Resume, Missing Information, Missing Keywords, and Partial Keywords.


The default section is "Review Resume," which shows you what the resume looks like when it has been parsed and separated into sections for the applicant tracking system database. In this section, you can identify when the formatting or information in the resume is interfering with the system's ability to accurately categorize the data in your resume.


You can also use the "Edit" function for each section to update or correct information. If you find significant errors while reviewing this page, you can correct them in the original Microsoft Word document and then choose the "Upload New Resume" option in the upper right-hand corner.


Next, click on the "Missing Information" tab, which will identify if the applicant tracking system is not picking up critical information -- in this case, the applicant's name did not come through the ATS.


Here is a screenshot of the resume submitted to the Preptel interface:
screenshot of resume submitted to Preptel interface


Although the name was on the original resume, you can see it did not get picked up by the ATS.
missing resume information screenshot


Add the missing information, and click the "Save" button on the left hand side of the page.


Once you have corrected any missing information (highlighted in red by the Resumeter system), click on the "Missing Keywords" tab. In this step, you can significantly improve your resume's ranking.
missing resume keywords screenshot


On the left panel are keywords that appear in the job description but not in your resume. Clicking on each link will display the keyword in the context of the job description.


Evaluate each missing keyword/short phrase and determine if you have the skill or qualification desired.
job description skills versus resume keywords screenshot


Although Resumeter has identified a keyword phrase that is missing, you can make it into a full sentence or longer in the resume. Type the information into the box under the second section ("2. Use the keyword phrase in a sentence.")


Position your cursor in the spot in section 3 where you want the new sentence(s) to appear and click the "paste" button that appears to the left of that section. The sentence(s) will be pasted in that section. If it does not appear in the correct spot, copy-and-paste the phrase and place it where it should appear.
adding resume keywords screenshot


Be sure to click the "Save" button on the left-hand side of the page to apply your changes. When the change is applied, the affected keyword(s) will disappear from the list of missing keywords. Repeat this for each missing keyword you can legitimately add to the resume. As you add information and address missing keywords, the resume ranking will increase.
resume ranking change screenshot


You can see that the "Missing Keywords" number has dropped from "7" to "0," while the "Resume Rating" has increased from "31 - WEAK" to "57 - STRONG." The indicator on the left side has also changed from yellow ("Ready to Tune") to green ("Ready to Apply.") But you can improve your ranking still further.


Next, click on the "Partial Keywords" tab. This section extrapolates keywords from the job description, but the context may not as clear as the "Missing Keywords" section. You may find it more difficult to incorporate these "Partial Keywords" into the revised resume, but give this section a review anyway.


Click the "Edit" button on the left side of each section to make changes. Be sure to click the "Save" button to ensure changes are applied.


When you are finished, scroll down to the bottom and click the "Save All" button.
resume save all screenshot


The more changes you make, the higher your ranking will become.


Now that you've made changes to the document, click the "Download Resume" button in the upper right-hand corner. Save the file to your desktop but be sure to read through it again carefully before using it to apply for the position. (Remember, this version of your resume has been tailored specifically to one specific position's keywords and requirements.)
final resume rating screenshot


The revised resume will open in a new window. Select all the text and copy-and-paste into a new Microsoft Word document. Reformat the document. For example, change the font to one of the ATS-approved fonts. You will also notice that the order of some information has changed. Feel free to change the order of the information so that is correct for human readers.


Save the file and name it specifically for the position it targets -- for example, "JaneJob-seekerAssociateDirectorADA.doc" This specific naming will make it easier for you to determine which position the resume targets, and it may also help a recruiter or hiring manager retrieve the correct file later on by including your name and the job title as keywords in the file name.


To test your work, you can choose the "Upload New Resume" option and re-upload the file you just created and make sure the resume rating is the same as before.


You can track your applications using the "Jobs I Want" dashboard. (Click on "Jobs I Want" in the upper right-hand corner.)


You can also learn how to use Preptel's Resumeter service by watching this video.


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.


Another important factor to consider is that applicant tracking systems -- although certainly used in most of the largest companies -- are not yet pervasive. The simple fact is that most resumes are ready by people, not machines, so appealing to human readers remains priority No. 1 -- especially 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: Instead of spending a lot of time trying to make yourself more attractive to an applicant tracking system, you would be better served 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.


Either of those techniques will yield you a much higher likelihood of job search success than spending an equivalent amount of time cracking the ATS code.


According to Preptel, 75 percent of resumes don't comply with applicant tracking systems. If you can't bring your resume into compliance, you need to find another way to get yourself in front of the hiring manager.


The imperative for more personal job-seeking is especially important if you are considering changing careers. Applicant tracking systems are not kind to career changers.


However, 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.



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.


Maximize your career and job-search knowledge and skills! Take advantage of The Quintessential Careers Content Index, which enables site visitors to locate articles, tutorials, quizzes, and worksheets in 35 career, college, job-search topic areas.



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