A pair of glasses, a pen, and a pencil sit atop a stack of resumes

How to write an ATS-friendly resume

april 11, 2024

Searching for a job can be a daunting, emotional, and unpredictable process. On top of that, the job market is extremely competitive, which makes it that much more difficult to land a first interview.

The biggest key to opening the door to interviews is making sure that your resume is tailored correctly AND is ATS (applicant tracking system)-friendly. But first, let’s review what an Applicant Tracking System is.

What is an Applicant Tracking System?

An Applicant Tracking System is a type of software application that HR and Talent Acquisition teams utilize for open positions. Typically, when a job seeker applies for a position on a company’s careers page, their resume will be put into a file for that specific position. Any incoming resumes will get organized for that specific role.

When it’s time to review resumes, HR or the recruiter will go into the ATS and sift through resumes for each position. But some positions get upwards of 100 resumes each, and given the time crunch that HR and recruiters are on to fill open roles, it’s likely that not every resume will get seen. That’s why it’s absolutely key that your resume is optimized correctly and makes it into the ATS batch.

Here’s what you need to know to ensure your resume has the best chance of getting seen.

Leverage an ATS-friendly layout

There’s no need to include sections that are irrelevant to job searching, such as your hobbies or interests, personal information, or your professional headshot. The resume is composed of 3 portions: top, middle, and bottom. Let’s start at the top. The top portion of your resume should include your primary contact information:

  1. Your full name
  2. Your current city and state (Including your full address is outdated. For safety and privacy reasons, you no longer have to add this. Simply add your city and state.)
  3. Your email address (Please make sure it’s appropriate and not your email address from junior high (farewell sk8terchick91@aol.com)
  4. Your phone number
  5. Your LinkedIn (If you don’t have one, then I highly recommend you create one.)
  6. A link to a personal website or digital portfolio for all the creators who want to show off their work.

In addition to your contact information, the top portion should also include your “Skills”. These are your hard/technical skills, so think of programs, systems, and software that you have used or currently use. Make sure you’re paying close attention to the list of required and preferred skills in the job description. That is what you should incorporate in your resume, but only if you are truly proficient. You don’t want to get caught in any lies.

Next is the middle portion- the meat and potatoes of your resume. This is where your “Experience” goes. For recent graduates and those new or coming back into the workforce, it’s important to call out that experience can come from school activities, volunteer work, or freelance projects, and not just from paid jobs. Be sure to list your work experience in reverse chronological order, with your current/most recent role at the top, and your oldest at the bottom.

Lastly, let’s talk about the bottom portion of your resume, which should address your “Education.” If you’re still in school, then you would move your Education section to the top portion underneath your contact information. However, if you’ve graduated, then make sure to keep it at the bottom. If you don’t have a college or high school degree, you can simply remove this section or include Certifications or Boot Camps you’ve completed.

ATS-friendly formatting

Now that you have the foundation of a resume, let’s move on to formatting.

To create an ATS-friendly resume, here’s what you should avoid:

  • Color
  • Overly designed templates
  • Graphics

These are just a few elements that can negatively affect your resume, should it go through an applicant tracking system.

To err on the safe side, it’s better to keep your resume simple with these tips:

  • Use traditional fonts, like Arial, Calibri, or Times New Roman - these fonts are widely accepted, whereas some of the calligraphy style fonts may not be recognized in an ATS.
  • Only use black text – using other colors may distort your resume.
  • Keep it to one column – two columns, text boxes, or lines can affect your resume sections and run the risk of moving information around accidentally.
  • Save it as a PDF – By doing this, you “lock” in the information on your resume, eliminating the possibility of changes being made after you send it.

ATS-friendly bullet points

Once you have the sections and formatting down, the final priority is to make sure your bullet points reflect your successes within each role. Typically, you include your general responsibilities for each position on your resume, which can sound like this, “Answer all incoming phone calls.” This describes what you do, but what recruiters and HR professionals want to see is how and why you did it. When modifying your bullets, ask yourself these questions:

  • Why am I responsible for this task?
  • How do/did I accomplish this task?
  • What resulted from me doing this task?

Incorporate any data, metrics, or numbers to support your points. So going back to our example, “Answer all incoming phone calls,” one way to make it stronger with concrete success metrics could be, “Answer 50+ calls a day as first point of contact for the company to answer and rectify all customer requests and concerns.” While it may sound wordy, those extra words go a long way in the eyes of a recruiter.

Another key tip to strengthen bullet points is to incorporate keywords from the job description. Read through the job posting and pay close attention to what the job requires. For example, if a job posting is asking for someone to “Manage the new hire onboarding process,” then you’ll want to include those words on your resume, but only if they apply to your experience.

One more tip: Use strong action verbs, such as lead, optimize, organize, execute, or implement, and avoid overused or weaker verbs such as responsible for, assist, and help.

Now that I’ve gone through the DO’s, I want to address a big DON’T before you start customizing your resume.

  • Don’t copy and paste the entire job description onto your resume, change the font color to white, and reduce the font size to 1. This “hack” may seem like a good idea to bypass the ATS filters, but recruiters do see this on their end, and can result in your resume being tossed out. It’s not worth the risk.

The key to a great, ATS-friendly resume includes optimizing for keywords, adding strong action verbs, success metrics, and good formatting. And remember, prioritize quality experience over quantity.

It may seem like tailoring your resume is a lot of work, but if you truly put in the effort and take the time to do it right, you’ll see interviews start to come through. Good luck!

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