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Applicant Tracking System

8 Fail-Proof Ways to Optimize Your Resume's Format for the ATS

January 2, 2020
7 min read
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With over 95% of all Fortune 500 companies moving to use Applicant Tracking System, or ATS, these applications are scanned and filtered by software before reaching a hiring manager’s hands based on parameters set by the hiring team.

We know very well that technology has its faults, but we also know there are usually ways to work around the kinks. These systems scan resumes to determine if a candidate’s qualifications match up with what the company wants in an employee. “Qualified candidates” are selected based on information pre-entered by the employer. What’s even more complicated is each ATS has its own standards and guidelines, and, many times, these “rules” won’t be listed when you submit your resume.

If you’re missing specific keywords, including job titles, or headlines, use difficult to read formatting, or have fewer qualifications than another applicant, then it’s unlikely a person will ever see your resume, and you won’t get the job. Fortunately, there are things you can do to optimize your resume and increase the chances it gets into the hands of the hiring manager.

Customize your resume with these simple tips that will help you think like an Applicant Tracking System.

Recruiters only spend an average of 3.14 minutes looking at a resume. Use these 8 tips from @ClearCompany to help your resume stand out from the crowd and beat the #ATS filters:

#1 SEO 101

Before we even make it to the ATS, let’s briefly dive into how to use simple SEO tactics to find the perfect job for your professional skills. When employers write job descriptions and set up their applicant tracking systems, they use specific keywords to describe job functions, titles, requirements, and skills they’re looking to attain. Without knowing every employer’s “secret” keyword list, we have to adopt some basic SEO skills to get our search going.

To get started, read through this list of top 500 resume keywords to use when creating your resume. For industry-specific keywords, use tools like SEMRush to identify high-volume search terms that could lead you to job opportunities suited for your skills and experience.

#2 Check and Double Check for Typos

This tip should be obvious. Typos not only make it more difficult for an applicant tracking system to discern what you mean, but 77% of employers said that all it takes one typo in a resume for them to disregard a candidate for a position with their company. After running your resume through spell-check and going over it a few more times, consider having a friend or two look over it as well.

Tip: To catch more typos on your own, read your resume backward. It interrupts the flow of reading and helps you focus on individual words.

#3 Keep Things Simple

When applying for a position, especially creative roles, it can be tempting to spice up a resume with lots of colors, fonts, even a picture here or there. You want your resume to stand out, right? Unfortunately, when companies use an ATS, extra design only detracts from the resume. In a recent survey, over 40% of employers said they are put off by too much design. Utilize a consistent font throughout and refrain from using more than two colors to help keep your resume simple.

Classic ATS formatting tips:

  • A majority of applicant tracking systems can’t read tables. This means that if you put resume content into a table in an attempt to make it easier to read, that info will not be accurately interpreted as part of your “candidate profile” in the system.
  • While some applicant tracking systems will suggest preferable formats, Microsoft Word’s resume format is the safest go-to. TopResume found in a recent study that 43% of all submitted resumes were incompatible with the ATS due to formatting issues. Saving your document as a PDF will ensure it maintains the format no matter what.
  • Just like non-traditional job titles (discussed in tip #6), some ATS struggle to read non-traditional section titles. Stick with the classic headers like: Professional Experience, Work Experience, Educational History, References, Skills, and Contact Information

Tip: Consider putting headers in all capital letters. That makes it easier for the ATS to categorize and identify information.

#4 Use Keywords

When writing or updating your resume, keep the job description nearby where you can see it. Pull the most important words from it and use them in the resume. ATSs are designed to determine a candidate’s qualification for a role based on how closely terms that you use match what is in a job description. The ATS will identify the relevant information first, and make it more likely that your resume will actually be seen by a real person.

According to Dr. John Sullivan, author of the article "Identifying Keywords to Put on Your Resume," if you don’t include at least 50% of the job description keywords in your resume, don’t expect an interview. Find a way to organically include these keywords in your resume and you will increase your chances of landing an interview.

Keywords are essential in getting the ATS’s attention, but beware of “keyword stuffing,” a term used when candidates pick a high-volume word and place it in their resume an unnatural amount of times. This practice results in disruptive flow, and leads to your resume being flagged by the ATS. Find the keywords you’d like to use from the job description and use them 2-3 times. Read what you’ve written out loud, and if it doesn’t sound natural or flow well, remove or add as needed.

Tip: While it’s important to include enough keywords, adding too many is also detrimental. An ATS will most likely disregard your resume if it has more than a 95% match to the job description.

On average, every corporate job attracts 250 resumes. Need some help making your application stand out from the crowd? Use these 8 tips from @ClearCompany to prepare for the #ATS and strengthen your resume:

#5 Only Use Relevant Information

When applying for jobs, applicants often make a common mistake: listing every job they’ve ever worked or every skill they possess. While this is an understandable practice (after all, you are attempting to impress a recruiter, and it seems the best method is to have a lot of job experience), the better practice is to only list relevant job experience.

An ATS operates by identifying only relevant information, so adding extra will not help you. Additionally, recruiters only spend an average of 3.14 minutes looking at a resume. Additional information will only detract from the most critical skills and jobs.

#6 Make it Unique

There is no one-size-fits-all resume. For every job you are applying to, you should be customizing your resume to fit the role. While it will take a lot more time, the extra effort will be worth it. On average, every corporate job attracts 250 resumes. Even if your applicant tracking system eliminates 75% of the applicants, that leaves over 60 people to compete against.

Tip: A great way to be unique and get through the ATS is to include a customized cover letter. You have more opportunities to include keywords and show off your personality.

#7 Mind Your Job Title

Using unique job titles like “Coding Ninja” or “Marketing Guru” help showcase your personality on LinkedIn or your personal career website. However, these need to be made more formal on a resume. Each organization has their own titles for jobs internally. Use the same keyword trick from tip #3 to customize your job title for the company you’re applying to. A company’s ATS will catch your resume if your job title matches their job description exactly.

#8 Prepare for Humans, Too

While technology allows both applicants and companies to streamline and automate hiring, don’t lose sight of the main goal: interacting with a person! These tips help you navigate a company’s hiring parameters in order to make it to a person for an interview. Make sure that you are writing for what that person will ultimately be looking for. Read your resume out loud to see if it reads naturally, or if it sounds overly formal. Your tone of voice will be dependent on the tone of the company you’re looking to hire with as well. The more customized your approach, the more “human” your resume will read.

Tip: Cut the clutter on the resume save the wordiness for the cover letter if you start getting a little text-heavy. (Typical rule of thumb: keep your resume to one page, one side, including nothing older than 10 years).


Applicant Tracking Systems can seem frustrating for job seekers, but they ensure the right person is interviewing for the right job. The ATS saves both the recruiter and the applicant time and effort by removing candidates that just aren’t quite the right fit for a role. If an ATS could help your company hire more efficiently, check out ClearCompany’s software solutions.

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