Writing a Resume for Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS)

October 6, 2020
Hiring Trends

Most companies use applicant tracking systems to evaluate and rank your application if you’re not working with a recruiter. ATS, while helpful, are known for their short-comings and shuffling otherwise great applicants to the lower-rungs of the résumé pile.

But they won't eliminate your applications from consideration if your résumé doesn't meet the qualifications listed in the job descriptions; what they do is a little more convoluted.

Let's go over what they really do and how to construct a résumé that signals all the right things to both these flawed application screeners and to human eyes.


A typical ATS database will include your name, job title, application rank, and status. For example:

ATS Example.png

In good times, large brands and, sometimes, smaller firms can take in hundreds of applications, if not over one thousand. The ATS does the grunt work of sorting all of these applicants based on their résumés' fit for the job description.

In theory, the cream rises to the top of the ATS database. This way, recruiters and HR departments aren't overwhelmed by an influx of applications, and can then get the ball rolling quickly with the applicants that ATS push to the front of the line.

In practice, ATS software also has flaws.

These systems use a tool called optical character recognition (OCR) to evaluate applications. OCR scans the text from an uploaded résumé PDF and looks for words or wording that closely matches a job description. The résumés that sync up with the listing most precisely will rank higher in the database.

So, it won't reject applications, but it'll affect your visibility or where you first appear in the applicant database.

Those really at a disadvantage are recent graduates, those changing careers, slightly less experienced candidates with outstanding soft skills, and people who generally aren't too experienced in writing strong résumés.

While ATS can certainly unearth fantastic candidates quickly, it can also knock back some of the best.

(Pausing for a second to mention our recruitment team: recruiters can help you get around ATS software. Not only do we work directly with hiring managers, but we also want you to feel respected and supported as more than a résumé and portfolio.)


Back to the main point!

When recruiters want to look further past the simple resume ranking of the system, they can conduct a keyword search in the database.

Let's say you've applied for a Graphic Designer opening at L'Oreal. The hiring managers want you to have experience creating custom signage, but also examples of work in e-commerce and medical affairs.

Whoever is in the ATS database can search Graphic Designer and custom signage and e-commerce and medical affairs.

Keywords are everything here.

To optimize your résumé:

  • Read the job description multiple times to familiarize yourself with its wording.
  • Copy and paste the listing's text into a word cloud that will list and count how many times each keyword is used. Aim to use those keywords a similar number of times in your résumé if you have those skills and experiences.
  • Write out abbreviations (eg., User Experience instead of UX) at least once if you include them.
  • Use standard headings: 'Skills,' 'Education,' and 'Experience' or 'Work Experience'.
  • Use of color is contested by experts. The safe choice is to avoid it.
  • Use simple fonts like Helvetica, Garamond, Arial, or Georgia.
  • Your first bullets under each position you've held should be your accomplishments in those roles, followed by bullets with some of your responsibilities.
  • Organize your experiences chronologically.
  • Don't include tables as they interfere with optical character recognition.
  • No headers or footers.
  • Upload your résumé as a .DOCX or .DOC.

One method to determine how well an ATS system will parse your résumé is to copy and paste its content into a plain text editor like TextEdit or Notepad.

If the information is organized and the structure is clear to you, the ATS should be able to read it.  


Don't stuff your résumé with keywords, especially if you don't possess that experience or skill.

Ultimately, your résumé is going to be read by humans, so if you get through the applicant tracking system, you have to remember that people will read your application. Sprinkle your keywords throughout your skills and experience sections with subtlety.

When prompted to fill out your application on websites like Workday, Greenhouse, and the like, submit the kind of résumé outlined in the bullets above and share the stylized version when you’re contacted by a recruiter or the hiring manager for the role.

Wishing you the best of luck with your applications!

Warm regards,