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How to Write a Resume That Is Ready
for Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS)

See also: Writing a CV or Resume

The internet has made applying for jobs easier than ever before. Now, the average company receives as many as 100 to 1000 applications for each open position, especially in some of the best known and popular companies.

Some studies have shown that the average resume receives only seven seconds of attention from the hiring manager before they decide “yes” or “no.”

Yet even those “seven seconds” may be an overstatement. For some companies, the answer is now “0.”

Your Resume is at the Mercy of Math

Several companies have changed the way they hire so that the hiring manager has been taken out of the equation. Instead, they use what’s known as an “Applicant Tracking System,” or “ATS” – a fancy phrase for what is essentially a database of applicants.

What makes the ATS different from a simple database, is that these systems are equipped with search boxes and algorithms that hiring managers can use to find out which applicants to contact:

  • Searches – Some ATS rely on searches, not unlike a Google search.

    The hiring manager collects all of the resumes and places them in the database. Then, when they are ready to hire, they search for some of the most important key terms relevant to the job, and then call everyone whose resume comes up.

  • Algorithms – Other ATS use a more complex algorithm.

    The hiring manager programs the algorithm for some of the skills that they are looking for. Then the software program has an algorithm in it that scores the resumes based on what the job entails.

Some ATS may also act differently because there are many Applicant Tracking Systems available, and more are being developed every day.


Beat the Applicant Tracking Systems

Even though each ATS may work differently, they all have one thing in common: they depend on the words in your resume to determine if you meet their qualifications.

If you’re missing those words, whatever they may be, you won’t score well in the automated system, and you won’t show up in a search.

But if you create a resume that is ready for the ATS – a resume that has all the words you need and is formatted in the right way, you can beat the applicant tracking system and make sure that your resume is reviewed for the job.

It starts with keywords. Every time you conduct a search in Google, you choose a term – for example, “Resume Writing Tips.” This term then brings up search results based on a variety of ranking factors all related to those keywords. Applicant Tracking systems are similar. By including keywords that are specifically related to the job, you increase your chance of beating the ATS.

The trick to beating Applicant Tracking Systems is to develop a resume that has all the potential keywords (and key phrases) that the hiring manager, and the system, may look for spread throughout your resume.

How to Locate Keywords

The challenge here is locating the right keywords. You can’t just stick every word you think of into your resume as, at some point in the process, a real person will read your resume.

If it reads like you placed a group of keywords in the content solely for the ATS, you’re not going to get hired. Similarly, deciding on what keywords to include can be a tremendous challenge since you don’t know exactly what keywords they may use in their search.

Luckily, there are several strategies you can use to find likely keywords that the hiring manager may use. You can’t be 100% certain that you’ve selected the right ones, but you can increase your chances with these easy steps:

  • Analyze the Job Advertisement

    Often some of the most likely keywords are going to be found somewhere in the job advertisement. For example, if the job advertisement asks if you have knowledge in a specific type of software, it is critical that that software is listed somewhere in your resume.

  • Look at Competitor Job Advertisements

    Not every skill that the company needs is going to be listed in the job advertisement. But if you analyze other job advertisements for similar positions, chances are you’ll discover some possible keywords that you could include within your resume.

  • Review Former Employees on LinkedIn

    See if anyone else working in the role has listed any of their work experience on their LinkedIn profile. Often if someone lists it on their LinkedIn as a task or skill they used at the job, it is something that you may also want to consider including in your resume.

Of course, you should also trust in your own expertise. Think about your own work experiences, and think of possible specific searches that the employer may complete. Keep in mind that they’re likely to look for the specific over the generic, so it is better to list specific detail (for example, “experience with Freshbooks Accounting software”) rather than broad detail (for example, “experience with many types of accounting software”).


Additional Applicant Tracking System Tips

If you keep keywords in mind as you write your resume, you are going to improve your chances of being selected by the ATS. But there are additional tips and techniques that can help improve your chances even further.

These include:

  • Integrating Both Abbreviations and Full Phrases

    SEO is a marketing term that stands for “Search Engine Optimization.” Marketers refer to the two interchangeably. Since computers are not people, they don’t necessarily know that those two terms are the same. So if you only have the term “SEO” experience on your resume, and the hiring manager searches for “search engine optimization” experience, you won’t show up despite referencing it on your resume.

    That is why it is a good idea to integrate both common acronyms/abbreviations, and the full term. The only exception is if you simply do not have enough space on your resume, in which case you should use the most common phrase.

  • Stick to Convention

    Automated, algorithm based Applicant Tracking Systems look for specific items on your resume in order to “score them.” Some of them may look for phrases like “Work History” to know that that section is your work history, or they may look for a date like “July 2004 to August 2010” in order to determine how long you worked for a company.

    Automated algorithms can’t adjust for phrases, terms, and formatting that it doesn’t understand. So avoid anything too creative like “Samples of My Professional History.” Those will confuse the system and possibly get ignored.

  • Use Space Better

    For the Applicant Tracking System, there is simply no reason to use an objective statement when you can use a professional summary. Professional summaries are 5 to 6 line paragraphs that discuss your qualifications for the job, and they are a much better opportunity to stick in keywords that otherwise could be missed in the objective statement.

    You should also avoid going into detail about experiences that have little value to either the ATS or the job. You should always put only your best information on your resume, but this is especially true of ATS resumes. Adding hobbies, like golf, or listing some experiences that have no practical or keyword value simply to take up space, is wasting possible opportunities to include more keywords.


Write for People – With the ATS in Mind

Even though it is useful to try to use strategies that help you beat the applicant tracking system, your resume will ultimately always be read by a person. So you should always write a resume as though a person is reading it.

But while you’re writing your resume, make sure that you are keeping the applicant tracking systems in mind. As more and more companies use these ATS databases, the more your resume is prepared, the better your job chances will be.


About the Author


Sia Mohajer is a senior HR manager at Online Resume Builders where he helps students and young professionals get the jobs they want and deserve.

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