ATS: How to make your resume pass the test

Being in the job market again is an … interesting … experience. After leaving my previous job, I went to work updating my resume as I’ve always done in the past. Unfortunately, “in the past” was a long time ago and things have changed since then.

Most of the jobs I’ve held in my lifetime came about through personal contacts. I was virtually guaranteed an interview because of the people recommending me. During that interview, I had an opportunity to explain anything in my resume that might not fit, like not having a college degree.

Back then, how the resume looked was critical. You had to make it stand out. It had to look professional—especially if it related to a creative field like writing. So that’s what I set out to do. I looked at piles of sample resumes to get a feeling for the formats people are using now, and I created a good-looking resume:

I soon discovered a problem. When I submitted this resume to ZipRecruiter or Indeed, they parsed it automatically and turned it into text. And they did a really bad job of it. Where there are two columns, their systems read right across, jumbling the text to the point of illegibility. They didn’t deal well with colored backgrounds, and didn’t even try to parse images. Even page numbers at the bottom of the page and headers at the top screw them up.

A few applications and I found that the hiring companies also used these automated parsing systems, with equally bleak results. My carefully-crafted resume was useless, thanks to the rise of the ATS.

What the heck is an ATS?

Even for a small business or nonprofit, hiring managers can get a lot of resumes. At Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary, advertising for an animal keeper or education specialist could bring in dozens of resumes. At my software company, Cheetah Systems, advertising for a developer in Silicon Valley would bring in hundreds.

To ease the burden of analyzing all of those resumes, companies began developing Applicant Tracking Systems, and the initial screening process became much easier. Give the ATS some parameters, and it will automatically filter out resumes that didn’t meet the minimum criteria.

If you are a job applicant with just the right resume, this is great. Show your 20 years of relevant experience (including all the appropriate keywords), mention your advanced degrees, and list all of the skills the employer is looking for. The ATS will pick your resume up and put it at the top of the virtual stack for the hiring manager to look at.

If you have a non-typical resume, it’s not so good. If you’ve recently switched careers or don’t have the right college degree, a human won’t even see your resume. Latest surveys show that 95% of resumes never make it to the people doing the hiring. Even minor things can knock you out of the running. If you are an expert at editing video using Adobe Premiere, but the hiring company uses Apple Final Cut Pro, a human would realize that you can probably learn the new tool pretty fast. An ATS will notice that Final Cut Pro isn’t on your resume and you’re out.

According to Forbes, up to 75% of qualified applicants are rejected by ATS programs because the ATS couldn’t read the resume [emphasis mine]. Adjusting your resume to fit what an ATS looks for is critical!

So what can you do about it?

If you can get that personal connection, do it. That’s more important than anything you could ever do to your resume. According to Zippia Resume Statistics 2022, 60% of jobs are found via networking instead of websites that post job listings, and referred candidates are twice as likely to get an interview.

Next, we have to accept the fact that we can’t tune a resume to work for every hiring company, because there are over 100 ATS packages out there today and they’re all different. They all start by scanning your resume, though, so begin your optimization process there.

The format

Begin by cleaning up and simplifying the format to make it as easy to read and parse as possible.

  1. Remove all graphics, including pictures, icons, and special symbols. If you have a bullet list with non-standard bullets, change them to ordinary circles.
  2. Make the resume one column throughout. No sidebars. No text boxes. The only exception is a list of skills at the top, which can be in two columns because reading across doesn’t affect the parsing.
  3. Put your name and contact information at the top of the first page, not the top of every page. Do not use headers, footers, or page numbers.
  4. You can use font sizes, bold text, and white space for emphasis, but this probably won’t matter unless your resume makes it to a human being. If you use color, make sure they’re dark colors that will be readable against the white background.
  5. Don’t squeeze the margins. Leave at least 3/4 inch all the way around.

Once you’ve done that, you’ll have a resume that looks a little more like this:

A note on the horizontal lines in that image: those are “paragraph rules” set in Microsoft Word’s paragraph formatting. They aren’t separate images inserted into the document. Since we’re not going to be making a PDF, those will not be seen by the parser.

The Content

The next critical step is making sure you have the content the ATS software will be looking for. This means keywords. With the more sophisticated AI in some of the ATS packages, you can’t get away with “keyword stuffing,” where you just put a long string of keywords in the document and repeat them several times. That will be detected and rejected.

Look through job descriptions of jobs that you want, and see what words they all use. For a writer, they may be looking for familiarity with Microsoft Word. If they also care about Excel, they may be looking instead for Microsoft Office. If it doesn’t get awkward, try to use both. Make sure to use synonyms in your lists of accomplishments and job duties. For example, put “programming” in one place, “coding” in another, and “software design” somewhere else.

Acronyms and initialisms are another problem. Is the ATS hunting for UX or User Experience? Does it want to see CIO or Chief Information Officer? The first time you use one of them, spell it out the first time with the abbreviation in parentheses, and then just use the initials after that.

Make sure to use standard date formats rather than something fancy, and be consistent throughout. Give the sections of your resume standard headings, like “Work Experience” and “Education.” If you use something unusual, the ATS may not understand it.

Submitting the Resume

Once you have it ready to go, upload your resume in Word (.DOCX) or plain text format to a site like ZipRecruiter or Indeed and see how well their parser handles it. Tweak it until everything comes through correctly. Don’t use PDF. ATS software is notoriously bad at reading PDFs.

When that works, then start adding skills manually in the job hunting software. Each one does it differently, and the odds are good that the website didn’t extract your skills list properly from the resume. Creating a skills list in LinkedIn is a totally different process than doing it in ZipRecruiter. It’s an important step, though, as they will use that list to match you to prospective jobs.

Then What?

Then you wait. Most companies don’t bother to tell you if you are rejected. They just never get back in touch with you. I made an Excel spreadsheet to track all of my job applications, and used conditional formatting to turn entries red after 30 days without action so they’re not clogging up my list of pending applications.

My resume is decidedly non-standard. In the 45 years since I left college, I’ve changed careers several times, working as a software developer, integrated circuit designer, teacher, curriculum designer, author, engineering manager, nonprofit executive director, chief technology strategist, marketing & branding specialist, and more. A great deal of my experience is freelance, which ATS packages don’t seem to understand. And worst of all, I don’t have a college degree.

After 100 job applications with only two interviews (!), I decided to stick with what works and go back into freelance work. Instead of using my skills for a single company, I’m doing grant writing and communications work for nonprofits.

This article is the result of a lot of research on my part, and even paying for a resume consultant. Hopefully, you’ll have better results with it than I had.

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