Applicant tracking systems are widely used by employers today, making it important for job seekers to know which resume format features work best for these systems. An ATS is a software system used by employers to receive, store, and sort resumes. Many people are aware that they need to use targeted resume keywords to be chosen for consideration, but fewer are aware of the importance of their formatting choices when it comes to beating the ATS.
According to Bersin & Associates, a resources consulting firm, the cost of hiring a new employee runs about $3,500; applicant tracking systems are one tool employers use to try to find the best candidates while also streamlining the hiring process. They may not be perfect, but they aren’t going anywhere, so job seekers need to plan their ATS resume format accordingly.
Skip tables and columns
While these formatting features can be visually appealing, most applicant tracking systems can’t read them. An ATS parses the information in a resume and enters the relevant information into the corresponding fields in its database. Entering skills into a table to make a skills section look uniform is a fairly common resume practice, but it’s one that backfires in this case. And because an ATS doesn’t necessarily scan a resume in the same order that a human would, the presence of columns can throw everything into disarray.
Don’t use graphics
In many cases, even one graphic is enough to trip up an ATS so that it can’t read a resume. While it’s widely known that resumes should not contain photographs, other types of graphics are more easily overlooked. In resume templates, it is increasingly common to see icons in the contact information section indicating phone numbers, email addresses, and home addresses. If using a resume template, choose one without these. And don’t forget to actually spell out “phone,” “email,” and “address” in front of the corresponding information so the ATS can easily recognize it.
Stick to standard typefaces and characters
Straightforward and simple resume font choices are the best bet when considering applicant tracking systems. This includes typefaces such as Arial, Georgia, Tahoma, Trebuchet, and Verdana. Standard bullet points may look, well, standard—but they present no problem for applicant tracking systems, while many special characters and symbols do. This even includes accented letters. Non-standard spacing (such as adding extra spaces after letters) can also throw off applicant tracking systems.
Consider the file type
PDFs have the benefit of preserving a document’s original formatting, making them a common choice for resumes, but they can’t be read by most applicant tracking systems. The best options are .doc or .docx file types (that is, Word documents). Some, but not all, applicant tracking systems can read .rtf and .txt files.
Don’t try to game the system
The importance of keywords to applicant tracking systems means that there are some commonalities with search engine optimization—including the fact that some people inevitably try to get quick results using shortcuts. Enough people have tried to trick applicant tracking systems by including long strings of keywords in white text (visible to the ATS, but almost certain to go unseen by a human reader) that some have started penalizing candidates for doing this.
One additional tip: When applying for a job online, fill out every field—even those marked “optional.” The more information given to the ATS, the more chances it has to deem an application a good match. Besides, with hundreds of applications per position, hiring managers have to find some way to trim the pool of candidates to a reasonable number. Submitting a cover letter may not be required, but hiring managers might choose to only review the applications of those who did submit cover letters. Applicant tracking systems can scan cover letters just like resumes, making the cover letter another opportunity to be seen as a match for the role.