Your resume undergoes a transformation once uploaded to an applicant tracking system (ATS) as part of your online job application. The ATS converts your document into a format that can be searched, filtered, or transcribed into a uniform digital applicant profile.
Unfortunately, most ATS are not particularly good at this. The searching algorithms are rudimentary, parsed text gets garbled, and as a result qualified candidates like you slip right through the cracks.
One of the most hotly debated pieces of ATS formatting advice is whether job seekers can use tables and columns on their resume. From a visual perspective, they offer great ways to structure your experience and save space on your resume. But are they ATS compatible?
No. Tables and columns often cause critical errors within ATS.
What happens to tables and columns in a real ATS?
Here is an example resume that uses a table to divide the information into two columns, seen here in the popular ATS Lever.
The table allows a lot of key information to be packed into the top half of the first page of the resume. On the left is the work experience. On the right are additional skills, certifications, and education.
Not bad. If this was the only way the resume was delivered to the recruiter, there wouldn’t be a problem. Unfortunately, Lever and other ATS parse the resume into a digital applicant profile so that it can be searched and read more easily (at least in theory).
Here’s what the ATS did to this table when it tried to parse it out:
The ATS recognized the experience section and attempted to rebuild it, however it merged the two sides of the table. The work experience is interspersed with miscellaneous skills and qualifications. Even worse, some lines are completely missing.
We know to read the left side of a table and then the right side, but Lever and other ATS aren’t programmed to do that. Instead, most ATS read top-to-bottom, left-to-right, no matter what.
This causes problems for tables and columns created in Microsoft Word or Google Docs, or text fields in design software like Adobe InDesign.
Other problems caused by tables and columns in ATS
When an ATS bulldozes through your table or columns, the good news is that the text will typically still be searchable. That said, if your parsed resume doesn’t make any sense, a recruiter might just move on to one of the dozens or hundreds of other applicants rather than try to sort out your garbled resume.
Some other issues that can be caused by poorly parsed tables and columns include missing sections or unsearchable resume keywords. For instance, a keyword could get merged with another word ( ex: “engeeringThe”) or a multi-word keyword like “customer service” could get split up.
How to use tables in an ATS-friendly way
While not advisable, tables can still be useful on an ATS resume.
For example, using a table to organize a simple skills section is unlikely to cause major problems as long as you remember how ATS “read” your resume. Putting a different skill into each table field is probably safe because they’ll still be searchable and it doesn’t make a huge difference what order they’re parsed by the ATS. Adding an extra space before and after each skill in your table can also help avoid merging issues (ex. “engineeringThe”).
That said, you’re better off avoiding tables or columns altogether if you can. It might make it more difficult to efficiently utilize your space, but an ATS compatible two-page resume is a whole lot better than a resume mangled by an ATS.