How to Beat the ATS “Applicant Tracking System”.


ATS stands for “Applicant Tracking System”. It is the first and biggest hurdle your résumé has to get over if you ever want it to be read by the human being at the other end. If you have been uploading your résumé online, only to be getting little to no response, your document probably is not ATS-friendly. Every little tweak can make a big difference, so make the recommended changes before you apply to any jobs online.

Getting your résumé past the computer systemsrelies on doing these three things:

  • Customizing your document to the job posting by using specific keywords/phrases and other strategies
  • Creating a document using a simple format and design
  • Uploading the appropriate type of document

What is the ATS – Theory vs Reality

Applicant tracking systems are used by companies to help them scan, score, rank, and store résumés that are uploaded by applicants. In theory, the ATS streamlines the recruiting and hiring process so that the employer can find the best-match candidates more efficiently. In reality, the systems do not necessarily detect the best-match candidates largely because the résumés have not been properly formatted and designed for the ATS.


How to Beat the ATS

The whole ATS situation is complicated because there are 200+ different ones that do not follow a universal system. While they are all similar in some aspects, some can scan only certain files that have no complex design elements while others can handle different file types and even complex formatting. Unless you know which system each company uses, you need to err on the side of caution by creating a simple, ATS-friendly document so that it comes up in a search string.


Use Keywords

Keywords are words (and even phrases comprised of keywords) that relate to particular job requirements. They are hard and soft skills, abilities, credentials, and qualities that recruiters and hiring managers look for in a candidate that are found in the job description and in the company website. Both the ATS and the human reader look for specific keywords when they scan your résumé. The more you miss keywords or use the wrong ones, the more likely your résumé will end up at the bottom of the pile, never to be seen. The general rule with keywords is to identify those that accurately represent your skills, experience, and qualities and use them repeatedly throughout your résumé and cover letter.

Don’t Over-do It!

However, like everything in life, too much of a good thing can be bad. Be careful to not “keyword stuff” your documents or use the keywords out of context, otherwise your résumé will be rejected. Creating a keyword-rich document that passes the ATS and human reader’s numerous selection criteria takes a specific strategy that goes beyond just tossing in a few keywords here and there.

Keep It Simple!

The most effective résumé design for the ATS and the human reader is a simple one that the computer and human eye can scan easily from left to right, without any disruption from design elements. Resist the temptation to use a résumé template that you find online as many of them are not ATS or even human reader friendly. You can create your own simple design in a Worddocument that does not require any special know-how.

Don’t Go All “Uber-Design”

If you are applying to jobs online, NEVER upload a résumé that was created using a lot of design elements and infographics because there is a high probability it will get rejected by the ATS. Even if you are handing or emailing your résumé directly to a human, it is best to keep design elements to a minimum. Most people find design-heavy documents too difficult to scan quickly and complain that it is often an obvious (an annoying) ploy to make up for the lack of meaningful content.

Optimize Readability

  • The key thing is readability for both the ATS and human.
  • Avoid a “copy-dense” document by maintaining ample white space and margins throughout
  • Use easy to read font types and sizes
  • Use bullet points as much as possible
  • Do not overdo bolding, underlines. italics, fancy font styles, and colour
  • Use a one-column format
  • Don’t use fancy design elements such as text boxes, graphs, charts, photos, or any kind of embedded images
  • Be careful adding extra spaces between letters and words and using tables

Word is the Way To Go

The safest type of file to upload is a Word .doc (not .docx). Do not use a PDF or Word .docx, unless specified otherwise. Plain text is the “safest” format to use because it has totally stripped down of any formatting and will get through virtually any ATS. Problem is, plain text lacks visual impact, so for that reason, I do not recommend it for the résumé which must grab immediate attention of the human reader.

Customizing Your Résumé

Customizing your résumé for each position will significantly increase its chances of getting through the ATS. This is what Recruiter and Hiring Managers expect according to a Careerbuilder survey:

  • 63% of recruiters want you to tailor your résumé to the position
  • 54% of recruiters will reject your résumé if you don’t customize it

Even if your simple, keyword-rich résumé managed to make it past the ATS, it has over a 50% chance of not making it past the human just because it wasn’t tailored to the position.Then there are other elimination criteria that the human uses to drill down even further.

NB: So, sending out the same résumé to different jobs is a really bad idea, whether you’ve used keywords or not.