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How to Get Your Resume Past the ATS

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Your resume is your sales tool. Your highlight reel. Your opportunity to put your best foot forward.

 
But here’s the deal:
 
Employers spend an average of six seconds looking at resumes.
 
And what if I told you that 80% of the time, your resume was never even seen?
 
Wait, what?
 
Here’s the kicker:
 
These days, most companies use what’s called an Applicant Tracking System.
 
The Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS for short) filters out “under-qualified” resumes.
 
This can make your job search feel like throwing rocks into the abyss – you don’t quite know where they’ll land.

(This post may contain affiliate links. Check out my full disclosure policy here!)

So what exactly is an applicant tracking system?

How to get your resume past the ATS

An applicant tracking system – or ATS – is a software tool used to scan, filter, and rank job applications.
 
Applicant Tracking Systems first became popular among larger organizations.
 
Why? Because these large companies often dealt with several thousand job applications.
 
So as you can imagine, it became difficult for them to sort through each application by hand.
 
But we’ve become a society of convenience and efficiency. We want newer, better, and faster ways of handling things.
 
So gone are the days where only big companies use applicant tracking systems.
 
Estimates show that as many as 90% of companies – big or small – use some sort of ATS to filter their applications.
 
That’s right, your carefully worded and crafted resume is getting reviewed by bots.
 
But listen:
 
Applicant Tracking Systems are useful for most businesses today.
And they’re useful for you if you know how to get past them.
 

So how does the ATS work?

How to get your resume past the ATS

To get past it, you’ve gotta learn to understand it.
 
So here’s what you need to know:
 
The ATS works by scanning resumes for keywords, then scoring the resume for relevance.
 
Only the most qualified (aka the highest scores) get sent through for human review.
 
Imagine all the time HR managers save by not having to sort through under-qualified or irrelevant resumes.
 
…but, it can also mean that your application could slip through the cracks if you don’t make the ATS happy.
 
Here’s what I mean:
 
At a former job, I became the boss, head honcho, head chick in charge – whatever you want to call it.
 
And out of curiosity one day, I went all the way back to see what my ATS “score” was.
 
The ATS scored me at 83 out of 100.
 
Yes, the woman in charge only scored an 83 out of 100.
 
You see, our ATS only sent applications through if they scored above 80.
 
Anything below 80 was never seen by the hiring director; so, it was never seen by me.
 
My application was only 3 points away from rejection.
 
I tell you that story to show you that even the most qualified candidates can get passed over.
 
So you have to write and format your resume with the ATS in mind.
 
Unfair? Yes. Efficient? Also, yes.
 
So let’s get into the action steps:

1. Keep Formatting Simple

How to get your resume past the ATS

I know you want to grab attention and stand out, but keep in mind that the ATS values simplicity. 
 
White space is your friend:
 
Too many logos, pictures, and symbols will confuse the ATS.
 
They don’t know how to “read” them.
 
And when there are too many things that confuse the ATS = automatic rejection.
 
Make sure the fonts are readable:
 
Stay away from fancy fonts that could get you rejected because they’re illegible.
 
Arial, Courier, or Times New Roman are all better choices.
 
Keep the headings simple and familiar:
 
Stick with the standard Qualifications, Experience, Education, and Skills.
 
Avoid unfamiliar headings like Publications, Memberships, and Affiliations.
 
Stick with Word Doc instead of  PDFs:
 
ATS are becoming better about reading PDFs. But, they sometimes still miss important information in them.
 
They sometimes scan PDFs as if they’re one big image – which skips all the important details.
 
Instead, use a Word Document because they’re compatible with all Applicant Tracking Systems.

2. Nail the Right Keywords

How to get your resume past the ATS

One of the most important things – along with getting the formatting right – is keyword optimization.
 
You want to format your resume so that it can actually be read, then once it’s read, you want the ATS to see it as a good match.
 
Here’s your best bet:
 
Pull up the job description you’re going after and use those keywords to tailor your resume.
 
Ideally, you’d use those keywords throughout your resume 3-4 times. (With at least one of those keywords falling in your ‘Experience’ or ‘Education’ section.)
 
So let’s use an example I found from an actual job description:
 
Sales Manager Responsibilities:
 
  • Achieving growth and hitting sales targets by successfully managing the sales team
 
  • Designing and implementing a strategic sales plan that expands the company’s customer base and ensures it’s strong presence
 
  • Managing recruiting, objectives setting, coaching and performance monitoring of sales representatives
 
The important keywords are highlighted in bold. Those are what the ATS is scanning for.
 
So if you were applying for that position, it would be smart for you to include how you hit sales targets, managed the sales team, and designed/implemented strategic sales plans.
 
(Of course, only if those things ARE true. You never want to use the keywords to lie)
 
You should write the content exactly how it’s written in the description:
 
  • Plural Words
 
  • Abbreviations
 
  • Numbers (three years of experience vs. 3 years of experience)
 
So if the job posting requires “three years of experience”, you’d want to actually write out:
 
“Three years of experience” instead of “3 years of experience”
 
And finally, when it comes to acronyms, include both the spelled-out version and the shortened one.
 
Some applicant tracking systems won’t recognize “MBA” as a “Master of Business Administration.”
 
So I’d write the abbreviation in parenthesis like this:
 
Master of Business Administration (MBA)
 
Certified Public Accountant (CPA)
 
This is key to finding a balance between the ATS and human eyes.
 
Also, always write out the entire year: 2019 instead of ’19
 
Okay now, I want to note something important:
 
Don’t feel the need to exploit the system by over-stuffing your resume with keywords. 
Your resume doesn’t have to be an identical copy of the job posting.
 
If it’s a carbon copy of the job description, HR managers might get suspicious that you keyword stuffed your resume.
 
Instead, focus on the most important keywords and factor them in naturally.

3. Focus on the Hard Skills

How to get your resume past the ATS

The ATS focuses on the hard skills. So leave the soft skills for your cover letter or actual job interview. 
 
For example, many employees use words like ‘team player’ and ‘collaborative’ to enhance their resume.
 
Sounds good, right?
 
But here’s the thing:
 
Applicant tracking systems look for things that are quantifiable.
 
Soft skills like ‘team player’ don’t get searched for when recruiters are trying to find candidates.
 
It doesn’t mean you can’t include some of those in your resume if you really wanted to.
 
(Like if you just had to let them know you’re a “good communicator”)
 
But keep most of your focus on job titles, technical skills, and credentials that are relevant to the job. 
 
Because those are the keywords they’ll really be searching for. 

4. Use Resume Tools

How to get your resume past the ATS

Since you’ve made it to this point, you’ve probably learned way more about applicant tracking systems than you’ve ever wanted to.

I gotta do all this to have the best chance of getting my resume noticed?!

I know. All this stuff can be time-consuming. I get it.

So I wanted to give you a great option to help you know if you’re doing everything right:

Use a resume keyword tool like Jobscan.

Jobscan lets you compare your resume against actual job descriptions. Then they tell you how to make it better.

And the best part?

They give you an actual score of how you’d measure up in their system – just like the ATS does.

Here’s an example:

how to get your resume past the ATS

Jobscan has both a free plan and a monthly plan, so make sure to check them out.

5. Ditch the Career Objective Section

How to get your resume past the ATS

Some people really just love that good ole objective statement.

…well, everyone except hiring managers.

You’ve probably been taught that you need to put a career objective on your resume.

And your objective is this:

You’re a qualified employee that wants the job you’re applying for.

But of course, you can’t say that, so you go with this instead:

I am a hard working individual who wants the opportunity to work in the Finance industry.

You know you want the job. I know you want the job. They know you want the job.

And here’s the thing:

If your resume has made it this far, it probably means you’re qualified.

So as someone who’s seen hundreds of resumes, I recommend using that space for something more important instead.

Like your experience, for example – rather than just stating the obvious.

6. Job Titles Matter

How to get your resume past the ATS 

Small tweaks often make the biggest difference.

So if you’re applying for a role as a Sales Manager then make sure your work history job title actually says Sales Manager.

And vice versa, if the role is for Sales Director then make your titles match Sales Director.

Sometimes we forget to change titles and words because they’re interchangeable. We figure, “What’s the point?”

But when it comes to the ATS, job titles matter.

7. Be Careful With The Header and Footer

How to get your resume past the ATS

Some applicant tracking systems are better at scanning certain things than others.

And actually, one study found that the ATS couldn’t identify a candidates information 25% of the time

Why? Because it was put in the header or footer.

With that said, not all applicant tracking systems are unable to read information put in the header and footer.

But if you want to be safe, try putting your important contact information (name, phone number, email) outside of the header or footer. 

8. Convert Your Resume to a Plain-Text File

How to get your resume past the ATS

Here’s the thing:

The bots that scan your resume prefer plain text files because they’re easier to read.

But humans prefer word documents because they look better. 

So since the best resumes are written with two audiences in mind – the bots and the HR managers – we have to cover both bases.

So here’s what you do:

Create your resume using Word document in .doc or a .docx format.

Once you’re done, covert your resume to a plain-text file to see how it looks. 

If the plain-text version is missing details, has characters saved wrong, or looks disorganized – try to fix those errors before you submit it.

Once the plain-text copy looks good, you’ll know that the ATS is reading it correctly. Then you can switch back to using a Word document.

9. Spell check, spell check, spell check.

Because who wants to mess up a job opportunity over something so easily avoidable?

10. Balance is Key

how to get your resume past the ats

It’s worth mentioning again:

When you’re writing your resume, it’s important to always keep both audiences in mind.

Yes, it’s smart to avoid the major mistakes that can cause the ATS to reject your application.

But remember that an actual person will look at your resume once it passes the ATS scan.

Find the balance between clean, concise, and visually appealing. 

And don’t forget:

Generic resumes are the enemy of applicant tracking systems. They’ll be the first ones screened out. 

Tailor your resume to each job that you’re applying for. Try to incorporate several keywords and phrases from each job description.

(While making sure your writing still sounds natural and readable.)

I know these steps may sound like a lot, but don’t worry – you’ve got this.

Thanks for reading.