How to Optimize Resumes for Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS)

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What Are Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS)?

Applicant Tracking Systems, or ATS for short, are computer programs companies use to scan and sort large amounts of applicant material. They help HR Hiring Managers to determine which candidates to interview. The ATS scans all documents in an application profile to assess fit for the role including cover letters, transcripts, and letters of recommendation, or a sample of work.

The more material the ATS can scan, the more likely you’re going to hit a certain word, phrase, or skill the system is programmed to look for.

If you have a one-page resume, half filled out, you aren’t giving the ATS much to work with. Give the system as many data points as you can. Feed the robots!

If you’re applying for entry-level roles, you’ll start to see a lot of the same language in all the job descriptions you’re reading. Give the ATS what it wants! It might require a slight resume edit for each job you apply for, but more often than not, if you are applying to 25 business analyst roles or Java developer roles in a row, one resume will likely meet all your needs for that specific job title.

Optimize Resumes for ATS by Reading the Job Description

If the job description lists “ability to work as part of a team” in the first few bullet points, you can pretty much guarantee an applicant tracking system is going to be searching for “team” or “teamwork” on your resume. To optimize resumes for ATS, you must make sure the exact keywords listed in the job description are on your resume. The more terminology and industry jargon on your resume that directly aligns with the job description, the better.

If you are applying to a technical job, make sure you have a skills section listing the names of the technology platforms you feel comfortable with, AND if it’s a big platform everyone in your industry uses, make sure you have it in other areas of your resume connecting your ability with results. You can do this in work experiences or academic projects.

Don’t just tell me you are good at something, show me through connecting skills to impacts and results!

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Actionable Steps

Here are some more tips for optimizing resumes for ATS:


Don’t Upload Your Resume as an Image

There are some ATS advanced enough to process imagery but most aren’t. Don’t risk it. If you have a headshot, chart, or graph on your resume, consider having two versions of your resume, one in PDF form and one in image form.

A graphic, fancy formatted resume version is great to pass out at networking events when you know it’s going straight into someone’s hands/being read by human eyeballs. If you are applying online, go with a simple to read, text-based version that a computer with no eyeballs can understand.


Choose a PDF as the File Type

PDF is always a safe bet. It’s pretty universal and saves formatting and alignments on your resume consistently. If PDF isn’t an option, a Microsoft Word document is widely accessible too.


Choose ATS-Friendly Fonts

I’m not personally a fan of basic fonts like Times New Roman (reminds me of writing book reports in high school) but basic fonts work super well for ATS. Some other ATS-friendly fonts include Arial, Helvetica, or Calibri.


Don’t Use Crazy Colors

I have yet to find any system that discriminates against applications based on resume color. But listen, we are talking computer automated programs here, so keep it simple and play it safe.


Optimize Your Resume with Search Terms

Job descriptions are the answers to the hiring test. Organizations outline exactly what they need and want to see on your resume or hear in interviews in the description. Make sure you are highlighting what they are asking for in the job description on your resume. Use the same key search terms and words even.


Apply for Jobs in the Morning

Apply for jobs in the morning when there is less competition. A LOT of people apply to jobs at night after school or work, so your resume is much less likely to be seen if you apply at night. It’s like getting emails. I close my laptop at 5pm with zero emails in my inbox, I get up the next morning, and somehow, BY MAGIC, I’m back to 50-60 emails! How did that happen?!

If you can apply in the morning, this might get your resume seen sooner because many ATS have a notification system (just like the annoying pop-up box for Outlook email) and humans are curious creatures. If we see a little preview pop up, we might be more inclined to give it a quick look, right there in the moment, when it comes in. Remember the human element of the hiring process.


Read More About This Topic

There is so much more to learn about ATS and how you can optimize resumes for ATS. You can check out my Job Search Action Plan on sale now. You can also read more about What ATS is on my blog. And, grab other career-related guides and LinkedIn banners from my Etsy store, The Career Coach Shop!

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About the Author

Nadia Ibrahim-Taney

Nadia Ibrahim-Taney

Career Coach

Nadia Ibrahim-Taney, M.Ed., MA is the founder and principal career coach for Beyond Discovery Coaching. Her mission is to help you design and build a happy and fulfilling career that makes you want to get out of bed every day. She is an experienced higher education administrator with a prestigious tenure working with students in the United States and the United Kingdom.

She has spent the past 15 years working with students in different roles across academia. In addition to career coaching, she is an experienced tutor who has helped students at some of the most elite universities in the US including Harvard, MIT, Tufts University, and Boston University. Contact Nadia if you need a career coach, or if you are a student looking for help with time management, academic planning, assignment planning, and accountability partnering.

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