A Guide to Building a Standout ATS-Friendly Resume in 2024
We all have gone through this : We find a great job, tweak our resume, and apply online. But here’s the tricky part—most times, your application doesn’t even get looked at by a real person. Instead, it has to go through something called an applicant tracking system (ATS) first. Surprisingly, 75% of job applications never make it to human eyes.
An ATS is like a digital gatekeeper for job applications. It scans and filters resumes before an actual person sees them. So, if you want your resume to stand a better chance, you need to understand how these systems work.
Here’s everything you need to know about applicant tracking systems and some tips on how to make your resume shine so that it gets noticed.
What is an Applicant Tracking System?
An ATS, which stands for Applicant Tracking System, is like a digital assistant for hiring. Recruiters and employers use this special software to manage and organize job applications. It helps them collect, sort, scan, and rank the resumes they receive for their job openings.
Initially designed for big companies handling thousands of job applications each week, ATS has become incredibly popular. Nowadays, around 99% of Fortune 500 companies use ATS to make their hiring process smoother. What started as a tool for large employers is now widely used by companies of all sizes.
Why do companies use ATS?
Companies heavily rely on Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) for good reasons. Today’s hiring process is more complicated than ever, not just because there are more job applicants, but also because companies lack the time and resources to go through every resume they receive. ATS helps automate this process, allowing companies to focus on their main goals.
Legal compliance is another factor. Employment laws, especially those against discrimination in hiring, need to be followed carefully. To reduce potential bias, many employers use unbiased machines in the initial stages of hiring.
In essence, ATS resume scanners automate the process of narrowing down candidates to those who meet the job qualifications. This not only saves time and costs for companies but also helps them comply with employment laws by avoiding discrimination based on characteristics like race, gender, and age.
How do applicant tracking systems work?
The ATS breaks down a resume into different categories and scans it for specific keywords to decide if the job application should be sent to the recruiter. Its main task is to filter out unqualified applicants, so the recruiter can focus on evaluating candidates who are likely to be a good match for the job. In simpler terms, the ATS tends to prioritize putting less-qualified candidates at the bottom of the list rather than highlighting the best fits.
The drawback is that if a resume isn’t written and formatted with the ATS in mind, even a qualified candidate might be overlooked easily.
How to Write an ATS Resume
MaxeCV conducted a study by analyzing 1,000 resumes from professionals in the US with a minimum of eight years of experience. The goal was to identify the most common resume mistakes that could lead an Applicant Tracking System (ATS) to reject an application. The infographic below showcases some of the most significant errors that render a resume incompatible with an ATS scan.
To ensure your resume is ATS-friendly, consider the following tips when writing and using an ATS-optimized resume.
- Find the Right File Type for Your Resume
Contrary to what many people think, PDF is not the most ATS-friendly file type. Even though PDF files maintain the design and format of your resume well, not all ATS software can handle them. If the applicant tracking system specifies that you can use PDF, it’s fine to send a PDF version of your resume. However, if the system doesn’t mention compatible file types, it’s safer to use a Word document in .doc or .docx format.
While plain-text files are highly ATS-friendly, they limit your formatting choices and might look less professional. Since the best resumes consider both the ATS and the human reviewing them, we recommend using a Word document for your resume. This gives you more creative freedom to craft a resume that appeals to both the ATS and the human recruiter or hiring manager.
- Important information should not be placed in the header or footer
Not every applicant tracking system can effectively read and understand information located in the header and footer sections of a Word document. Our research found that the ATS failed to recognize some of the job seeker’s contact details about 25% of the time. To prevent encountering the same issue, make sure to put crucial contact information like your name, phone number, and email address outside the header or footer of your resume. This ensures that the ATS can easily identify and process these essential details.
- Optimize your resume with keywords
To make sure your resume works well with an Applicant Tracking System (ATS), you can optimize it with the right keywords. Unlike vague “buzzwords,” keywords represent both your soft skills and hard skills, showcasing your qualifications for the job.
To identify the right keywords, gather three to five job descriptions for the position you’re interested in. Use a free word and phrase frequency tool like Online-Utility.org’s Text Analyzer to find the commonly used terms. If you have the skills mentioned in the job descriptions, incorporate those keywords into your resume.
Pay close attention to the job posting for skill requirements, experience, and educational qualifications. These are likely to be part of an ATS scan, so ensure these keywords are in your resume.
Consider both the frequency and placement of relevant keywords. Some ATS systems assess skills based on how often they appear (aim for two to three times), while others consider the placement. To be ATS-friendly, optimize your resume with both factors in mind.
Create a section like “Core Competencies” or “Areas of Expertise” below your professional summary to list your strongest skills. Include common abbreviations if applicable. Then, integrate these terms into your “Work Experience” or “Education” sections where relevant, showing when you’ve used these skills. This ensures your resume is well-optimized for both types of ATS systems.
Certain applicant tracking systems associate the length of experience for a skill based on the duration you held a job where that skill was utilized. For example, if you worked at a previous job for five years and mentioned handling SEO, the ATS might assume you have five years of SEO experience from that role. However, if a skill is listed independently, like in the professional summary or a core competencies section, the ATS might assign a few months’ experience for that skill.
This highlights the importance of reinforcing your skills throughout your entire resume instead of concentrating them solely in a skill section at the top. By doing so, you ensure that the ATS accurately gauges the duration and depth of your experience with each skill, contributing to a more effective scan of your qualifications.
- Include a resume headline
Ensure your resume features a headline, a one-line heading placed after your contact information and before your summary statement. When companies use an ATS to evaluate resumes, they often consider the job title as part of their assessment criteria. To craft an ATS-friendly headline:
- Identify the job title for which you’re applying, as mentioned in the job posting or description. For instance, if you’re seeking a Marketing Director position, include those exact words in your headline.
- Identify other crucial requirements from the job posting that you can highlight. For instance, if the job requires a minimum of five years of experience managing marketing teams, make a note of it to incorporate into your headline.
- Create a headline that incorporates the job title and adds descriptive language to immediately position you as a qualified candidate. Using our example keywords, your headline might look like this: “Experienced Marketing Director with over five years leading successful marketing teams.”
- Avoid images, charts, and other graphics
Although embedded images may enhance the visual appeal for human readers, they can cause issues when processed by applicant tracking systems (ATS). When resumes with embedded images go through an ATS, the system often struggles to interpret them, resulting in a messy output. For example, if you include an image or chart to highlight your key skills, the ATS may not be able to comprehend it. Similarly, if you use a stylish graphic for branding your name on your resume, the ATS won’t recognize this visual element. To ensure compatibility with ATS, it’s advisable to avoid using embedded images in your resume.
- Stick to simple bullet points
Bullet points are an effective way to showcase accomplishments and qualifications on a resume, but it’s crucial to use them wisely for compatibility with applicant tracking systems (ATS). When you opt for intricate symbols as bullets, the ATS might struggle to interpret them, potentially causing issues with your key selling points. To ensure your resume remains ATS-friendly, avoid using elaborate characters for bullet points. Instead, stick to simple options like a solid circle, open circle, or square. This ensures that your bullet points enhance your resume rather than making it incompatible with an ATS.
- Use a simple resume layout with a clear hierarchy
In designing an ATS-friendly resume, simplicity is key. Elaborate designs or unusual formats not only confuse most applicant tracking systems but also frustrate recruiters who are used to swiftly scanning resumes for specific information in expected areas within the document. Remember, when it comes to an ATS-friendly resume, less is more. Stick to a clean and straightforward layout to ensure your resume is both machine-readable and recruiter-friendly.
How to create an ATS-friendly resume format
For optimal performance in an ATS scan, it’s advisable to adhere to a standard resume format like reverse chronological or hybrid. These formats typically feature a professional summary at the top, outlining your key skills, followed by a chronological “Work History” section detailing how you’ve applied these skills in previous roles.
Most applicant tracking systems are more adept at reading and interpreting information presented in a reverse chronological or hybrid format, as they rely on chronological data to analyze your resume.
Consequently, it’s recommended to steer clear of a functional resume format, where the emphasis is on your abilities rather than a chronological work history. This ensures better compatibility with ATS and improves the chances of your resume being effectively parsed and understood.
- Make certain that your resume’s sections are easily identifiable
Throughout this post, we’ve emphasized the importance of various resume sections. There’s a good reason for that. Resumes differ from typical prose documents. If your resume resembles one long story with different kinds of information scattered across one or two pages like an essay, it won’t perform well. Moreover, even if it did, no human hiring manager would likely bother to read it.
To ensure that crucial details are accessible to both the ATS and a hiring manager, organize the information into distinct sections. This structuring adds clarity to your ATS-friendly resume, making it easier for both machines and humans to quickly locate the information they are looking for. Why did we use “scan” instead of “read”? It’s straightforward: even hiring managers typically scan resumes until they find what they’re seeking—and then proceed to read that specific part.
Here’s a simple and effective structure for your resume that caters to both the needs of an ATS and a human hiring manager:
1. Contact Information: Place this section at the top of your resume, but not in the header, as ATS systems may struggle to read information in that area. Include vital details such as your name, location, phone number, email address, and LinkedIn URL. No label is needed for this section.
2. Resume Headline: This attention-grabbing section, as discussed earlier, requires no label.
3. Summary Statement: Craft a three to five-sentence elevator pitch designed to capture a hiring manager’s attention. Incorporate keywords highlighting your essential skills, experiences, and measurable achievements that showcase your potential value to the employer.
4. Core Competencies: List the skills that demonstrate your qualification for the position. Depending on the job, emphasize either soft or hard skills, or a mix of both. Label this section as “Skills” or “Core Competencies” to ensure easy identification by both humans and machines.
5. Professional History (Work Experience): This labeled section should include relevant work history from the past 10-15 years. Start with your most recent position and list others in reverse order. Include company names, job titles, dates of employment, and bullet points highlighting achievements for each role.
6. Education: Label this section and include the name of the college, years of attendance, course of study, degree obtained, and any relevant coursework. Additionally, includes certifications, continuing education, and other pertinent training.
This structured approach helps your resume meet the requirements of an ATS while providing clarity for human readers, making it easy for both to quickly find the information they need.
How to Perform an ATS Resume Compliance Test
To check if your resume is compatible with an applicant tracking system (ATS) during your job search, you can follow these steps:
- You need to convert your resume to a plain-text file.
- Now, copy the content from your ATS-friendly resume and paste it into a plain-text document.
- Review the plain-text version for missing details, incorrectly saved characters, or disorganization (e.g., headings appearing in the wrong section).
- If issues are present, assume your resume needs editing to be ATS compliant.