Beating the Applicant Tracking Systems: What You Need To Know

The majority of companies now use an ATS. This guide contains everything you need to know to beat the ATS and get your resume into the hands of a real person.

4 months ago   •   10 min read

By Resume Worded Editorial Team
Table of contents

It isn’t just a trend — Applicant Tracking systems (ATS) are here to stay. Reports from the past few years suggest that up to 75% of companies use an ATS, including nearly 100% of Fortune 500 companies. Luckily, getting your resume past the screener isn’t as hard as you may think. This guide contains everything you need to know about beating the ATS and getting your resume into the hands of a hiring manager.

What is an Applicant Tracking System?

Applicant Tracking Systems are automated programs that scan resumes for specific keywords and filter out any that don’t meet their criteria. But even the ATS isn’t perfect — in fact, over 60% of companies admit that some qualified candidates are probably being filtered out.

Why do companies use ATS?

If it’s so flawed, why use it? The simple answer is, it saves companies time and money. The average job posting gets over 250 applicants, and a lot of those are the result of job hunters mass applying to every semi-relevant job they can find. Instead of paying an employee to manually read through every application, an ATS can quickly scan resumes and filter out unqualified applicants, narrowing down the pool to a much more reasonable size.

What do ATS look for?

There’s no one size fits all. It’s important to understand that the keyword searches are always decided by a real person. The hiring manager decides what non-negotiable work experience and hard skills they’re looking for, and they’ll search their ATS or their resume database for those keywords.

Are some Applicant Tracking Systems different?

There are different kinds of ATS, but they all do the same thing. You don’t need to worry about figuring out which specific ATS you’re up against — this guide will ensure your resume gets read by all ATS, no matter what software they use.

Will a real person read my resume?

Yes! The ATS is just the first step. Once your resume gets past the ATS, it will be manually reviewed by the recruiter or hiring manager. This means no keyword stuffing or cheap tricks like including a copy of the job description in your resume. The ATS doesn’t decide who gets the job — just who gets in the front door.

How do Applicant Tracking Systems actually work?

Still confused? Here’s a look at ATS in action:

  • A company has an opening for a Software Engineering role that requires experience with Java.
  • The opening is posted on popular job search sites like Indeed.
  • The hiring manager receives 250+ applications from people with backgrounds in sales, marketing, and human resources as well as those with software engineering experience.
  • The company searches their ATS for the keyword (“Java”) in all resumes.
  • The ATS shows resumes that have the relevant keyword (“Java”) and those without.
  • The hiring manager reads only the resumes that mentioned Java.

The benefits? The hiring manager now only has to read a manageable number of resumes and hasn’t wasted their time on a hundred applicants without the necessary experience. Potential downsides? Some exceptional candidates may have resumes that couldn’t be read by the ATS and were discarded in error or may have forgotten to explicitly include Java knowledge on their resume. Despite that risk, more and more companies are making the switch. That’s where we come in — our guide aims to minimize the number of job seekers getting unfairly rejected.

How to beat the ATS: Step-by-step

It might seem complicated, but beating the ATS is only about two things: readability and relevancy. What does that mean in practice? Let’s break it down, step by step.

Readability: Make your resume readable

An ATS scans your past experience and skills to determine whether you're a good fit. If it can’t read your resume, it will assume you don’t have what the company is looking for and will automatically discard your application. Obviously, we don’t want that to happen, so here’s how to prevent it.

Ensure the resume scanner can read your resume

There’s an easy way to check — just upload your resume for free to Score My Resume and ensure your sections and bullet points are correctly identified. With our free resume scanner, you'll also get detailed feedback on how to improve your resume's impact and bullet points. That way, you'll also impress a recruiter after the initial resume screen.

Use a standard template

This one is good advice whether you’re preparing your resume for an ATS or not. A single-column layout is best; while some ATS are getting better at reading multi-column layouts, they can still glitch and parse things incorrectly. For example, if your work history is in one column and your education is in another, an ATS could read them as one single section and fail to properly understand your experience.

Use a standard one-column template to ensure your resume gets read correctly by ATS
Use a standard one-column template to ensure your resume gets read correctly by ATS

Don’t fall for the common misconception that you need to use a fancy or creative template in order to stand out — keeping it simple is the best strategy. Our professional ATS resume templates are already optimized for ATS to give you a headstart.

Ensure your text is highlightable

Don’t scan and upload your resume — this can make it nearly impossible for the ATS to read. Not sure if your resume is scanned? Open it in Chrome, Preview, or Adobe Acrobat Reader and see if you can highlight/select the text.

Ensure your resume content is highlightable like here, so it gets read by ATS
Ensure your resume content is highlightable like here, so it gets read by ATS

If you can’t highlight the text, neither can the ATS, and this means it won’t be able to read it.

Use a PDF format (always)

Generally, it’s better to submit your resume as a PDF. Why? Different versions of Word can change your layout, fonts, and formatting — chances are you’ve worked hard to make sure your resume looks good, and you shouldn’t risk messing that up. It’s also more easily shareable - with PDF, recruiters and hiring managers don’t need to have Office installed to read your resume. That said, you can use Word if it’s been explicitly asked for.

Create your resume in a simple program like Word or Google Docs. Using Photoshop or fancy online resume builders might seem like a good idea, but the PDF you create will end up as an image that isn’t highlightable.

Don’t get creative with fonts and images

When it comes to resume visuals, it’s time to go back to basics. Stick with standard sans serif fonts like Arial, Calibri, or Garamond. Some newer fonts convert letters to special characters which often get scanned incorrectly by the ATS.

The same rule applies when it comes to using pictures. The ATS also won’t process images, so avoid icons, graphics, pie charts, and diagrams. And not just because of the ATS — recruiters and hiring managers also prefer a simple, clean resume. Some resume builders often suggest showing skills as bar charts or graphs - avoid doing this!

Use standard section titles

This is another thing hiring managers don’t love, and it gets even worse when an ATS gets involved. Avoid trying to liven up your resume with non-standard section titles like, “My career in a nutshell.” “Work experience” already says everything it needs to, and it’s what the ATS will be scanning for, so don’t make it any harder to find than it needs to be.

Again, avoid using icons, images, or creative fonts — if the ATS can’t identify the section, it won’t know what it’s reading. And stick to reverse chronological order for your work experience. Not only is that the standard that recruiters expect, but it’s also how ATS are programmed to interpret your experience section.

Use standard section titles so your resume gets read correctly by ATS
Use standard section titles so your resume gets read correctly by ATS

Make sure the ATS — and the real person who’s going to read your resume afterward — understands exactly what you mean (without having to think too hard about it).

Don’t use tables

Similar to multi-column layouts, tables rarely get parsed correctly by ATS, so it’s best to avoid them entirely. Use tabs and right/left aligns to structure your resume instead.

Relevancy: Keep it relevant to the job

Now that you know an ATS can actually read your resume, it’s time to make sure it reads the right things! Tailoring your resume to target the skills and experience the employer is looking for will give it a high enough score to get it past the ATS and into the hands of a recruiter.

Use the right keywords

There are a couple of easy ways to make sure your resume includes the keywords an ATS is likely to be searching for. One is by cross-referencing the job posting. Our Targeted Resume tool can do the work for you by analyzing the posting and telling you what keywords you’re missing. And remember to save the job description when you apply — the employer may take the opening down by the time you get to the interview stage, and you’ll want to have it handy as a reference.

Another way is to check out our database of resume skills and keywords. We analyzed over a million job posts to find the most relevant skills from each industry. Simply search for the title of the job you’re applying to and it will generate a list of keywords for you to include.

Target your resume to a job description using Targeted Resume and find out if your resume has the right keywords an ATS is looking for
Target your resume to a job description using Targeted Resume and find out if your resume has the right keywords an ATS is looking for

Avoid keyword stuffing

Including keywords = good. Keyword stuffing = bad. So what’s the difference? Use keywords in the right context and don’t overuse them. It’s better to use a handful of keywords naturally throughout your resume than to have a whole section of gibberish. The latter may help you get past an ATS, but it’ll get that same resume thrown out as soon as it hits a recruiter’s desk. The trick is to identify the most relevant or “high value” keywords and use those sparingly — never compromise the readability of your resume for the sake of including less relevant information.

Know where to include keywords

The best place to put most of those keywords is in your skills section. This can be easily customized for each job you apply for and will only take a couple of minutes. The results are well worth the effort!

Use a skills section to include keywords from the job description that will get you past ATS
Use a skills section to include keywords from the job description that will get you past ATS

You can list skills by category to make it even easier for the hiring manager to read.

Use keywords in your work experience section to get past ATS
Use keywords in your work experience section to get past ATS

Another great place for keywords is in your work experience section. This approach allows you to demonstrate how you’ve used those skills in action by including them as part of your bullet point accomplishments.

List your skills in your project section to ensure you get past ATS
List your skills in your project section to ensure you get past ATS

You can also include keywords in your projects section, if you have one. Including hard skills along with quantifiable metrics is a good way to optimize your resume for a real person at the same time.

Use the same spelling and format

If you can, try to include each keyword exactly as it appears on the job description. This means using the same spelling and abbreviations, but not including endless variations of the same keyword or twisting your sentences until they’re no longer grammatically correct. If the keyword is an acronym, include both the full and abbreviated form.

You should also use the exact job title you’re applying for somewhere on your resume. If you’ve held a similar job before, this one is pretty easy. If you’re applying for a Business Analyst position and your current title is Analyst or Data Analyst, consider changing it to Business Analyst, using a combined Data Analyst/Business Analyst title, or using the term Business Analyst in your bullet points. Using a slightly different version of your job title isn’t dishonest as long as it’s still a true reflection of your actual job (and this goes double if you have a buzzword-filled title like Business Ninja — it’s best to change that to a more standard title no matter what).

This doesn’t mean you should lie — if you’ve never held a similar position, don’t try to make it look like you have! Getting past the ATS isn’t worth much if you have to backtrack on what you’ve said in your resume during an interview.

Don’t use buzzwords

Buzzwords and soft skills have no place on your resume. Every employer is looking for motivated, hard-working team players with leadership skills, but it’ll take a lot more than simply saying you fit the bill to make that convincing. Even if they’re on the job description, keywords like those are ones you can leave off your resume guilt-free. Instead, demonstrate those qualities through your accomplishments. "Delivered [project] as project manager in a cross-functional team of [x] people,” tells a recruiter or hiring manager about the size of the teams you’ve led and your specific role, and it’s a lot more effective than simply stating that you have leadership experience.

It goes without saying that hiring managers and recruiters will never, ever search resumes in their ATS for words like “hard-working”, “determined” or “go-getter”! These are meaningless buzzwords to them and will not help you get past the ATS — and makes your resume worse off.

Tips for career changers

If you’re changing careers and have never worked in a similar role to the one you’re applying for, consider including a resume summary. A resume summary is a short paragraph briefly outlining your experience and what you’re looking for. For example, if you’re a project manager and you want to move into a marketing role, you could write:

Project management and marketing professional with 5 years of experience seeking a position as a marketing lead in consumer software. Managed launches of two large-scale projects including [project description], resulting in a 45% increase in quarterly revenue.

A resume summary gives you a chance to include skills and keywords that might not have a place elsewhere in your resume. This doesn’t mean you should say you’ve held a similar role if you haven’t — instead, use it to emphasize your transferable skills or mention. If you’ve upskilled or completed any relevant qualifications, draw attention to them here as well as including them in your education section.

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