How to Beat the Applicant Tracking System (ATS)

Companies use resume scanners, also known as ATS, to speed up their hiring and automatically filter out resumes that don't look like a good match for the job. In fact, over ninety percent of resumes are discarded before they reach a hiring manager or a recruiter!

Beating the ATS is easier than you think. This guide will show you how to get past the resume screening stage and into a recruiter's hands.

Beat the ATS
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Overview of the ATS

Let's first understand how an applicant tracking system works and what it's trying to accomplish. Knowing this will help us understand what we need to keep in mind when building and writing our resume.

What you should do

Understand why companies use an ATS

The automated resume screening process can be pretty unfair for jobseekers. After all, job seekers have spent weeks crafting their perfect resume and an employer lets an algorithm decide whether or not they want to interview you!

While it's unfair, it's often useful to understand why employers use ATS in the first place. The reason is because an average job posting gets way too many unqualified applications. For example, an employer hiring for an accounting position may get applicants who have no accounting experience. This is often the result of people who mass-apply to every job they see with the same resume. The ATS helps them filter out many of these unqualified applicants.

⭐️   The goal of an ATS is to understand if you're a good fit for a job. It will thus try to determine your most recent work experience and your hard skills (e.g. software, languages, programming languages) from your resume.

⭐️   Almost every company uses some kind of resume screening software or applicant tracking system. If you're applying for a job online, you can be pretty confident your resume will go through an ATS.

⭐️   Unfortunately, it goes without saying that companies miss out on some high quality hires by using ATS scanners.

Don't worry about the differences between different ATS

There are literally hundreds of ATS software and there are typically minor differences across them. Job seekers often get caught up into the small differences between them, but this is a distraction.

There are only two categories to think about when building an ATS-compliant resume: Readability and Relevancy. We'll go through both of these in detail in this guide.

⭐️   If your resume takes both these into account, there's nothing else you need to worry about. You'll be confident that your resume will be read by all kinds of resume software.


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Readability

An ATS scans your past experience and skills to determine whether you're a good fit. However, if it can't correctly read your resume and its content, it will discard it as not having the right skills. That's why it's crucial to get your resume's readability in shape - that's what we focus on here.

What you should do

Ensure your resume is readable by a resume scanner

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, generated using Word or Google Docs

Use a single-column layouts (i.e. no two or more column templates), where information is not displayed side-by-side.

⭐️   Modern ATS are getting better at scanning multi-column layout but there are several ATS that fail at reading multi-column resumes in the way you'd expect it to - e.g. if your education and work experience were side-by-side, ATS might interpret your work experience as part of your education, or might not correctly interpret your recent work experience.

⭐️   There's a common misconception jobseekers have that to make their resume stand out, they need to use a fancy or creative template. Though, if you speak to experienced hiring managers and/or recruiters, they'll tell you that creative / fancy resumes are not only harder for ATS to read, but also harder for them to read too! Unless you're applying for a very creative role that requires a portfolio (and even then, not always!), you'll want to make sure you use a standard template that follows the guidelines

⭐️   Here are sample templates you can use if you are a Student, Recent Graduate or Experienced Hire.

Ensure your text is highlightable

Typically, you should always submit your resume in PDF format to ensure your layout stays consistent and fonts don't get misrepresented. When you open your resume in PDF format, ensure your text is selectable / highlightable in Adobe Acrobat or Preview - see this article for details on how to check this.

⭐️   Always make sure your PDF was generated in either Word or Google Docs. This will ensure your text is highlightable.

⭐️   Refrain from creating your resume in Photoshop or online resume builders. While you can download/export the PDF from these tools, the text appears as an image and is often not highlightable / selectable as above.

⭐️   If you're wondering if you should use Word or PDF, read this.

Use standard fonts

Some newer fonts convert letters to special characters which often get scanned incorrectly by ATS. Where possible, stick to a standard font (Garamond, Arial, Calibri).

⭐️   It might seem that your resume might look 'boring' without fancy fonts or designs. However, we can assure you that simple resume formats are what recruiters prefer themselves.

No images, pictures or diagrams

Applicant Tracking Systems do not process images so you won't to avoid including them. Also avoid using diagrams, pie charts and graphs too!

⭐️   Similarly, avoid creating your resume in Photoshop or graphic design software - tools like this convert text into images, making them unreadable by ATS.

No tables

Tables rarely get parsed correctly so avoid using them. Use tabs and right/left aligns to structure your resume instead.

⭐️   These sample resume templates are professionally designed and well-formatted for Applicant Tracking Systems.

Use standard section titles

Label your work experience and education sections with conventional section titles. For example, use "Experience" instead of "My career in a nutshell". ATS look out for core sections and you want to make sure they're easy to find.

⭐️   Don't use fancy fonts or icons in your section titles! This could result in your sections not being identified correctly.

⭐️   An ATS needs to identify your work experience to judge if you're a good fit, so especially make sure your work experience is labelled correctly.

⭐️   Use reverse chronological order when describing your work experiences.


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Keyword Relevancy

Great - now that we're confident your resume and its content will be read correctly by an ATS. Next, let's make sure an ATS will score it high enough so it gets past the automated filter and reaches a recruiter.

What you should do

Compare your resume to the job description using a job description keyword finder

To evaluate if your resume is a good fit for the job, the ATS will check if your resume contains the key skills that the job requires.

The easiest way to check if your resume has the right keywords is to use Targeted Resume. It will analyze the job posting and your resume and tell you what keywords you're missing.

⭐️   It takes only a couple of seconds to 'keyword optimize' your resume.

⭐️   Save the job description on your computer when you apply for a job. The employer might remove it by the time your interview is scheduled.

Add keywords, but use them in the right context and don't overuse them

You don't want to just be keyword 'stuffing' your resume with every skill / keyword you can think of - while this may get you past an Applicant Tracking System initial filter, it'll not work in your favour when you get to a recruiter or hiring manager.

From their perspective, they'll immediately notice the keyword stuffing, which not only works against you, but also ruins your resume's readability and brevity (recruiters want to know you can synthesize important info on your resume). Instead, you want to identify the most critical skills (i.e. 'high value keywords') and the ones your employer are most likely going to be searching for, and make sure you've included those.

⭐️   We actually have a free tool, Targeted Resume, that's you should use here. One thing that's specifically useful about the tool is that it smartly identifies 'high value keywords'.

⭐️   Remember your resume will need to be read by a recruiter eventually! Use the right keywords in the right context, and don't compromise your resume's readability.

Use the exact same spelling where possible

When including keywords on your resume, try to always use the same spelling / format as mentioned in the job description. For example, if an abbreviated form of the keyword is mentioned in the job description, include that in your resume.

⭐️   It's important to mention that while you add in keywords, don't just add in variations (of keywords, tenses) where they don't make sense. Grammar is so important when your resume eventually reaches a recruiter / hiring manager, so you want to make sure your resume is grammatically correct.

⭐️   Specifically for acronyms, you want to be using the full forms as well as the abbreviated forms.

Do not add buzzwords and soft skills into your resume

You've probably seen job descriptions mention a ton of soft skills or buzzwords, such as "motivated", "hard-working" or "leadership skills".

Do not include these words directly on your resume - they are often seen as fluffy and mean little without evidence. Instead, try to convey the following skills through your achievements.

⭐️   For example, don't just say you are a 'team player' or 'strong leader'. Instead, give a specific example of professional achievements you've made in a team or as a leader. "Delivered XYZ project as project manager in a cross-functional team of 10 people..." gives recruiters a much better indication of the size of teams you've worked in as well as the role you had.


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Additional Considerations

We're almost done! Now, let's go through a few key resume considerations before you send it off online.

What you should do

Make sure your resume has strong accomplishments

The best way to make your resume stand out comes down to your actual resume's content - not the template. Ensure your bullet points are actually achievements, and use numbers and metrics to highlight your achievements.

For example:
- Instead of "Oversaw all aspects of social media strategy, which included Twitter, Facebook and Instagram"
- Use: "Led team of four overseeing all aspects of social media strategy, increasing Twitter following by 200%, Facebook by 500%+ and Instagram by 500%" <- notice how the underlined metrics/numbers demonstrate the impact you can have.

The key takeaway here is: Great content makes your resume stand out; not the design!

⭐️   Your resume should be a summary of your accomplishments, not your responsibilities. It should not read like a job description.

⭐️   Use action verbs and numbers to describe your accomplishments. Here's an example of how to write effective bullet points.

Make sure your LinkedIn profile is up to date

Companies are recruiting more and more via LinkedIn so ATS now provide LinkedIn integrations. Keep your profile up to date and make sure it reflects skills on your resume!

⭐️   Use an engaging LinkedIn headline. See examples here.

⭐️   Write a better LinkedIn summary. Generate one here.

⭐️   Make sure your LinkedIn matches up with your resume, including your job titles and work history.

⭐️   Use the free LinkedIn Optimization tool to get actionable tips on how to improve your LinkedIn profile and optimize it for specific keywords. Most users see an overnight uptick in new recruiters reaching out to them for the roles they want.

Remember that after the ATS filter, a recruiter will manually be reviewing your resume too!

It's worth saying again that remember that a recruiter reads your resume after the ATS optimization process. Keyword stuffing and adding keywords where they don't make sense hampers your resume's readability.

⭐️  Remember to consider the perspective of the employer! The reason employers use ATS is because they get way too many applications for their HR function to manually review. They of course want to find the candidates that are best fit for the role, and in essence, that's all they use an ATS for. So, make it easy for ATS to know you're a good fit by using the right keywords and ensuring your resume's readability.


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Good luck!

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