How to Beat the System: Writing Resumes for an ATS

How to Beat the SysteWriting Resumes for an ATS

The term ATS, or Applicant Tracking System, usually refers to an automated scanner or database filter designed to sift through a large stack of resumes and extract only those that fit certain specific employer criteria. Since large companies (and sometimes even mid-sized employers) often receive many more resumes and applications than they can realistically review by hand during the first round, ATS systems are growing in popularity. The right ATS can save time and money by helping employers narrow a large pool of potential applicants based on information that’s easy to identify, like keywords, key phrases, or specific numbers.

But as an applicant, what does this mean for your job search? If your resume is filed away in a huge database immediately upon receipt and it won’t be drawn out unless the robots find specific keywords in your text, is that good news or bad news?

The answer will depend on how well you manage two tasks: first, you’ll need to beat the system and grab the attention of those robots. Second, you’ll still need to win over the human employers who will review your application before you’re hired. Here are a few ways to navigate the challenges that lie ahead.

  1. Read the post carefully for keyword clues.

Your best access to keyword clues will lie in the post of your targeted open position. Read each line carefully and make note of the information that seems to matter most to these employers. If they refer to specific software proficiencies, communication skills, or leadership accomplishments that you can offer, make these offerings clear in your resume. Be sure to use the exact wording used in the post. For example, if the post asks for “CPR Certification”, use that exact term. Don’t say you’re “certified in CPR”, since this slight variation may exclude you from the results of a keyword search.

  1. Optimize your skills section strategically.

The skills section provides a particular good opportunity to pack in a few of the keywords that you might not have been able to work organically into other sections of your resume. For instance, if your employers are looking for three years of HTML experience, and you’ve been using HTML all your life, don’t miss a chance to mention this, even if this information doesn’t fit very well into your education or work history sections. Clearly state this fact in your skills section, along with all other relevant skills that these employers may potentially filter for.

  1. Make sure your format is scannable.

You may decide that traditional resume formatting doesn’t suit you, and you may decide to break the standard rules that divide resumes into recognizable subheadings (like education, work history and skills), but think twice before you do this. If you keep your headings recognizable and arrange them in a standard order, ATS programs will be better able to identify them and upload each section separately. Not to mention, if you use tables, text boxes and images, an ATS may not even be able to read the valuable information within. Keep it simply and avoid overly fancy templates.

  1. Keep your resume human-reader-friendly.

While you work to beat the system, don’t make moves that will alienate your inevitable human readers. Don’t use awkward, forced phrasing just to pack keywords into your text. And by all means, don’t engage in dishonest moves like, for example, claiming skills you don’t have in white text that robots can see and human readers can’t. This kind of move can land you squarely on a do-not-hire list. Stay above board while also giving yourself every advantage.


For more on how to move your resume past the scanners and into the hands of a human reviewer, use the resources and guidelines available at MyPerfectResume.