ATS Resume - How to write an applicant tracking system resume

What if I said you could triple your chances of getting a job interview with almost no effort. At Jobscan, we’ve found that job seekers who use applicant tracking system keywords within their resumes can triple their chances of getting an interview. This post includes what you need to know about ATS and writing an ATS resume. If you have a specific job in mind, you can start by trying our tool for free right here

Lost? Read more: What is an applicant tracking system?

Raise your hand if this sounds familiar: you’ve found the perfect job, you’ve spent days injecting your resume with high-impact action words and evidence-backed accomplishments, and you’re confident about your chances.

Ready to put your best foot forward, you loop back to the job posting in search of the recruiter’s email address, only to find a blue “apply now” button in its place. You take the bait—you’ve come this far, after all—and realize you’ve run full speed into job hunter purgatory: the applicant tracking system.

The key to understanding applicant tracking systems rests in understanding the hiring process itself

This is actually a pretty common scenario: For most of us, the applicant tracking system doesn’t cross our mind until it’s staring us right in the face. But here’s the scary part: In the scenario above, what you do next has the chance to make or break your chances of getting a job interview.

That’s right: career progression, chances of landing your dream job, that potentially huge salary boost…they all depend on your ATS resume strategy.


So what do you do?

You have three choices:

  1. Throw caution to the wind and move ahead with your application, as-is.
  2. Spend a few minutes or hours perfecting any required application questions, and then submit the same resume to the application tracking system.
  3. Hit the pause button and think about how to beat applicant tracking systems; cross-reference your resume with the original job description using Jobscan; and re-work the details just to be safe.

Confession Time

If we’re honest, most of us will probably choose Option 1 or 2. Heck, I’m a former recruiter, and I’ve done it before!

The problem? Option 1 and 2 negatively impact your chances of getting an interview. 

It’s like spending your entire life training for the Olympics, finally qualifying, and then getting denied at the airport check-in counter because you forgot to book a plane ticket.

The thing is, with a bit of time, a little knowledge, and the right tools, you can make a massive difference in your job search.

As in, triple your chances of getting an interview massive.

Have I got your attention? Good. Here are all the things you need to know about writing your resume for an applicant tracking system.

Secret 1: Writing an ATS compliant resume takes planning

Remember back in the day—think Don Draper and Mad Men—when you had to get past the secretary if you wanted a meeting with the executive? Well, in 2018, you have to get past the applicant tracking system if you want an interview with the recruiter. And sadly, applicant tracking systems can’t be bought with martinis and flowers.

Brushing off the importance of applicant tracking puts you at a massive disadvantage in a job search.

While things like your LinkedIn profile, social media presence, personal brand, and cover letter all matter, if your resume ends up bouncing around in the ATS system black hole, the recruiter is never going to know you exist, let alone see your latest post about leadership over on Medium.

So what does planning mean, exactly?

Secret 2: Applicant tracking system keywords and resume SEO matter

As a former recruiter, I get a “friends and family” resume question at least once a week, and my #1 tip is always the same: Before you start writing your resume, make a list of the keywords that are important to your industry and function.

This is good advice if you’re writing for an actual human being. After all, recruitment is a time-crunch industry and recruiters rarely read resumes in detail.

Beyond that, resume keywords are critical to writing an ATS compliant resume.

You may have heard of search engine optimization (SEO). It’s the careful mix of keywords that writers, marketers, and website designers use to tell search engines what their website is all about.

Resumes need SEO, too.

The keywords you use throughout your resume are what the applicant tracking system uses to assess whether your experience matches the job.

Secret 3: Not all resume keywords are created equal

When you’re writing a resume for ATS recognition, any old keyword won’t do. You need to use the exact same keywords listed in the job description.

ATS systems are smart, but at the end of the day, they only find what they’ve been told to look for, and that’s a list of keywords from the hiring manager.

Consider these three examples of how an ATS can get tripped up:

  • Some ATS can’t distinguish between front-end and front end.
  • Many ATS can’t distinguish between Master of Business Administration, Masters of Business Administration, Master’s of Business Administration and MBA.
  • Some companies use different titles and keywords to mean something similar. For example, Project Manager vs. Program Manager.

The only way to get around this is to use the exact same language and punctuation as in the job description. 

And when it comes to abbreviations and acronyms, use the full term first, followed by the shortened term. For example: “Master of Business Administration (MBA).”

Secret 4: Keyword placement matters to some applicant tracking systems

When we tested some of the most popular ATS systems out there, we were surprised to find that some applicant tracking systems not only consider what keywords you use, but also where you use them.

Let’s consider Jenn, a fictional management consultant with 15 years of experience:

After a number of successes in her current role, Jenn feels it’s time to go after her dream job with McKinsey & Co. The role she’s looking at requires eight years consulting experience, and Jenn is confident she’ll be a contender. 

Jenn is trying to decide between two different versions of her resume. Which should she use?

  1. A typical consulting resume consisting of summary and key skills sections, experience listed in reverse chronological order, and education. Jenn has listed consulting in her key skills section and uses variations of the verb consult in her current role, which she’s been in for three years. For the remaining 12 years of experience, Jenn uses the synonyms advise, counsel, and guide to keep it fresh.
  2. Similar to Resume #1, but in this version, Jenn was under a deadline, and didn’t have time to change the verbs, meaning every role she’s ever had includes a variation of consult.

This is a simplified example, and I think you can probably see where this is going: As far as ATS optimization is concerned, Resume #2 is far better.

In fact, some ATS systems we’ve tested would interpret Resume #1 as meaning Jenn only has three years’ consulting experience, because the keyword only appeared in her most recent job.


Secret 5: Keyword stuffing is a huge no-no on an ATS compliant resume

As with many things in life, when it comes to writing a resume for ATS, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.

Let me be clear: If you “keyword stuff” your resume, the ATS will red flag it, sending your resume to the black hole of failure. 

Having keywords appear more frequently in your resume does translate into a higher ATS ranking—up to a point.

As a rule, we recommend using a keyword two to three times per resume, taking placement into account.CTA_scan_your_resume-03-02

Secret 6: Your job title matters for applicant tracking systems

This one can be difficult for candidates to get their heads around because it feels…wrong. But I promise you professional resume writers do it all the time: tweak job titles to fit the role applied for.

Small changes to your job titles can make a big difference with an ATS. 

Let’s consider Jenn again.

  1. Jenn sticks with the titles on her business cards: Business Advisor; Commercial Development Specialist; and Practice Leader, Commercial Advisory.
  2. Jenn streamlines her titles to fit the McKinsey & Co. Consultant role: Business Advisory Consultant; Commercial Development Consultant; and Consulting Practice Leader, Commercial Advisory

Can you see how those simple changes could make all the difference when it comes to applicant tracking systems that are looking for keywords?

Secret 7: Keep it simple

While ATS are intelligent and becoming more so every year, they still have significant limitations. When it comes to formatting, resume font, and document type, “keep it simple” is the best rule to follow in creating an ATS-friendly resume.

  1. Many applicant tracking systems can’t read tables. As such, they’re best avoided.
  2. Microsoft Word resume format is the safest option, although many ATS will offer guidelines concerning acceptable formats.
  3. An ATS might struggle with non-standard resume section headers, so it’s best to stick with classics, such as “Work Experience” or “Professional Experience,” and avoid creative titles, such as “What I’ve Done.” 

Secret 8: Keep it human, even on your ATS optimized resume

I’d be remiss to end this post without mentioning something that—while obvious—is easy to forget when you’re focused on beating an ATS system: If you do everything right, your resume will be reviewed by a real person.

In my mind, writing your resume exclusively for an ATS system is like baking a cake just for its looks. I don’t know about you, but I want a cake that looks good and tastes good. 

And when it comes to your resume, you need it to do double duty—to both get you past an applicant tracking system and appeal to human readers.

While optimizing your resume for an applicant tracking system isn’t rocket science, it does require careful planning.

If you’re concerned about your resume, or simply want to see how it will perform in an applicant tracking system, be sure to test our resume scanning tool.

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