Here's everything you need to know about applicant tracking systems

We've all been there: you find the perfect job opportunity, customize your resume and cover letter, submit your application to a job listing online, and then pray it will pass the infamous six-second resume review test. Unfortunately, more often than not, your job application is lost in the applicant tracking system - and you're left wondering why the employer or hiring manager wasn't that into you.

What many job seekers don't realize is that 75% of job applications don't get seen by human eyes. Before your resume reaches the hands of a live person, it must often pass muster with what's known as an applicant tracking system.

Below is everything you need to know about applicant tracking systems - and what best practices you can use to optimize your resume to ensure it gets selected.

What is an applicant tracking system?

An applicant tracking system - or ATS, for short - is a type of resume scanning software used by recruiters and employers during the hiring process to collect, sort, scan, and rank the job applications they receive for their open positions.

The applicant tracking system was initially created for large companies that are accustomed to dealing with several thousand inbound job applications on a weekly basis. Today, approximately 99% of Fortune 500 companies rely on ATS software to help streamline their recruitment process. However, what began as a recruitment solution for large employers has turned into a commonplace tool for companies of all shapes and sizes.

Why do companies use ATS?

There are some very good reasons why today's companies are so heavily reliant on ATS to narrow their job candidate search. The modern hiring process is more complex than ever before - and not just because there are so many more workers applying for a position. The reality is that most companies lack the resources and time needed to search through every resume submission they receive. By using automated systems, they can free up those resources to focus on their core company mission.

But there are also legal compliance issues that need to be considered. Employment law - and especially laws prohibiting various kinds of discrimination in hiring - need to be followed with care. Many employers understand that one of the best ways to reduce potential bias in the initial stages of any hiring process is to allow unbiased machines to handle some of the work.

The bottom line is that ATS resume scanners provide companies with an automated way to narrow any list of candidates to only those who meet the position's posted qualifications. And it does that in a way that avoids potential discrimination by ignoring characteristics like race, gender, and age. As a result, companies enjoy savings in both time and cost, while optimizing their compliance with existing employment laws.

How do applicant tracking systems work?

The ATS parses a resume's content into categories and then scans it for specific and relevant keywords to determine if the job application should be passed along to the recruiter. Its job is to essentially weed out unqualified applicants, so the recruiter can devote his or her time to evaluating the candidates who are more likely to be a match for the position. In other words, the ATS is apt to put the least-qualified candidates to the bottom of the pile, rather than identify the applicants who are the best fit.

Unfortunately, that means if a resume template is not written and formatted with the applicant tracking system in mind, a qualified candidate can be easily passed over.

How to write an ATS resume

To determine what makes an ATS-friendly resume, TopResume analyzed 1,000 resumes from professionals across the US with at least eight years of experience, to identify the most common resume mistakes that will cause an applicant tracking system to toss an application. The infographic below highlights some of the costliest mistakes that make a resume incompatible with an ATS scan.

TopResume Infographic How to Write an ATS Resume

If you want to make sure your resume is compliant with an ATS, follow the tips below to write and use an ATS-optimized resume.

Select the right file type for your resume

Contrary to popular belief, a PDF is not the most ATS-friendly file type. While PDF files are the best at preserving the design and format of your resume template, it's not compatible with all ATS software. If you're asked to upload your resume to an applicant tracking system and “PDF” is listed among the file formats you can use, feel free to send a PDF version of your resume. However, if the system does not specify which file types are compatible, play it safe and stick to a Word document in .doc or .docx. Plain-text files are also incredibly ATS-friendly for resumes, but they limit your formatting options and can look unprofessional. 

Since the best resume templates are written with two audiences in mind - the ATS pre-screening your application and the live human in HR who will review your resume content - we recommend using a Word document instead of a plain-text file for your resume file type. This will provide more creative freedom to write an ATS resume that will appeal to a recruiter or hiring manager.

Related: How to Avoid the Top 10 Resume Mistakes That Make Recruiters Cringe

Don't put important details in the header or footer

Not all applicant tracking systems are able to properly read and parse information stored in the header and footer sections of a Word document. In fact, our study confirmed the ATS was unable to identify a portion of the job seeker's contact information 25% of the time. Avoid this same fate by placing important contact details (such as your name, phone number, and email address) outside the header or footer of your resume. 

Optimize your resume with keywords

One of the best ways to ensure your resume is compatible with an ATS is to optimize your resume with the right keywords (also known as keyword optimization). Unlike a “buzzword,” which is typically considered to be a fluffy term such as “proactive” or “self-starter,” keywords represent the soft skills and hard skills you possess and the expertise you've acquired over the years that qualify you for your target job.

If you're unsure which resume keywords should be used, start by collecting three to five job descriptions that represent the type of position you're pursuing. Then, copy and paste the job description into a free word and phrase frequency tool like's Text Analyzer, to identify the terms that are regularly used throughout your desired positions. If you possess these skills or qualifications from the job posting, incorporate these terms into your resume.

You should also pay careful attention to the job posting and any description of the position contained in that post. Identify any listed skill requirements, as well as desired experience and educational qualifications. These are likely to be included in any ATS resume scan too, so you'll want to ensure that these keywords can be found within your resume.

When it comes to creating an ATS-optimized resume, you need to think about the frequency, as well as the placement of these relevant keywords throughout your resume. Some applicant tracking systems will determine the strength of your skills based on the number of times a term shows up in your resume (aim to add the term two to three times throughout your resume), whereas others assign an estimated amount of experience for a particular skill based on its placement within the resume. To make your resume truly compatible with any ATS, you'll want to optimize it with both systems in mind.

First, create a “Core Competencies” or “Areas of Expertise” section below your resume professional summary that lists your strongest hard skills and soft skills. If there's a common abbreviation for one of your proficiencies, such as “SEO” (for search engine optimization), include both versions in your resume. Then, pepper these same terms into your “Work Experience” or “Education” sections, where appropriate, to demonstrate when you leveraged that skill.

Related: Why Soft and Hard Skills Are So Important for Your Resume

Some applicant tracking systems will associate the length of experience for a skill, based on how long you held the job where that skill was leveraged. For instance, if you worked at your past job for five years and you mention that you handled SEO for the company, the ATS will assume you have five years' worth of SEO experience from that job. If a skill is listed on its own - such as within the professional summary or a core competencies section - then the ATS scan will assign a few months' experience for that skill. This is why it's incredibly important to reiterate your skills throughout your entire resume, rather than just in a skill section at the top.

Include a resume headline

Make sure that your resume also includes a headline. This one-line heading should be located right after your contact information and before your summary statement. Companies that use an ATS to screen resumes will typically include the job title in their ATS assessment criteria. To create an ATS-friendly headline, simply:

  • Identify the job title you're applying for. It should be in the job posting or job description. For example, let's say that you're applying for a position as a Marketing Director. Those two words are keywords that need to be included in your headline.

  • Identify other key requirements that you may be able to highlight in your headline. It could be something as simple as a requirement that candidates have at least five years of experience in managing marketing teams. Take note of that job qualification since you may want to incorporate it into your headline too.

  • Create a headline that includes the job title and some descriptive language that helps to immediately identify you as a qualified candidate. If you use our example keywords, your headline might look something like this:

Dynamic Marketing Director with over 5 years of experience in client success

Avoid images, charts, and other graphics

While these may look nice to the human eye, resumes with embedded images become a garbled mess after they pass through the applicant tracking system. For instance, if you insert an image or chart to showcase your key skills, the ATS resume scanner will be unable to read it. If you use a cool graphic to brand your name on your resume, this piece of information will be lost on the applicant tracking system.

Stick to simple bullet points

When used appropriately, bullet points are a great method for highlighting accomplishments and qualifications on a resume. However, if you choose an elaborate symbol for your bullets, your important selling points could get scrambled. Avoid using intricate characters when creating a bulleted list on your ATS-compliant resume. Stick to the simplest options, such as a solid circle, open circle, or square, to ensure your bullet points enhance your resume, rather than make it incompatible with an ATS.

Use a clean resume design with a clear hierarchy

When it comes to your ATS-friendly resume design, less is more. Not only do complex resume designs or unusual formats confuse most applicant tracking systems, but they also annoy recruiters who are accustomed to quickly scanning a resume for specific information that they expect to find in specific areas within the document.

Click on the following link for more tips on how to write a resume that will beat the ATS.

How to create an ATS-friendly resume format

If you want your resume to perform well in an ATS scan, stick to a standard resume format such as a reverse chronological or hybrid resume. These resume formats use a professional summary section at the top of the document to outline your key skills and qualifications and combine it with a chronological “Work History” section that explains how you've leveraged these qualities to produce results for your employers.

Most applicant tracking systems do a better job at reading and interpreting a reverse chronological or hybrid format, because they rely on chronological data to parse your resume.

As a result, it's in your best interest to avoid a functional resume format at all costs - where the focus is placed on your abilities, rather than a chronological work history.

Make sure your resume sections are easily identifiable

You'll notice that we've mentioned different resume sections throughout this post. There's a good reason for that, of course. Resumes are not like typical prose documents. If your resume is just one long story with different kinds of information spread across one or two pages like an essay, it won't perform well. And, even if it did, no human hiring manager would bother to read it.

To ensure that key details can be found by both the ATS and a hiring manager, separate that information into distinct sections. This helps to provide structure to your ATS resume and makes it easier for machines and humans to quickly scan for the information they want to see. Are you wondering why we said “scan” instead of “read?” It's simple: even hiring managers don't bother to read your resume from the first word to the last. Instead, they scan it until they see what they're looking for - and then read that part.

Below is a simple structure that you can use to ensure that your resume satisfies the needs of both the ATS and any hiring manager who sees it:

Contact information: This section goes right at the top of your resume, but not in the header. Remember, ATS systems are not adept at reading information in that area of your resume. Include vital details like your name, location, phone number, email address, and LinkedIn URL. This section doesn't need a label.

Resume headline: We covered the resume headline earlier in the post, so you can find some tips on how to create this attention-grabbing section there. Like the contact section, this requires no label.

Summary statement: This section should be a three to five-sentence elevator pitch designed to capture any hiring manager's attention. You can include keywords in this paragraph that highlight your most vital skills, experiences, and measurable achievements that showcase your potential value to the employer. 

Core competencies: This is where you list the skills that show you're qualified for the position. Depending on the job you're seeking, your skill section may be weighted toward either soft or hard skills - but you should try to include some mix of both. You can label this section “Skills” or “Core Competencies” to ensure that both humans and machines can readily identify its content and importance.

Professional history: Otherwise known as work experience, this labeled section should include your relevant work history dating back 10-15 years. Make sure that you start by listing your most recent position and then list the others in reverse order. For each position you've held, include the company name, job title, dates of employment, and several bullet point examples that demonstrate your achievements in each role.

Education: This section also needs to be labeled and should include the name of the college you attended, the years of attendance, your course of study and degree, and any relevant coursework that you need to show to demonstrate your qualifications. You can also include listings for certifications, continuing education, and other relevant training.

How to run an ATS resume test for compliance

There are two easy ways to determine if your resume is compatible with an applicant tracking system during the job search.

Convert your resume to a plain-text file

Copy the entire content from your ATS-friendly resume, paste it into a plain-text document, and review the results. If the plain-text version is missing details from your original resume, has characters saved incorrectly, or looks disorganized (i.e., the heading for your “Education” section appears in the middle of your work experience), then assume your resume will require editing before it's ATS compliant.

Request a free ATS scan for your resume

Here at TopResume, we offer career advice and a free ATS resume scan as part of our free resume review. When you request a free resume review from TopResume, you'll receive feedback on your resume's content, as well as its ATS compatibility.

The first half of the review offers an objective look at what your resume is doing well and where it's falling short, from both an information and design perspective. The second half of the free resume review shows you exactly what information an ATS will pull from your resume, what information it will be unable to identify and retrieve (such as your name, contact information, most recent job title, and most recent employer), and what top skills and keywords your resume currently ranks for.

If the ATS is unable to identify this important information or thinks you're a fit for a job when you're not, then your ATS resume will need to be further optimized before it passes the ATS compatibility test. Fortunately, our experienced team of resume experts has the expertise you need to help with that optimization and ensure that your resume has what it takes to perform well in an ATS scan.

Click on the following link to watch our latest #OfficeHours video on how to write an ATS resume to beat the bots.

Don't let the ATS stop you from landing your dream job. Get an ATS-proof resume today.This article was originally written by Amanda Augustine and has been updated by Ken Chase. 

Recommended reading:


Related Articles: