What is an ATS and How to Optimize Your Resume to Pass ATS Scans?

 In Resume Advice

Most of the Fortune 500 companies use applicant tracking systems (ATS) to collect and sort applicants’ resumes. ATS is software that scans, sorts, and tracks resumes to help recruiters narrow down the candidate pool. Besides helping recruiters and hiring professionals to eliminate under-qualified candidates, applicant tracking systems have CRM-style features that make it easy to contact candidates, send job postings, or collect proof of compliance. Some of the commonly used ATS’s are Taleo, iCIMS, Greenhouse, Jobvite, Brassring, Lever, CareerBuilder, and CATS. Large companies are also known to use their proprietary applicant tracking systems, and many ATS algorithms are not 100% clear.

ATS’s are designed to identify key requirements and keywords in resumes and ensure that the best matches are passed on to the hiring managers. This is why many job candidates wonder how to pass ATS resume scans and make their resumes ATS-compatible. There are about 200 different ATS’s, and you can never know how exactly they are programmed for your target roles. First, focus on writing your resume for the decision-makers in your industry. You will optimize it for the applicant tracking system as the last step.

What should I know before focusing on ATS optimization?

An important point to keep in mind is that you have two main avenues for finding a job: networking and online job applications. When you prioritize networking, you are building relationships and competing with fewer applicants; your target employers are focusing on your value and unique professional offer. You may be the first person they will think about when a new role opens in their organization. When you apply for an open position online, you are entering a pool of 100-300 candidates. The employer may be choosing candidates based on price and other factors that are not necessarily in your favor.

Either of these two ways of looking for work can offer good results. I recommend prioritizing networking via conversations with colleagues, target employer research, your LinkedIn presence, and your activity in professionals associations. If you find a job posting online that is a great fit (you meet 75%-100% of the requirements), you will prepare your job application for this specific role, make your resume ATS-compliant, and follow up actively with the hiring manager to make sure you are one of the 3-5 people selected for an interview.

Why are job seekers concerned about ATS?

For job seekers, applicant tracking systems are not a reliable tool. They can wrongfully eliminate candidates from the applicant pool because of resume formats or lack of the right keywords. Since ATS is not entirely in your control, do not worry about starting with ATS resume templates; instead, focus on the areas of the job search that can offer you more information and certainty: network with decision-makers and potential colleagues, follow up after sending your job application, and look for opportunities that allow you to get your resume to the actual person.

How do I know the company I’m applying to uses an ATS?

Most Fortune 500 companies use some ATS. After you click the link to apply on the company’s website, take a look at the URL where you were redirected. It would usually include the name of the ATS system like ApplyNow or BrassRing. Check that URL carefully even though it may still look like you are on the company’s website.

You can Google that URL to clarify the information further. You can also visit the site(s) of the ATS companies and view their demos to understand their algorithm further. This may be worthwhile if you are targeting a specific role at a specific company that uses a specific ATS and you have exhausted your options in getting your resume directly to the hiring manager or following up with the decision-makers (via LinkedIn Premium, for example).

Where on the resume should I add relevant keywords for ATS optimization?

To make sure your resume is noticed and selected, put some of the top requirements from the job description into your Career Summary and Areas of Expertise (marked with green arrows on the screenshot below). Then, identify decision-makers on LinkedIn, connect with them, and let them know about your key strengths.

How do I optimize my resume for ATS?

Make sure your core skills and achievements are easy to identify and read. When you upload your resume into an ATS, the text is parsed to make it searchable and the formatting often gets disrupted. ATS algorithms can distort or eliminate portions of your resume. When applying online, consider using a plain text version of your resume with simple sections and no graphic elements. Relevant keywords are easy to add to the top part of your resume. An ATS-compatible resume is chronological and has clear sections so the recruiter could identify your hard skills and expertise quickly.

How should I use keywords for ATS-compliant resumes?

  • Read a job description carefully and mark the top requirements and job-specific keywords.
  • Use them in your Career Summary and Areas of Expertise.
  • Show a culture fit by highlighting your soft skills.
  • Use a keyword not more than 2 or 3 times in your resume.
  • Do not “keyword stuff” your resume as it will be red-flagged by the ATS.
  • Use keywords as they appear in each specific job description. ATS may not always distinguish between spelling variations (for example, front-end and front end).
  • Keep the format simple. Many applicant tracking systems cannot read tables and graphics.
  • Edit job titles to fit the role you are applying for. (If you are applying for an Executive Assistant role but the target job title in your resume header is Administrative Assistant, you need to make edits accordingly).

What resume format works best for ATS?

  • Do not put your contact information in the MS Word header or footer. ATS will not read those.
  • Do not include any critical information (Education, Certifications, etc.) in text boxes. They will not be read either.
  • Create a well-structured .txt file with clear headings (WORK EXPERIENCE, EDUCATION, AWARDS) and career entries (use a separate line for COMPANY, EMPLOYMENT DATES, and ROLE TITLE).
  • Remove “MBA” designation after your last name in the header, if applicable. It may be misread by the system.
  • Use * for bullet points in your .txt resume.
  • You can also upload your resume as .rtf or .doc format.
  • Choose standard, sans serif fonts like Arial or Calibri.

Here is how your ATS resume may look in PlainText format:

How can I edit my resume content for ATS?

  • Read the job description carefully and highlight the top requirements. Note the ones that are currently not on your resume.
  • Update the role title on the resume using the exact words of the role title in the job description.
  • Optimize the top part of your resume (career summary and areas of expertise) with several exact keywords from the job description.
  • Add all details and achievements you want. There is no length limit for ATS; however, it is best to strike a balance between completeness and concision (2-3 pages).
  • Spell out all abbreviations.

What other resume formats should I use when applying for jobs?

  • You can keep your resume in several formats for convenience: PDF for email applications, .docx for editing, and .txt for ATS.
  • Because ATS’s are not error-proof and qualified candidates sometimes get eliminated, always follow up by email or phone within 5 business days to check if your resume was received and to offer additional information (references, tests, samples, etc.).
  • When following up by email, attach your visually appealing resume in PDF and bring a print copy with you to an interview.

Finally, as with all texts that are optimized for technology, consider your ultimate reader and keep it human. Your resume will be read by the person with whom you want to start a conversation. Provide them with the essential information (your measurable achievements) and remove the unnecessary details.


Top Applicant Tracking Systems in 2020

Interview with James Hu, the founder of Jobscan, about ATS functions and processes

A recruiter’s perspective on ATS by Kristen M Fife

About the author:

Tanya Mykhaylychenko provides resume writing and career strategy services. Connect with her on LinkedIn for networking tips and ideas on career development.

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