Optimize your Resume for ATS
Written by James Bunes, Author • Last updated on June 4, 2024

Optimize your Resume for ATS

Are you getting low response rates during your job hunt? Your resume needs to reach the hiring manager to get seen and only ATS-friendly resumes will make it through a company’s recruiting software. In this article, you’ll learn how to build an ATS resume that helps you get recognized.

What does ATS mean?

ATS stands for applicant tracking system. This software helps hiring managers streamline recruitment by enabling them to manage candidates quickly and easily.

Applicant tracking systems are designed to organize the application and hiring process. One of its primary functions is storing a database of candidates and their resumes.

Some people may refer to this software as a candidate relationship management (CRM) system, and although the two have some overlapping qualities, they are different.

CRM software is usually aimed more towards creating a positive candidate experience through communication and candidate tracking. 

What does an Applicant Tracking System do?

Applicant tracking systems enable hiring managers to sort through thousands of candidates and shortlist the best. 

Any business benefits from leveraging an ATS, but they’re particularly useful for roles with a large volume of applicants. This means they help companies keep track of quality candidates so they don’t slip through the cracks.

Hiring managers do this by searching for candidates with important keywords via an internal search engine. For example, if they’re hiring a customer service representative, they may use the following keywords:

  • Customer service 
  • Customer support
  • Customer success

Some ATS software also ranks resumes on how well they apply to the requirements in the job description and then fitlers out “unsuitable” resumes.

This means candidates need to create ATS resumes to get through the system and reach the recruiter.

Pros of an ATS

A good ATS optimizes the entire hiring process from start to finish and builds a smooth, effective experience.

Automating certain tedious tasks enables hiring managers to put their focus on what really matters and make better decisions.

The end result is also a better candidate experience for applicants.

Here’s a quick look at the pros of an applicant tracking system:

  • Enables recruiters to handle thousands of applications
  • Speeds up hiring
  • Keeps applications and candidates organized
  • Improves the candidate experience
  • Has the potential to cut down hiring discrimination and bias
  • Builds a talent pipeline

Cons of an ATS

However, applicant tracking systems also have their downsides. There’s always a risk when handing important responsibilities to technology, such as processing errors or keywords being overlooked.

This is bad for the company because they miss out on great workers – it’s bad for job seekers because they may get filtered out despite being qualified.

Here are the most common drawbacks of an applicant tracking system:

  • Has the potential to omit qualified applicants due to missing keywords
  • May have trouble reading certain fonts or formats
  • Technical issues can omit applicants
  • Applicants may not be able to apply for multiple positions

We’ll quickly expand on that last point.

Some applicant tracking systems may consider a second application from the same person a duplicate and delete it. This stops candidates from applying for multiple positions, which is especially damaging if they’re more qualified for one role over the other.

"Applicant tracking systems are designed to organize the application and hiring process. One of its primary functions is storing a database of candidates and their resumes."

Creating an ATS-friendly Resume

Don’t worry, it might seem discouraging, but there are ways to optimize a resume for ATS.

Following a few simple dos and don’ts helps ensure that your resume doesn’t get filtered out and gets straight to the hiring manager.

First, let’s look at the dos:

Read the job description carefully and incorporate the keywords they use.

  • List your skills in a separate section so they’re easier to read.
  • Use clear formatting, like bullet lists (we’ll discuss this in-depth in a moment).
  • Take time to proofread it and make sure it reads well.
  • Choose the right file type.

Now for the dont's:

  • Don’t shove keywords in where they don’t fit. Ensure they make sense.
  • Don’t use quirky or unique headings. For example, use “Skills” not “Things I rock at”
  • No acronyms or abbreviations, spell things out fully
  • Don’t use graphics, tables, or special characters
  • Don’t put important information in headers, some ATS software has trouble reading them

Using keywords

If hiring managers are finding resumes by typing in keywords, you need to use the right keywords to get noticed. 

What are the “right” keywords? It’s a good rule of thumb to scan the job description for skills, competencies, job titles, and industries that appear often.

It’s also a good idea to focus on hard skills, as they’re common ATS keywords. For example, “Microsoft Excel” would be a good keyword for anyone with spreadsheet skills.

However, the most important tip is to make sure you don’t lie. Just reword the skills and experience you already have to match the keywords the job description has.

Expert Tip:

Always use the same language as the job description. Look at your resume critically and see which words you could change. For example, you might call the role “project manager” but they say “account manager.” As long as your experience and skills match the role, simply edit your job title.

Abbreviations and synonyms

Acronyms, abbreviations, and synonyms are difficult for an ATS to understand. Humans are able to understand concepts like this and read between the lines, but software lacks this capability.

Here are our top tips on how to deal with each one:

  • Acronyms: If you’re using acronyms, be sure to write them out in full as well. For example, if you use “CPA” ensure you also use “certified public accountant.”
  • Abbreviations: We recommend you avoid these altogether. It isn’t just an ATS that may misunderstand these and many humans may struggle to understand them, too.
  • Synonyms: Stick to using the words that the employer uses and avoid colorful synonyms. If the company uses “innovative” then use that, don’t try to add something new by saying “creative.”

General ATS-friendly Resume format

Now let’s learn how to build a solid ATS resume format.

First, list your experience in reverse chronological order to make it easier for the machine to scan for relevant information.

Next, it’s important to remember that applicant tracking systems can have problems reading anything atypical. This means that an ATS resume should have:

  • Standard header names, such as Skills, Work Experience, and Education
  • A sans-serif font
  • A simple layout

This last point is crucial. Fancy resume templates look nice but are very hard for the ATS to read.

A simple resume is easy for an applicant tracking system to read. It might not look as unique, but you won’t need to lean on an elaborate resume. Your skills and experience will speak for themselves.

If you’re looking for some inspiration, check out CVWizard’s ATS-friendly resume templates.

Frequently asked questions about ATS

Do all employers use an ATS?

No, not all employers use an ATS, but many do.

One study found that over 98.8% of Fortune 500 companies use an ATS. Further, it’s estimated that 66% of large companies use them and 35% of small businesses do.

Although not every company uses every function an ATS has. Some companies leverage their ability to manage the hiring process and post job ads without using their resume screening functions.

However, it’s still worthwhile to make an ATS-friendly resume just in case the business you apply to uses one. On top of that, ATS resumes are also simpler and easier to read for the hiring manager.

How do I perform an ATS check for my resume?

Is your resume ATS-friendly? No worries, there are easy ways to check.

First, there are plenty of free online tools that help you check if your resume is ATS formatted. These tools check for keywords and formatting, and some of them will even make suggestions for how to improve it.

The other main option is proofreading your resume yourself. Go through your resume carefully and ensure it follows all the rules we listed in this blog.

It’s a good idea to bookmark this page so you can double-check it as you build your resume.

Is a PDF or Word document better for ATS?

The file format is important when making an ATS resume, so which popular option should you use?

Some experts recommend using a Word document, as some models of ATS have trouble reading PDFs.

However, this is largely incorrect and the majority of applicant tracking systems have no issue scanning PDFs. Plus, PDFs look and feel more professional.

Our final answer: Opt for the PDF.

The Takeaway: Perfecting Your ATS Resume Strategy

Building an ATS resume is crucial to getting noticed and securing more interviews.

Just follow our tips to mind keywords, pay attention to formatting, and keep things simple and you’ll start receiving more callbacks.

If you need help getting started, you can build a great ATS-friendly resume with CVWizard’s resume maker.

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James Bunes
James Bunes
James Bunes, copywriter, editor, and strategist, combines job search and HR writing experience to produce actionable content on resumes, career advice, and job search tactics.

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