Here is everything you need to know about applicant tracking systems and how to beat them.

We’ve all been there: You find the perfect job opportunity, customize your resume and cover letter, submit your application online, and then pray it will pass the infamous six-second resume review test. Unfortunately, more often than not, your job application is lost in the resume “black hole” and you’re left wondering why the employer wasn’t that into you.

What many job seekers don’t realize is that 75 percent of job applications are rejected before they are seen by human eyes. Before your resume reaches the hands of a live person, it often must pass muster with what is known as an applicant tracking system.

Below is everything you need to know about applicant tracking systems — and what you can do to optimize your resume and beat these bots.

What is an applicant tracking system?

An applicant tracking system — or ATS, for short — is a type of software used by recruiters and employers during the hiring process to collect, sort, scan, and rank the job applications they receive for their open positions.

The applicant tracking system was initially created for large corporations that are accustomed to dealing with several thousand inbound job applications on a weekly basis. Today, approximately 95 percent of Fortune 500 companies rely on ATS software to help streamline their recruitment process. However, what began as a recruitment solution for large employers has turned into a commonplace tool for companies of all shapes and sizes.

How do applicant tracking systems (ATS) work?

Applicant tracking systems act as an electronic gatekeeper for an employer. The ATS parses a resume’s content into categories and then scans it for specific keywords to determine if the job application should be passed along to the recruiter. Its job is to essentially weed out unqualified applicants so the recruiter can devote his or her time to evaluating the candidates who are more likely to be a match for the position. In other words, the ATS is apt to toss the least-qualified candidates, rather than identify the applicants who are the best fit.

Unfortunately, that means if a resume is not written and formatted with the applicant tracking system in mind, a qualified candidate can be easily passed over.

How to write an ATS-friendly resume

To determine what makes a resume compatible with an ATS, TopResume recently analyzed 1,000 resumes from professionals across the U.S. with at least eight years of experience to identify the most common resume mistakes that will cause an applicant tracking system to toss an application. The infographic below highlights some of the most costly mistakes that make a resume incompatible with an ATS scan.

Infographic on How to Write an ATS-Friendly Resume

If you want to make sure your resume is compliant for an ATS, follow the tips below to write an ATS-optimized resume.

Select the right file type for your resume

Contrary to popular belief, a PDF is not the most ATS-friendly file type. While PDF files are the best at preserving the design and format of your resume, it is not compatible with all ATS software. If you’re asked to upload your resume to an applicant tracking system and “PDF” is listed among the file types you can, by all means, use a PDF version of your resume. However, if the system does not specify which file types are compatible, play it safe and stick to a Word document in .doc or .docx. Plain-text files are also incredibly ATS-friendly for resumes, but they limit your formatting options.

Since the best resumes are written with two audiences in mind — the robots pre-screening your application and the live human in HR who will review your resume, should it make it past the ATS — I recommend using a Word document instead of a plain-text file for your resume file type. This will provide more creative freedom to write a resume that will appeal to a recruiter or hiring manager.

Related: How to Avoid the Top 10 Resume Mistakes That Make Recruiters Cringe

Don’t put important details in the header or footer

Not all applicant tracking systems are able to properly read and parse information stored in the header and footer sections of a Word document. In fact, our recent study confirmed the ATS was unable to identify a portion of the job seeker’s contact information 25 percent of the time. Avoid this same fate by placing important contact details (such as your name, phone number, or email address) outside the header or footer of your resume.

Optimize your resume with keywords

One of the best ways to ensure your resume is compatible with an ATS is to optimize your resume with keywords. Unlike a “buzzword,” which is typically considered to be a fluffy marketing term such as “proactive” or “self-starter,” keywords represent the soft skills and hard skills you possess and the expertise you’ve acquired over the years that qualify you for your target job.

If you’re unsure which keywords should be used in your resume, start by collecting three to five job descriptions that represent the type of position you’re pursuing. Then, copy and paste the job description into a word-cloud generator, such as Wordle, to identify the terms that are frequently used throughout your desired positions. If you possess these skills or qualifications, incorporate these terms into your resume.

When it comes to creating an ATS-optimized resume, you need to think about the frequency, as well as the placement of these keywords throughout your resume. Some applicant tracking systems will determine the strength of your skills based on the number of times a term shows up in your resume (aim to add the term two to three times throughout your resume), whereas others assign an estimated amount of experience for a particular skill based on its placement within the resume. To make a resume that is truly compatible with any ATS, you’ll want to optimize your resume with both systems in mind.

First, create a “Core Competencies” or “Areas of Expertise” section within your resume professional summary that lists your strongest hard skills and soft skills. If there is a common abbreviation for one of your proficiencies such as “SEO” (for search engine optimization), include both versions in your resume. Then, pepper these same terms into your “Work Experience” or “Education” sections, where appropriate, to demonstrate when you leveraged that skill.

Related: Why Soft and Hard Skills Are So Important for Your Resume

Some applicant tracking systems will associate the length of experience for a skill, based on how long you held the job where that skill was leveraged. For instance, if you worked at your past job for five years and you mention that you handled SEO for the company, the ATS will assume you have five years’ worth of SEO experience from that job. If a skill is listed on its own — such as within the professional summary or a core-competencies section — then the ATS will assign six months’ experience for that skill. This is why it’s incredibly important to reiterate your skills throughout your entire resume, rather than just in a skill section at the top of the resume.

Avoid images, charts, and other graphics

While these may look nice to the human eye, resumes with embedded images become a garbled mess, or get completely omitted from your application, after it passes through the applicant tracking system. For instance, if you insert an image or chart to showcase your key skills, the ATS will be unable to read it. If you use a cool graphic to brand your name on your resume, this piece of information will be lost on the applicant tracking system.

Stick to simple bullet points

When used appropriately, bullet points are a great method for highlighting accomplishments and qualifications on a resume. However, if you choose an elaborate symbol for your bullets, your important selling points could get scrambled. Avoid using intricate characters when creating a bulleted list on your resume. Stick to the simplest options, such as a solid circle, open circle, or square, to ensure your bullet points enhance your resume, rather than make it incompatible with an ATS.

Use a clean resume design with a clear hierarchy

When it comes to your resume’s design, less is more. Not only do complex resume designs or unusual formats confuse most applicant tracking systems, but they also annoy recruiters who are accustomed to quickly scanning a resume for specific information they expect to find in particular areas within the document.

Click on the following link for more tips on how to write a resume that will beat the ATS.

How to create an ATS-friendly resume format

If you want your resume to successfully pass the ATS, stick to a standard resume format, such as a hybrid resume. This resume format uses a professional summary section at the top of the document to outline your key skills and qualifications, and combines it with a chronological “Work History” section that explains how you’ve leveraged these qualities to produce results for your employers.

Most applicant tracking systems do a better job at reading and interpreting a hybrid format because they rely on chronological data to parse your resume.

As a result, it’s in your best interest to avoid a functional resume format at all costs — where the focus is placed on your abilities, rather than a chronological work history.

How to run an ATS-resume test for compliance

There are two easy ways to determine if your resume is compatible with an applicant tracking system (ATS).

Convert your resume to a plain-text file

Copy the content from your resume, paste it into a plain-text document, and review the results. If the plain-text version is missing details from your original resume, has characters saved incorrectly, or looks disorganized (i.e. the heading for your “Education” section appears in the middle of your work experience), then assume your resume will require editing before it will be ATS compliant.

Request a free ATS scan for your resume

Here at TopResume, we offer a free ATS resume scan as part of our free resume review. When you request a free resume review from TopResume, you’ll receive feedback on your resume’s content, as well as its ATS compatibility.

The first half of the review offers an objective look at what your resume is doing well and where it is falling short, from both an information and design perspective. The second half of the free resume review shows you exactly what information an ATS will pull from your resume, what information it will be unable to identify and retrieve (such as your name, contact information, most recent job title, and most recent employer), and for what top skills and keywords your resume currently ranks. If the ATS is unable to identify this important information or thinks you’re a fit for a job when you’re not, then your resume will need to be further optimized before it passes the ATS-compatibility test.

Click on the following link to watch our latest #OfficeHours video on how to write an ATS resume to beat the bots.

Don't let the bots stop you from landing your dream job. Get an ATS-proof resume today.

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