How to Get Your ATS Resume Past the System and Into Human Hands

ATS resume

It’s tough out there– the US Bureau of Labor Statistics contends that it takes job seekers on average six applications to obtain one interview. Once an applicant receives an interview, they have about a 37% chance of receiving a job offer from that company. 

That means that most of you are sending out dozens of applications during your search, only to be greeted with radio silence. What gives? 

In this day and age, one primary obstacle for job seekers is navigating the dreaded ATS resume scanning software used by many large companies and recruiters. Before your application makes it into the hand of a human, it’s reviewed by the machine learning software intended to weed out those with lesser qualifications. 

So how do you manage to get through to the right job if you’re being consistently blocked by software? Read on for our best tips and tricks to outsmart this technology with an ATS-friendly resume. 

What Is An Applicant Tracking System? 

An applicant tracking system (ATS) is software designed to sort, scan, and recommend applications received by recruiters and employers during their hiring process. 

The original use for the ATS was for large companies to manage the thousands of incoming job applications they receive on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. Most Fortune 500 companies actually use ATS software to make their recruiting process easier; however, the use of this software is not restricted to just massive companies anymore. ATS is now used by many companies of all sizes and industries to streamline the hiring process. 

Rather than depending on one recruiter (or a team of recruiters) to parse through every single application manually, the ATS takes care of this by scanning content and looking for specific keywords that mean they might be a good fit for the company’s job description. If the ATS system determines that they should be passed along to the next round, the application will likely then be viewed by an actual human recruiter

It’s important to remember that the ATS functions by recognizing the least-qualified candidates, rather than flagging the best fit. That job is for the actual human recruiter that receives the recommendations. 

This also means that if a resume is not formatted and written with ATS considerations, a reasonably qualified candidate may be passed over. 

How Do Employers Use ATS Software? 

ATS software is simply another tool to manage the recruiting flow. After approving an opening for a role, employers will deploy ATS software to describe: 

  • Skills
  • Education and training
  • Years of experience
  • Other requirements they have for candidates in that particular role

The ATS scores each job application and ranks based on how well it matches the employer’s established criteria. This also means that the software may reject resumes if: 

  • Candidates (however qualified) forget or fail to implement the employer’s chosen keywords in their resume content
  • The font or formatting is unusual and difficult to scan
  • The system cannot identify specific experience the software is programmed to identify– even if their qualifications make up for the gap in job history

Designing your resume in a way that is conducive to an initial ATS scan will help move you forward to the next round of applicant reviews

ATS Features

Don’t assume that ATS software is just for robotically accepting and declining applicants. Applicant tracking systems serve a few organizational functions for an HR department. 

ATS Resume Parsing

Though the ATS takes a lot of the manual work out of resume reviews, many recruiters will still glance at each resume as it comes through. The ATS will sort these files in a way that makes this a quick and seamless review.  

Resume Storage and Ranking

Recruiters can go back and filter stored resumes based on preferred criteria. You receive a score based on how well your resume meets the job description. This score will then rank you against other applicants, allowing recruiters to focus on top-ranked candidates instead of taking the time to read through each resume that comes through.

Keyword Search

Recruiters and hiring managers will often search resumes stored in the ATS by using keywords. These keywords usually involve specific skills, experiences, geographic location (if the role cannot be performed remotely), former employers, or past work experience.


Once a resume is stored in the ATS, recruiters can go back and filter based on preferred criteria. This means you may be seen for other job opportunities— not just the one you applied for. 

Automated Email Customization

ATS software usually allows an HR department to customize the email communications they will use to send out to accepted or rejected applicants. These emails may also be used to keep applicants aware of the status of their application, or alternate job opportunities that may be a good fit. 

Why Do Employers Use ATS Software? 

The hiring game has changed. ATS software has made the recruiting game a lot more manageable for HR teams working to meet their hiring goals. 

1. To Narrow Down a Large Pool of Applicants

Hiring has gone global. Applicants no longer need to feel restricted by geographical location and have more access to job descriptions than ever before. 

Companies work hard to eliminate the friction that often accompanies applying to jobs. Some websites allow you to apply with just one click, others allow you to submit your resume to more than one job opening. This is great for HR departments trying to see as many applicants as possible but quickly overwhelming. 

ATS software weeds out unqualified applicants or those who might just be trying to reach an application quota to meet unemployment requirements. Once this list exists, recruiters can take their time making the best decision for interview offers and additional screening opportunities. 

2. Compliance 

The Internet Applicant Record-Keeping Rule was put in place by the U.S. Department of Labor to enforce strict record keeping of employees recruited electronically. This means that all businesses that employ 100 or more employees are required by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to report their employee demographic recruiting information on an annual basis. ATS software stores this information and makes accessing and reporting out this information much easier. 

3. To Save Money

Recruiting isn’t cheap. Additionally, hiring unqualified candidates or extending an offer to a poor match will certainly cost a company more in the long run. 

Applicant tracking reduces the size of the applicant pool and identifies top candidates quickly. This becomes even more important if it’s a large company attempting to fill multiple positions within a certain time frame. 

Top Recommendations for an ATS Friendly Resume

Ready to format your most effective resume? Take a look at these top recommendations for an ATS-friendly resume. 

1. Make it Scannable

Make sure that your content is scannable– both to ATS software as well as a human. You want to assume that your resume will eventually land in the hands of an actual recruiter.

An ATS system reads a resume left to right, and top to bottom. Keep this in mind as you format. Include name and contact information at the top, and list your work history in chronological order.

ATS systems prefer chronological and combination formatting rather than functional. Your job is to outline a clear work history. 

2. Use the Correct File Type

PDFs are great for keeping your resume intact. However, ATS systems usually prefer a .docx format in order for it to accurately parse. Don’t ever upload an image file. 

Even though this is true, you’ll still want to check the requested file type to make sure you’re following directions. 

3. Don’t Try to Outsmart the System

Once you recognize that an ATS is likely being used to manage applicants, it’s easy to want to cheat the system. Common cheats may include: 

  • Pasting keywords in white
  • Pasting the entire job description in white
  • Repeating keywords multiple times
  • Adding a section labeled “keywords”

An ATS system actually displays all text in the same color on its end. This means that any “hidden” text will be surfaced, and subsequently flagged to a human recruiter. This will usually result in you being passed over for another candidate. 

Avoid keyword stuffing. Cramming random keywords may irritate a recruiter or hiring manager who thinks you’re trying to cheat their tools. 

4. User Keywords Naturally

Rather than sprinkling in keywords without any context, use them naturally. Focus on your accomplishments rather than just re-writing the job description.  

5. Don’t Apply to Multiple Jobs With the Same Company

An ATS resume scanner surfaces all of the roles you’ve applied to at the company to any recruiter viewing a candidate profile. If you’re applying to every single opening of a company in a variety of departments, a recruiter may believe that you have little interest in a real opportunity, or that you may lack self-awareness about your abilities. 

If you find that two roles are similar, we encourage you to apply– especially if you have a wide range of skills. However, specificity and resume targeting is usually more effective and indicates that you’ve done your research. You shouldn’t be applying to both an entry-level position and a director-level position. 

6. Apply to Jobs You’re Actually Qualified For

Some recruiters only look over 25% of the applications they receive. Why? Most candidates applying for jobs are not qualified or relevant to the job a recruiter is trying to fill. 

One trick for success is to make sure you’re really qualified for the roles you’re applying for. You don’t have to hit every single qualification, but it is important to make sure you have the core skills needed for the job. 

ATSs get a bad rap as the “robots” standing between you and your new job, and when you hear that Owens read only 25% of the applications she received for most postings, it might reinforce that impression.

7. Use ATS Friendly Resume Keyword Tools

While you shouldn’t try and “cheat” the system, scan resume keyword tools to see if there are any industry-worthy keywords you may be missing. This includes any acronyms you may not have thought of. This is because the ATS might not recognize common abbreviations.  

Don’t be afraid to use technology to compare your existing resume against actual job descriptions. They may be able to provide suggestions about what to update, how the resume compares against existing job descriptions, and what relevant keywords to provide.

8. Promote Your Hard Skills

The ATS is intent on scanning for specific job description keywords that describe your hard skills. Avoid lengthy sentences and paragraphs that contain long-winded stories. Format with lists and brief descriptions so the ATS can flag your resume and pass it along to a human reader. 

Soft skills and commonly used keywords like “team player,” “self-starter” and “dynamic” cannot be quantified or assessed by an ATS. Recruiters will not be looking for these items in ATS-ranked resumes, so be sure to focus on technical skills, software, credentials, and official titles. 

Once you’re in the interview, that’s where the stories and additional information come in! 

9. Use Specific Keywords for a Match

An ATS resume checker is scanning for pieces of information to understand if you’re an obvious match for a job opening. At its core, it’s “skimming” for keywords that may indicate a fit. It’s kind of like a Google search! 

We recommend scanning a job post and including the hard skills mentioned in the posting language. Recommended keywords include: 

  • Types of software you have experience with
  • Methodologies
  • Spoken languages
  • The job title itself
  • Certain degrees and certifications

Remember– an ATS is scanning for exact matches. Try to use similar language to the job post, and make sure you’re using the same abbreviations or names. 

10. Use Standard Formatting

Columns and creative formatting are not conducive to ATS scanning. Try to stick to chronological listing and bullet points.

If you need to use bullet points, avoid fancy characters. The best bullet points are solid circles, open circles, or squares. 

11. Read the Job Post Well

The ATS is looking for specific matches that fit the skills of the job post. Without cramming keywords, try to include as many naturally-occurring keywords found in the original job posting. Echo the phrasing used in the job description so the software can find an exact match. 

Try to tailor the content in the very same way the job description is written. This includes writing in abbreviations, numbers, plural words, etc. 

12. State the Correct Job Title

Even if you would normally abbreviate the job title or have gone by an alternate or similar job title in the past, try to mimic the exact job title listed in the job posting. Don’t fabricate your experience, but keep similar or nearly identical job titles in mind. 

13. Don’t Repeat Yourself 

Don’t repeat yourself or “fluff up” your resume just to make it look complete. The ATS will be able to detect duplicate content. 

The one time that you should repeat yourself is to include acronyms or alternate spellings. If there is a common abbreviation, include both versions. 

14. Review For Spelling

We cannot stress this enough: double and triple-check your spelling. While many spellcheck and grammar-check tools are extremely helpful, reviewing with your own eyes will help you avoid any machine errors. Remember– the ATS will not be able to recognize or rank resumes riddled with misspelled keywords. 

15. Provide Your Industry, Title, and Geographic Location

Some jobs are looking for candidates in certain locations or previous job titles. Make sure to include this information, especially if the role exists outside of your current geographic location. 

16. Use Chronological or Hybrid Resume Format

Recruiters don’t have much time and are used to scanning top to bottom hierarchy in chronological order. Stick to this format instead of trying to be artistic and creative in your layout design. 

17. Use an Elevator Pitch 

Instead of an “objective” section, take a few sentences at the top of your resume to pitch your skills and achievements. This should mimic the tone of an elevator pitch that illustrates the job criteria you meet. Keep it short, sweet, and full of rich hard skills to immediately draw the eye of a recruiter and the artificial eye of the ATS. 

What Not To Do When Creating Your ATS Resume

Formatting makes a definitive difference between whether or not your resume will be passed along to the next round. Even if you have all of the qualifications needed to make it to the next round, it’s possible that the ATS will misinterpret what you have chosen to include and pass you up for an alternate candidate. Take a look at this list of “don’ts” before submitting your resume to an electronic system. 

1. Tables and Text Boxes

Even if you think that tables or text boxes may be an easy way to format a creative or artistic resume, it’s not recommended for an ATS. Try to tab and space out information chronologically, with equal spacing. 

2. Logos, Images, and Other Visuals

An ATS is not going to know how to interpret a logo or image. Even if you think it “spices up” your resume, it comes across as a sloppy way to take up space. Using a flashy graphic to display your name may result in your name never being included in the resume. 

Additionally, your resume does not traditionally include a photo. Traditionally, an American resume will contain text only– never a headshot. 

3. Columns

An ATS most commonly reads from left to right. This means that if you use column formatting, the ATS will still attempt to read your content straight across rather than reading top to bottom. 

4. Headers and Footers

Headers and footers may seem like a great way to squeeze in additional information or extra contact details. However, an ATS will drop most headers and footers. Keep all text within the body of the document. 

5. Unconventional Titles and Headings

Try not to get creative or use full sentences as titles or headings. Use traditional labels like: 

  • Technical Skills
  • Education
  • Work Experience 
  • Awards and Recognition 
  • Special Interests 

The ATS will be able to sort and translate this information into sortable keywords. 

6. Hyperlinks

Most ATS systems will not be able to recognize that there is a hyperlink attached to a keyword. Once reformatted in the system, the hyperlink will likely be removed. 

To avoid this, paste the entire URL itself in your contact information section, or link out to recognizable words like “website” or “online portfolio.” 

7. Uncommon Fonts

The ATS will likely be unable to parse fonts that require a download or that are unconventional for most word processors. Recommended and web-safe fonts include: 

  • Arial
  • Helvetica
  • Times New Roman
  • Garamond
  • Georgia
  • Cambria

Using these fonts will keep your resume professional-looking and easy to scan. 

Formatting For an ATS Friendly Resume

Wondering how to best format your resume to get straight into the hands of a real person? Here’s what we recommend: 

  • Underline – use underlines in headings and URLs only so normal text isn’t confused for links 
  • Colors – using extensive color isn’t recommended, but you shouldn’t worry if you do, as ATS will return all text in the same color 
  • Bullets – use standard circle- or square-shaped bullets 

You’re welcome to use bold and italicized fonts sparingly throughout to help certain headers or sections stand out. 

Get Hired

Whether you’ve been eager for a new adventure for a while now, or you suddenly have an urge to try something new, there is never a bad time to start your job search. It’s your chance to draft the best ATS resume you can and step into real interviews, with real people. That’s where we come in! 

Join our exclusive network of technologists and developers to accelerate your career, and work with industry-leading companies driving innovation. Browse job listings today, and land your next dream job. 

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