How to Write a Resume That Will Get Past the Bots

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Improve Your Resume or CV

If you’re like most job seekers, you know the frustration of spending countless hours researching vacancies, polishing resumes and cover letters, and submitting job applications only to get no response from hiring managers. 

It’s a more common experience than you might think. The estimated rejection rate for online job applications varies from 75% to as high as 98%. So, while you can breathe a sigh of relief that there’s (probably) nothing terribly wrong with you, you still have to face the harsh reality that landing a job through online applications is not easy. You might wonder what’s wrong with hiring managers today, but it actually has little to do with them. In fact, they might not be getting your resume at all.

Due to the enormous number of candidates, many companies use automated software programs (bots) to screen applications before a person ever touches them. Known as applicant tracking systems (ATSs), these bots determine whether your application gets to be seen by a recruiter or ejected into the emptiness of cyberspace. This post will pull back the curtain on ATSs and offer you tips on crafting a resume that will get past them. If you’d rather not tackle this time-consuming task, you can simply outsource it to our resume experts.

ATSs defined

ATSs are software applications that assist recruiters in receiving, organizing, and screening job applications. Originally used by the largest companies to sift through thousands of incoming applications, they are commonly employed by companies of all sizes. Thus, job seekers should consider ATSs standard and craft their resumes with these digital gatekeepers in mind.  

Essentially, ATSs work by breaking down the resume text into pre-defined word categories and then scanning the text for specific keywords that match a given job description. Resumes that don’t have a sufficient number of matches are weeded out, while those that do are more likely to remain in the running. 

ATS software is much more effective at eliminating unqualified applicants than it is at selecting qualified ones. However, algorithms are only so powerful, and an ATS can’t know whether the resumes it’s throwing out come from unqualified candidates. A highly qualified applicant who fails to include the right keywords can easily find themselves booted from the race before it even begins in earnest.

Understanding the workings of ATSs is important for job seekers. Before you can convince a hiring manager that you’re the right candidate, you must play against the computer and demonstrate that you’re not the wrong candidate. Therefore, applicants who know how to write and format resumes that appeal to all the parties in the hiring process—computerized and human—will have a significant advantage over the competition.

How to optimize your resume for ATSs

While it may seem daunting to craft a resume that pleases a computer, there are specific steps you can take to make sure you stand out from the crowd.

Choose a file type the ATS can work with

While PDF is popular for producing sharp-looking documents, it doesn’t always play well with ATS protocols. Remember that your first objective is to achieve as many keyword matches as possible, so clean lines and soothing color palettes won’t help at this stage. If the ATS software can’t readily convert the PDF into a format it can understand, your carefully worded resume might get routed to the recycle bin on arrival because the bot will disqualify any resumes it can’t decipher. Some ATSs can convert PDF files without a problem, but many have issues with this file type, so don’t take any chances.

Unless the job listing specifically mentions PDF as an acceptable format, you should opt for either plain text or—better yet—a Microsoft Word document (formatted as a .doc or .docx file). Using a Word file gives you the best of both worlds by providing easily readable text for the ATS plus a variety of formatting options to create visual appeal for hiring managers. You can always keep a PDF version on hand for situations that call for one. 

Put key details in the body of the resume

Most ATSs are unable to read headers and footers, which is exactly where many applicants put their names, phone numbers, email addresses, and other important personal information. Again, if the software cannot import or make sense of the text, your resume is likely to end up in application purgatory. Are software designers to blame for failing to add what seems like an obvious functionality to ATSs? Perhaps, but you have to play the game if you want to win. 

Keep things simple by displaying your contact information and other key personal details in the body of the resume rather than in headers and footers.

Maximize keyword number and frequency

The number one way to enhance your resume for ATS screening is to use lots of job-specific keywords. It’s helpful to do some research here. Look up the job description on the company’s website and study similar job listings posted by other companies. The more you can find, the better. 

Determine which keywords come up frequently in these listings. Using an online word frequency analyzer (such as the free one offered here) can help. Simply copy and paste the text from the job description into the analyzer, and with one click, you’ll get a detailed list of how many times each word appears in the text. 

Once you’ve identified the most important keywords, include them throughout your resume. If a keyword phrase has a common abbreviation (such as “CRM” for “customer relationship management”), include both in the resume text. Of course, be honest—if one of the keywords doesn’t apply to you, don’t add it. If there are too many you can’t include truthfully, look for a new job posting.

Keyword frequency is important here, too. ATSs sometimes judge the strength of a resume by analyzing not only which keywords appear but also how many times they appear. A resume that features a specific skill set multiple times could be ranked higher than one that mentions the same skill set only once or twice. To keep your resume on top of the pile, emphasize your skills and experience by incorporating (and repeating) important keywords wherever possible. However, keep in mind that your resume will also be evaluated by a human if it gets past the machine, so don’t overdo it.

You should also establish specific links between your skills and work history. A common resume technique is to summarize your core competencies at the beginning of the document and then list work experience further down. While this is a fine practice, one drawback is that the software can’t always connect the dots between specific skill sets and their place in your previous employment. 

For example, say Python is one of your core competencies, and you’ve used it extensively in your last two jobs spanning five years. If you list Python as a core competency at the beginning of your resume but don’t reference it again for each of those two jobs later on, the ATS may assign some arbitrary duration to that skill (six months is a common placeholder), making you look like a relative novice. So, while it may seem redundant, make sure you receive credit for your hard-earned skills by listing them throughout your work history. 

Finally, a quick note on keywords versus “fluff” words. When it comes to ATSs, keywords reign supreme, while fluff is … well, fluff. You may truly be a “detail-oriented, results-driven team player who leverages synergy in a transformational way,” but such overused terminology is unlikely to help much. Focus instead on using targeted, job-specific keywords, and leave the fluff words to the amateurs. Besides, human hiring managers don’t fall for fluff, either—they want to see proof (through your accomplishments) that you’re a detail-oriented, results-driven team player, not just read the tired buzzwords.

Dispense with fancy graphics and exotic characters

Just as PDFs can confuse ATS software, the use of charts, logos, and photographs in your resume can throw it off as well. If you increased sales by 10% year-over-year at your last job, just state it clearly in the text (using specific keywords, of course). If you try instead to show that same 10% sales growth using a custom-drawn line graph, the software is likely to omit it altogether. Even worse, the image could interfere with the program reading the other text in your resume. 

Save yourself the hassle by using your (key)words and leaving out the graphics. Besides, graphics are non-standard in resumes and may not please a recruiter who’s a stickler for the rules. The idea is to make your resume stand out in terms of content, not design.

The same goes for using exotic characters instead of standard bullet points when creating lists. This can wreak havoc on your resume format when it gets processed by the ATS. Avoid this by opting for simple, commonly used bullet points and use them consistently throughout.

How to tailor your resume format to ATS screening

Keep things simple when it comes to the resume format. Going with an unusual or overly complicated design—either for visual appeal or due to the need to convey lots of information—might seem like a creative choice, but it can cause processing problems for the ATS and frustrate hiring managers who want to read quickly through application materials. The last thing you want is to make it past the machine only to be eliminated because your resume is too hard to follow. Considering the typical number of applicants vying for one job, hiring managers are happy to find a reason to shrink the pile of resumes, so don’t give them one.

Go with a standard resume format. The three most common ones are the chronological resume, the functional resume, and the combination resume. The chronological resume, considered the most traditional type, is organized by work history, with the most recent job shown first and previous jobs listed in reverse order. The functional resume, often used by applicants with gaps in their work history or in the process of changing careers, emphasizes skills and experience and minimizes the role of work history, sometimes omitting it altogether. As its name suggests, the combination resume represents a cross between the first two types. It typically summarizes skills and experience at the top, with the applicant’s work history presented underneath.

Using any of these common formats is acceptable, but the chronological and combination types have a clear edge in ATS screening because they incorporate the applicant’s work history, enabling the machine to make associations among skill sets, timeframes, and previous positions. By omitting the work history component, the functional resume puts the applicant at a disadvantage, so we don’t recommend it. There are other ways to compensate for gaps in your employment history, such as listing what you were doing if you were involved in freelance work or providing care to a loved one.

How to tell if your resume is optimized for ATS screening

Maybe you already have an updated resume, but you’re frustrated with the lack of progress in your job search. Maybe you have an old clunker of a resume gathering dust in some forgotten corner of your hard drive, and it’s time to spruce it up. Perhaps you don’t have a resume at all. Whatever your starting point, there are steps you can take to get your resume ready for the modern job search.

If you already have a resume, one step you can take is to convert it to plain text and review it for missing information and formatting errors. For example, do all components of your work history match up with the appropriate dates? Do all the targeted keywords appear in the relevant sections? Do punctuation marks, bullet points, and line breaks display correctly? Do any sections appear jumbled or out of order? Since a plain text file provides the closest approximation to what the ATS sees, fixing issues that show up in plain text can help prevent potential formatting glitches during the ATS screening. 

Still not sure how to proceed? Don’t have a resume at all? It’s okay—simply reach out to our experts, and they will craft a standout resume for you or optimize the one you have to help you beat the bots and wow hiring managers! 

Improve Your Resume or CV