Having Nightmares About Applicant Tracking Software (ATS)? Here’s What Will Fix That.

Great Resumes Fast » Job Search » Having Nightmares About Applicant Tracking Software (ATS)? Here’s What Will Fix That.

One of the top concerns of jobseekers in 2018 is this vague, impersonal, robotic smoke-monster known as the Applicant Tracking System. For those who have not heard tell—whilst sitting around the campfire—of ATS, it is a software in use by 97% of large companies and 80% of small/mid-size companies to scan incoming resumes and determine whether they are worthy of moving on to human scrutiny.

While many job hunters are aware of ATS software, they don’t have a strong grasp on how it works or how to ensure that their resume won’t anger the system. For example, during a recent resume evaluation for a client, I noticed that his entire resume was formatted into text boxes. It looked fantastic, but when I converted it to a plain text file (which is essentially what an ATS will do to parse the document), the text all disappeared except for a few random symbols. As a result, this client, who had an extremely impressive background in Digital Forensics and Cyber Crime Prevention, was being rejected left and right because his resume looked like a blank piece of paper to the ATS software.

How to Fix Your Format for ATS

There is a LOT of talk about the importance of keywords for ATS, and it is absolutely true—but having a resume format that can be successfully “read” by ATS is also key. You might have the best content in the world, but if your format is not compatible with the software it won’t make any difference. If the ATS software cannot comprehend the resume format, it will skip to the next

A few common format blunders that you can quickly correct:

   Do not put important information into headers/footers, it will be invisible to some ATS versions

   Avoid text boxes, tables, and charts and graphs

   Do not add your degrees after your name on your resume; they can be read as the last name by some versions of ATS

   Leave off live links in favor of URLs; live links can be interpreted as viruses

   Include standard section headers (such as Professional Experience and Education)

   When in doubt, save your resume as a plain text ASCII file to see how it turns out

How to Optimize your Content for ATS

Now we can focus on keywords for a moment, because they can determine your resume’s rank in the pile of candidates. To put it simply, ATS will scan your resume for keywords and key phrases that match the keywords the company has assigned value to. For example, a client in government relations would most likely need to include keywords such as trade policy, advocacy, global relationships, government affairs, and media relations.

How do you know which keywords to include? I suggest going through job postings with a highlighter to capture all of the important terms and phrases of the position. Any skill or area of expertise that you can claim that isn’t already on your resume, needs to be incorporated.

Keep in mind:

   Depending on the version of ATS, it may not be able to understand different tenses or word forms of a keyword, so be sure to incorporate keywords in different forms (such as: manager/managing/management) throughout the resume to ensure that you get credit

   Keywords like “full-time” or “communication” carry less weight than more unique or specific keywords to the position (for example, “logistics” for a supply chain management position)

   Including a Key Competencies/Areas of Expertise section is a great way to load your resume with relevant keywords (and is perfectly standard for contemporary resumes)

If you are thinking that this doesn’t seem like the best system for assessing potential value, you are 100% right. ATS has a lot of critics who feel that it does a great job of weeding out excellent job candidates in favor of those who understand ATS, but not much else. While that may be true, it is ubiquitous, at least for the time being. In 2018, it is not enough to be a strong candidate—you also have to be a candidate who is informed about hiring practices.

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About the author

Jessica Hernandez, President, CEO & Founder of Great Resumes Fast

Hi, I’m Jessica. I started this company back in 2008 after more than a decade directing hiring practices at Fortune 500 companies.

What started as a side hustle (before that was even a word!) helping friends of friends with their resumes has now grown into a company that serves hundreds of happy clients a year. But the personal touch? I’ve kept that.

You might have seen me featured as a resume expert in publications like Forbes, Fast Company, and Fortune. And in 2020, I was honored to be named as a LinkedIn Top Voice of the year!

I’m so glad you’re here, and I can’t wait to help you find your next perfect-fit position!


  1. nisha gupta on December 8, 2017 at 2:38 am

    Simply wish to say your article is as as tounding. The clearness in your post is just great and i can assume you’re an expert on this subject. Fine with your permission let me to grab your feed to keep updated with forthcoming post. Thanks a million and please carry on the rewarding work.

  2. […] matter what you’re adding, though, don’t put it inside a text box. Doing so means that an applicant tracking system won’t pick it […]

  3. employ A Star on May 13, 2021 at 8:01 am

    Hi Jesssica,
    Thank you so much for this awesome information.

  4. employ A Star on May 17, 2021 at 9:56 am

    Thank you so much for this information. This helps me a lot.

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