The ATS-Friendly Resume Guide

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ats-friendly resume | applicant tracking system

If you’ve been Googling like crazy for information on how to write your resume these days, it’s very likely you’ll have come across the term ATS or Applicant Tracking System. You may have a vague idea of what it is and/or what it does. You may also be wondering how this will affect your resume and your job search.

On the other hand, ATS also might be something you’ve never heard of and have NO idea how to deal with. If that’s the case, no worries! I want to fully break down ATS and how it affects your job search in this article.

Keep reading for more details on:

  • What an ATS is
  • Why you need to care about ATS, AND
  • The 3 most important things you need to know when it comes to ATS

What is an ATS (Applicant Tracking System)?

An ATS is a human resources software designed to streamline the hiring process for companies. With hundreds of job applicants for every opening, it’s impossible for recruiters to read through every application.

With an ATS, your application can be ranked based on how well it matches the job description. Rather than reading through all the resumes, recruiters can just focus on the candidates that rank the highest. Recruiters and hiring managers can also search the ATS using keywords if they are interested in finding candidates with specific skills.

When you submit your resume to an ATS, the information will be extracted from your resume and sorted to fit into the software’s database. The way this information is extracted and processed can affect whether your resume is ever seen by a hiring professional.

Why Do I Need to Care About Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS)?

The vast majority of companies now hire online. If you plan to submit an online job application, your resume will be scanned by an Applicant Tracking System. If your resume format is incompatible with an ATS, you won’t be ranked high enough for recruiters to see or decide to review your resume, no matter how qualified you are. You can essentially get lost in the sea of applicants.

However, if you learn to use the system to your advantage, you can be one of the candidates that effectively stands out and lands the interview.

While an ATS might seem discouraging, it’s really not! Look at it as an opportunity you can USE. It’s really not that difficult to learn to use an ATS-friendly format and write your resume effectively so your resume WILL be compatible with the ATS and land you the interview!

Top 3 Things You Need to Know About Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS)

1. The resume format you use NEEDS to be compatible with ATS if you plan to apply online.

There is a lot of information out there about which resume formats are compatible with ATS. In fact, there’s a lot of conflicting information. As a professional resume writer (especially when I was first getting started), I found this really frustrating. I learned that, in most cases, simpler is better. Here’s what I’ve learned that will make sure your resume works:

Columns & Tables

Using a one-column format is one of the easiest and best ways to make sure your resume will succeed with every ATS out there.

Don’t take my word for it. A blog article from Jobscan illustrates this perfectly by showing what happens when a two-column resume is uploaded to a common ATS:

As you can see above, the ATS merged the content in the “Experience” section on the column on the left with the “Skills and Abilities” section on the left, providing the Hiring Professional on the receiving end with data that makes zero sense.

As a resume writer, I’ve seen the anecdotal evidence myself. A lot of people come to me with elaborate, two-column resumes that aren’t getting responses. While the job seeker might personally like the look, the results don’t tend to match up. While there’s no guarantee you won’t land an interview using a two-column format, it seems likely that it will reduce your chances of success.

Clean Resume Design

Applicant Tracking Systems will be parsing your information into an online database. The resume should have a traditional structure with specific headings and formatting structures so that it will be easy for the system to process the data. This includes using headings such as “Professional Experience” and “Education & Credentials.” Getting too creative could cause a problem with the system.

Fonts & Bullets

While it may be tempting to use an exciting new font to stand out from the crowd, it’s recommended to use a common, simple font. Less common fonts have experienced trouble with ATS. I commonly use Calibri, Cambria, and Georgia. Other fonts that will work include Arial, Helvetica, Tahoma, Verdana, Times New Roman, and Palatino. While you might love some of the new, funky fonts out there, chances are the ATS won’t.

Some of the more intricate and unusual bullets (while they may stand out) aren’t compatible with ATS either. Your most important selling points could end up scrambled. Sticking with the usual dots and squares is an effective way to make sure this doesn’t happen.


It used to be thought that colour on a resume affected how it would be processed through the ATS, but as far as I’m aware, this is no longer an issue. Don’t go overboard on the colour though – stick with one colour and keep it to the headings so it will still be easy for humans to read!


Images and charts unfortunately aren’t compatible with ATS either. While you may love the look (i.e. a chart to showcase your most important skills), chances are these important keywords will be completely missed when the ATS parses the information.

P.S. – Thinking of rating your skills on your resume? Read my article here to learn why you really shouldn’t.

2. Your resume needs to contain the right keywords to be matched with the job description.

Review the job description carefully to identify the right keywords.

What are keywords? I define them in this context as: Specific abilities, skills, and qualifications hiring professionals want to find in a candidate.

As you’re looking through the job descriptions, look for patterns. If some words and phrases frequently appear in a job description, it’s likely those will be keywords that hiring professionals consider important to the role. And if you truly have these skills (above all, don’t lie), you need to make sure they stand out in your resume.

Focus on Hard Skills

Applicant Tracking Systems (and hiring professionals in general) are most likely to scan resumes for hard skills (clear skills gained from experience and training such as: Marketing, Microsoft Excel, Editing, Customer Service, Accounting, Financial Analysis, etc.) rather than soft skills. While soft skills are important too, they are generally better gleaned from interviewing the person than reading them in a resume.

Mimic the language in the job description.

Depending on the role, sometimes the keywords in job descriptions will vary from role to role. Keep an eye out for this. Depending on the position, you may need to edit your wording slightly so your resume stands out.


You’re a Project Manager and you see a great posting you want to apply to. You have all the skills and experience, but the title is Program Manager and the job description repeatedly refers to “Program Management.” In order to make sure you resume is compatible, you may have to edit your wording to describes Program Management vs. Project Management.

3. After getting through the ATS, remember your resume WILL be reviewed by a human.

Don’t forget – after getting through the ATS, your resume will be viewed by a human. The ATS does NOT make the hiring decision – it just helps hiring professionals by letting them know which resumes are most relevant to the advertised position. So your resume needs to be readable by a human. This means:

No keyword stuffing – Don’t go over the top with inserting relevant keywords throughout your resume. First of all, it’s not needed, and second of all, once the recruiter or hiring manager reads it, they’ll likely be turned off because it doesn’t make sense.

Don’t lie – If your resume doesn’t match up to the job description, don’t lie in your resume. You want to make sure your experience appears relevant, but you don’t want to say anything that isn’t true just to include some keywords in your resume.

If all this sounds like way too much work – I promise you – it’s not. It’s super easy to find a resume format that will satisfy both the SYSTEMS and the PEOPLE that will be reviewing your resume.

Are you sending out your resume and not hearing back?

Download my FREE resume checklist below to learn what might not be working when it comes to your resume.

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