What File Format Should You Use For Your Resume?

Don’t risk your resume coming out as garbled symbols or missing the automated screeners - this guide outlines what file format to pick and why.

a month ago   •   6 min read

By Resume Worded Editorial Team
Table of contents

Maybe you’ve had it happen before: You spend hours working on the exact layout of a document, getting the lines aligned, the spacing correct, and the design perfect - but then it can’t be read by another computer. Or, perhaps worse, it comes in crooked and appears sloppy.

Fortunately, you can avoid these mishaps by sticking to a tried and true resume file format that stands out above the others for reliability and universality: PDF files are widely preferred for a number of reasons, which we’ll cover in this article. We'll also take a look at what types of PDFs are universally read by resume screeners, and what you should avoid when save your documents as a PDF.

Why PDFs are the best resume file format

Google Docs and Microsoft Word are two of the most popular word processing applications in the world, and they are extremely effective tools to write and edit your resume. When sending your resume, though, you want to export your document as a PDF, instead of leaving it in Word format (i.e. docx).

Accessibility

Despite the huge market share of Microsoft, not everyone has them installed on their devices. If you send your resume as a DOC or DOCX from Microsoft Word and the hiring manager doesn’t have Microsoft Office installed, they’ll either have to get a reader or plugin for their particular setup, upload it to Google Docs or opt not to look at it altogether (most just choose this last option!).

With PDF files, however, a huge variety of browsers, email programs, and image viewers can open PDFs, meaning hiring managers will be able to open them without any issues.

PDFs are readable by Applicant Tracking Systems

Along with hiring managers, Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) are something else you want to ensure compatibility with. These are resume screeners that process and sometimes score your resume for 'fit' before it reaches a hiring manager.

If you apply for a job online, there's a 98% chance your resume will go through an ATS. Of course, you need to make sure your resume is ready by them!

PDFs generated by Word, Google Docs or most word processing tools are completely readable by Applicant Tracking Systems. By submitting your resume in the PDF file format, you’ll make it possible for ATS to read and process the file and the font without issues.

An important side note: Do not use Photoshop, Canva or design tools to generate a PDF version of your resume. These tools convert your resume into an image, making them unreadable by the resume screeners!

To check if your resume can be read by these systems, open it in Chrome, Preview or Adobe Acrobat Reader and see if you can highlight/select the text.

Highlight text in your PDF to check it is readable by ATS
Highlight text in your PDF to check it is readable by ATS

PDFs preserve your font and layout

Speaking of fonts, it’s a common issue for fonts to be unreadable if they aren’t installed on the device reading them - at least for DOC and other formats. With PDFs, however, what you see is what you get. The document will look exactly like it does on your computer when it comes through to the hiring manager, regardless of whether or not they have the fonts required.

Similarly, file layouts can shift between different versions of Word, causing lines to overlap or margins to shrink and expand. Saving your resume as a PDF means the lines will stay in place.

PDFs are harder to be edited by recruiters

Once you turn in your resume, you don’t want it to be tampered with — either by an errant keypress or an overzealous hiring manager. Unlike DOCs and other file formats, PDFs are much harder to edit once they are saved.

With so much going for them, it’s easy to see why Vice considers PDFs to be the most important file format in the world. Now that you’re in the know, let’s go over the process to save your Word and Google documents as PDFs.

Should you send your cover letter as a Word document or PDF?

Use Word or Google Docs to save your cover letter as a PDF, and send that. Avoid sending it as a DOC or DOCX for these reasons:

  1. PDFs are the most accessible, which means your cover letter will be able to be opened without hiring managers having to have Word installed.
  2. PDFs preserve your formatting, layout and fonts, allowing you to make sure your resume looks exactly the way you intended.
  3. PDFs are harder to edit or be tampered with by external recruiters than Word files

How to turn your resume into a PDF

First and foremost, you should understand that Microsoft Word and Google Docs are both great options for creating your resume with. Feel free to use our database of 250+ proven resume templates to see the kind of format you should use for the best impact, download one, and fill it out with your own details using the word processor of your choice.

Before you wrap up your resume and get ready to save it as a PDF, consider running it through our free Score My Resume tool, which will provide some quick, AI-powered tips to optimize your resume. As noted above, PDFs are harder to edit once saved so it’s good to have your resume finalized before you do it.

How to save as a PDF with Microsoft Word

Saving a file as a PDF in Microsoft Word isn’t too different from saving it as a DOC, with a few added steps.

  1. Open your finalized resume using Microsoft Word.
  2. In the upper left corner, click “File”.
  3. On the left side of the screen, “Export” should appear about halfway down. Click it.
  4. You’ll see a button to “Create PDF/XPS”; click that as well. At that point you’ll be prompted to save the file in a directory of your choice.
  5. Your resume will be exported into a PDF format and is ready to send out!

How to save as a PDF using Google Docs

Google Docs offers a streamlined process to save your documents as PDFs.

  1. Open your finalized resume in Google Docs.
  2. In the upper left corner of the screen, click “File”.
  3. About midway down the menu, mouseover “Download” to open a popup menu.
  4. Click “PDF Document (.pdf)”.
  5. Your resume will download automatically at this point as a PDF; it will appear in your “Downloads” folder by default.

What to avoid

Crossing the threshold to PDF file format is part of the battle, but it’s not the whole scene - here are some pitfalls to avoid during the resume building process.

Avoid wild, uncommon, or crazy fonts

While the PDF file format will enable hiring managers to read virtually any font you’ve chosen for your resume, you should keep in mind that you’re aiming for readability (click here to see our article on choosing fonts for your resume). Don’t pick an overly curly, titled, or unevenly spaced font as it will be harder to read.

Design tools

Generally speaking, don’t use Adobe Photoshop, Canva, or similar design tools to build your resume. While you may be able to save your resume as a PDF using these tools, the odds are high that it will be saved as a PDF image - meaning ATS will not be able to scan the text and enter it into any databases.

If you aren’t sure if your PDF is an image or not, open it and see if you can highlight the text by dragging over it with your mouse. If you can, you’re all set, and ATS will be able to read your resume correctly.

Online resume generators

Like design programs, online resume generators often similarly produce PDF files that are images rather than readable text.

If you use one of these tools, make sure you it can be read by resume screeners (an easy way to do that is to test your resume through an ATS). If you come out with a product that can’t be read by ATS, you’ve dramatically lowered your potential for being spotted by the automated system.

Other file formats

It mostly goes without saying, but it’s wise to avoid any other file formats when sending in your resume. As an example, while OpenOffice is gaining steam as a free alternative to Microsoft Office, it’s highly unlikely that your hiring manager will be able to read an ODT file. Furthermore, ATS definitely won’t be able to scan resumes in this format.

A few helpful tips in closing

With all of that said, here are a few more things to keep in mind as you prepare to send in your resume.

Pay attention to the job listing first

First and foremost, if the job listing requests your resume to be sent in a specific file format (such as DOCX), send it in that format. If you’re using Google Docs, it’s easy to download your resume in a variety of file types, including DOCX, by following the steps above.

Send your cover letter separately

If you’re sending a cover letter with your resume, don’t simply lump it in with your resume in the same PDF. Create a new PDF from your cover letter and send both files separately (unless, of course, the job posting requests that you send them together).

What to include in your email

If you’re sending your resume directly to a potential hiring manager via email, use professional and direct language. To see some examples of what to write in the body of your email (and the subject line), see our article on sending networking emails with your resume.

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