Creating Effective Resumes That Don’t Confuse ATS


May 11, 2020


180 Engineering

Recruiting firms and many hiring organizations now use an Applicant Tracking System (ATS) to manage the volume of resumes they receive and in some cases, help with labor law compliance. These systems organize, sort, track, and screen applications. 

Because these systems are often being used as a “first screen”, it is critical for your resume to be ATS friendly so that your resume is ultimately routed to a human reviewer. At 180 Engineering, we don’t rely heavily on our ATS as a screening tool; we review many, many resumes the old-fashioned way. However, this is not the case for many other recruiting firms or a lot of hiring organizations. The last thing you want is your resume, full of outstanding credentials, to fall through the cracks.

Formatting your resume in an ATS friendly way increases your odds of success. While many of the principles of resume writing have not changed, others have. For example, many of us were taught to use the finest paper and we learned that eye-catching graphics or other visual creativity help to differentiate us. This is no longer the case. The following offers guidance for creating and submitting ATS-compatible resumes. 

Formatting Your Resumes for Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS)

  • Simple is better.
  • When presenting historical information – like work or education history, present the information consistently for each occurrence. For example, list the information like company name, location, and dates in the same order and in the same format for each occurrence.
  • Unless otherwise instructed, save your resume as a word document. Also, avoid templates. They usually contain tables which often cause resumes to import incorrectly.
  • Use traditional fonts like Arial, Georgia, and Times New Roman. Avoid special fonts.
  • Don’t use images, columns, special characters, tables, text boxes, lines, shading, borders, or other graphics – these elements confuse an ATS and lead to garbled resume imports.
  • Include your name and a functional/common title within your resume’s document file name.
  • Stick to common resume section headings like Education, Professional Experience, Education, etc.
  • Use an 11-point font or larger.
  • Consider using all caps for section headers as this can make it easier for an ATS to identify sections within the resume.
  • While an ATS will not penalize you for having a long resume, a human reader will be involved at some point. Therefore, keep your resume as concise as possible. If your resume is more than one page, include page numbers in the footer of the resume so that the ATS can’t see the page number, but human readers can.
  • Because your resume will be read by a human reader, don’t strip down the resume completely. Submitting a .txt file is no longer necessary or appropriate for most systems. Avoid all of the graphics and formatting complexity mentioned in this post, but do use bold words, caps and simple bullet points to aid readability for a human reader.
  • Don’t include your credentials (like MBA or Meng) next to your name. Rather, include them on the next line to make sure that the system correctly identifies your credentials.
  • Using a different font color for a section header is fine and if done well can make the resume more attractive to a human reader.

Structuring Your Resume Content for ATS

Like so many search and data analysis technologies, ATS technology has become more sophisticated. Older ATS technology relied on semantic search technology. This meant systems essentially counted keywords and, generally speaking, the more occurrences of an important keyword, the better match the candidate’s resume was deemed to be. 

Google and other search engine technology worked in similar ways leading marketers to execute keyword stuffing strategies and other tricks of this nature to try to game the system. Job seekers worked to game ATS technology in similar ways.

Just as search engine technology is increasingly contextual, the same is true of ATS technology. Systems will now scan the resume for keywords and work to weigh keywords within the context of the resume. ATS contextualization does not just look for keywords relating to desirable skills, but looks at how long ago desirable skills were acquired and how frequently those skills were likely used in recent years. 

How should your ATS-friendly resume be structured?

  • Include contact information within the body of the resume, not within the header or footer.
  • Tweak your resume to align with a given job description. Use keywords and phrases likely to highly relate to that job description.
  • If possible, use the job title within the job description in your resume.
  • Mirror the keywords used in the job description. For example, if “product integrity testing” appears to be important within a job description, use this phrase within the professional experience or skills section of your resume.
  • Be specific when describing skills. For example, rather than stating “Skilled at using CAD software,” instead say “Completed Solidworks 3D CAD Modeling Certification.”
  • Use the professional summary and/or skills section of your resume to include keywords and phrases that align with the job description. If possible, use those keywords and phrases in other appropriate places within your resume.
  • Don’t overuse keywords.
  • It goes without saying that proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation matter. Not only is this the sign of a qualified candidate who takes pride in their work, but the presence of a misspelling or misuse of words can also confuse an ATS.
  • Although it is important to craft your resume knowing that an ATS is likely being used, a resume still needs to read well for a human reader.

Other Important Factors for ATS Resume Submission

  • When given the option to upload your resume or to cut and paste it into the system, it is much better to upload a resume that is well-formatted for an ATS. Cutting and pasting can result in the inclusion of text formatting code which can garble your resume in the system.
  • Do not submit your resume multiple times to the same recruiter or hiring organization for the same job. You are in the system the first time and the ATS will track and identify this multiple submission activity. If you are applying for multiple jobs within the same company, you should submit multiple resumes. You may tweak your resume for the different positions, but be very certain that your resumes all tell the same story. The different versions of your resume will be identified and inconsistencies will be easily recognized.

If possible, have an employee of the company you are targeting submit your resume to the system. Most systems assign different values to the submission source and it is likely that an internally submitted resume (an internal referral) will weigh more heavily than a resume submitted via a job board, for example.