How to Write an ATS Resume
Learn how to write a resume that wows both hiring robots and hiring managers.
By Nicholas Crown, Chief Strategist
Table of Contents
1. Overview – The ATS Resume
During online job applications, there are two very different audiences that will be interacting with your resume. One is human, one isn’t. Before HR ever has a chance to review your career story, robotic hiring technology, known as ATS (applicant tracking systems) will scan your resume and determine an approximate fit or “match rate” for the role in question.
The score from the ATS software will determine whether you’re “worthy” for human engagement with HR or not, and then subsequently alert the hiring manager. To improve your interview chances, it’s critical to write an ATS resume.
An ATS resume is a professional resume specifically formatted and written to both minimize data loss and formatting shifts while improving your keyword count when applying online.
This technology is so prevalent due to the uptick in volume of online applications, that an estimated 98% of Fortune 500 companies are using some form of applicant tracking system.
Simply, when you’re applying online, you’re facing-off against a robot before the human eyes in HR. Similarly, if you find yourself receiving rejection letter after rejection letter, there’s a good chance that a human hasn’t made this decision. Your resume has evolved from a piece of paper to a form of response to a very challenging digital test. It’s critical to ensure your resume is ATS friendly.
2. Best Practices for ATS Resume Format
To account for a robotic audience (that will read your resume first) ATS friendly formatting always equates to “clean and simple” as to not disturb the resume’s content when translated into plain text.
While it’s a shock for most job seekers, all of the fancy formatting work that many spend hours and hours perfecting are immediately tossed out the window the moment you click “apply”. In short, robots care about content, not formatting.
Your resume format can only serve to disturb the content with unusual spacing, line breaks, and missed characters.
To help with your formatting, take a look at our resume templates. These
Historically, candidates were given the option of delivering “Functional” or skills-based resumes as well as “Chronological” or time-structured resumes. In digital hiring, robots are designed to scan from top-to-bottom, organizing your career history accordingly. Functional resumes are not ATS acceptable and should immediately be transitioned into Chronological format.
Further, as ATS is designed to look for a predictable resume format, your resume should be built according to a standardized layout. Creativity in this department is penalized in the form of automatic rejections, lost names and emails, and mismatching content areas. We recommend “Professional Experience” as the header for the experience section.
Sections to include on your resume:
A common mistake that we’ve observed in job seekers at all levels is including critical contact information in the header area of a Microsoft Word document. This is the area within a word processor that requires a double-click. Unfortunately, it’s not coded in a way to be included in every applicant tracking systems’ scan, and often leaves candidates nameless, or worse, without any way for HR to get in touch.
Perhaps more importantly, rich or graphical formatting is never ATS friendly. This includes, but is not limited to:
Tables or cells
Lines (graphical or in characters)
Using tables within a word processor (like Word) creates an opportunity for unusual line ordering and lost content. Essentially, a robot reads from “top to bottom” so side-by-side organization is a natural cause of errors. To correct this issue, your resume should be written without the use of multiple columns. Tabs may be used to organize and align information, but a full line break should separate critical details in order to be ATS friendly.
3. Dates for an ATS Friendly Resume
A component as elementary as dates can cause as much of a headache as poor formatting. For years, there has been contradictory information swirling around the career development community in relation to how to properly present dates on a resume. Now, due to the rigid structure on how hiring technology operates, it’s extremely clear cut how to handle within your resume.
As a rule of thumb, include dates for everything or risk an applicant tracking system assigning you a generic date or disqualifying you for lack of work experience. Robots are calculating and approximating every area of your resume. If a job description requires 5 years of coding experience, you’ll need to show the appropriate date range within your professional experience in order to be ATS friendly. Sadly, job seekers who feel “too old” for a particular role they’re qualified for have gotten into the bad habit of removing dates. While ageism is an issue that the workforce continues to wrestle with, obscuring or removing dates altogether is a losing strategy when preparing a resume.
Dates must be formatted in a predictable, consistent model in order to be considered ATS compliant. We recommend MM/YYYY.
For example: July, 20th 2020 would be 07/2020.
Be careful to check all dates, including certification awarding dates for the same level of consistency. To join dates, we recommend a simple dash or “ – “ with a space between each date.
Date formatting and presentation should never be overlooked in the preparation of an ATS resume, from the entry to C-suite level. If you have an unusual gap in your employment, manipulating dates or omitting months isn’t a sound strategy to address a unique circumstance. Rather, this would be something discussed in an interview or post-application correspondence.
4. ATS Friendly Fonts
Due to the wide variety of available hiring technology in the marketplace, your choice of font is critical to ensuring the compatibility of your ATS resume. Luckily, the standard fonts preloaded into your word processor are usually the most ATS friendly. We recommend sans serif fonts like Arial or Helvetica to ensure maximum compatibility. There are a few companies that still rely on outdated optical scanning, in which your resume is read as a picture, rather than a string of text. In this case, serif fonts, like Times New Roman, can present challenges for several candidate tracking systems.
We recommend these fonts:
After choosing an ATS friendly font, it’s important to stay within a tight range of points or sizes. Your font should range between 9 and 12 point, with 12 reserved for your name. Shrinking or expanding your font size to fill a page, or to squeeze more information into a smaller footprint has no merit in the world of digital hiring. Remember, applicant tracking systems don’t think in terms of pages and the content will be standardized on your ATS resume before shared with HR.
While font formatting (bold, underline, italics) could easily be discussed in Section One, it’s worthwhile to consider when talking about fonts in isolation. Your choices here should (again) be simple and predictable. Assume that this area of formatting will not be seen, so you shouldn’t rely on it to organize information. Rather, it’s an optical anchor should HR or a hiring manager choose to manually interact with your resume. We recommend reserving bold for company names and italics for the job title. We do not recommend using underlining anywhere in your resume. For example:
Acme Corporation | Senior Product Manager
By using a predictable, ATS friendly method of font formatting, you’ll be able to improve the “eyeball scan” without disturbing the way a robot will process your resume.
5. Performing Competitive Analysis
Gaining a strong perspective on what the marketplace is looking for, before constructing your resume, is a prerequisite in digital hiring. This comes down to how job descriptions are constructed, the intent behind them, and the ultimate fit that HR is seeking. In a sense, thinking about “what I, the job seeker, hold most dear” is no longer a viable strategy for constructing a resume that gets traction in digital hiring. This self-focused reflection is only worthwhile in context. The question one should pose is:
“What is the marketplace looking for and how does this relate to my career experience?”
Moving towards a “marketplace mindset” will allow you to spot weak areas in your professional experience, clearly illustrate extraneous details, and set a relative priority in how you showcase details of your career story. The quickest and easiest way to gain rapid insight into what the marketplace is looking for is to build a job basket.
A job basket is a collection of similar roles (eg. Project Manager in a startup environment) to be mined for resume keywords and concepts. A job basket should be no larger than five representative roles, but ideally, three is the most manageable dataset. In other words, there is only so much space on a resume, you can’t optimize to an unlimited amount of jobs.
Use LinkedIn, Indeed, or the job board of your choice to set advance filters and begin constructing a job basket. Ensure that the criteria are as specific as possible to deliver results only within your experience level and desired geography.
For a multi-target job search (eg. Project Management and Digital Innovation), build multiple job baskets and organize active roles under the appropriate header. While you don’t need to build a customized resume 1:1 for each role, it will be important to construct a unique resume for each job posting type to hit the keyword volume and conceptual match required by your target.
6. Performing Resume Keywords Optimization and Research
Keywords are words or clusters of words that are searched with intent by recruiters, hiring managers, or HR. There are two ways to analyze the right keywords present within a job basket: manually and with the help of a keyword scanner. For those who prefer to “roll up their sleeves” using a simple highlighter on paper or within MS Office will allow you to optically spot frequently occurring terms, skills, and concepts. These concepts form the backbone of a strong ATS resume. If you prefer using a keyword scanner (and there are many online), you can automate this process and isolate the most frequently occurring keywords.
To push this process a step further, visit the website of the target firms in your basket and begin to record their pillars, cultural stance, and other standout terms associated with the firm. Add these terms to your keyword sheet.
To prioritize which specific keywords you should include on your ATS resume, order the keywords by most common to least common. Using keywords that are more common within multiple job descriptions will give you more competitive sway across a larger dataset. In other words, they’re “trending” in the hiring marketplace.
After compiling a keyword list for each basket, manually review the list and identify misplaced keywords that conceptually won’t support your profile. Many keyword scanning tools erroneously identify common words as keywords, so human intervention here is mandatory.
7. Keyword Categorization
Keywords harvested from job requirements are generally grouped into two categories by applicant tracking systems: hard and soft skills.
Hard skills are those you’ve learned in college, a certification program, graduate degree, or on the job.
Hard skills include:
On the other hand, soft skills are desirable personality elements often things you can’t “learn” but rather embody or improve through self-reflection.
Soft skills include:
These skills vary widely from job description to job description and should be carefully considered when developing “about me” driven content in an executive summary on your ATS resume or the “About” section on LinkedIn.
Keywords can be manually weighted by HR or automatically by certain hiring technology. While we don’t have direct visibility into the relative weights, generally hard skills are weighted heavier than soft skills. In other words, hard skills have an outsized impact on your ATS score.
8. Building an impactful executive summary
An executive summary is the second most visible area of your ATS resume, following your name and contact information. It’s not only critical for a human “eyeball test” or rapid scan down the page, but it often is showcased separately by popular hiring technology. This summary is an opportunity to showcase that you’re read the job description thoroughly, are a clear fit, and are willing to show a touch of personality.
In practice, an executive summary is a four to five fragment introduction to your skills and experience. We have developed a model for constructing the opening line of your executive summary and will reproduce it below:
[Soft skill] [Exact Title of Job Target]
who is passionate about [your stance on the industry].
Or, in practice:
Driven Project Manager who is passionate about identifying and eliminating waste in industrial processes.
HR is looking for several details immediately: seniority, skillset, and cultural fit. By calling out titles, a top soft skill, and how you approach your job, you’ve immediately satisfied the initial requirements HR is seeking. This will in turn extend the viewing time of your ATS resume, where every second counts.
Remember, an extra second or two is the difference between HR reading your application or abandoning after the first few lines.
9. Using Keyword Banks
Keyword banks, or large groups of keywords, whether in lists, columns, or call-outs, is an effective way to increase your ATS score for keywords that you’re unable to use organically within the body of your ATS resume. The keyword bank should sit below your executive summary and will be the first section to receive a title: KEY SKILLS. It’s important to create a placeholder for this area, but not necessarily start adding keywords until the very end of your writing process. Keywords used organically are more ATS friendly than those in a keyword bank.
Historically, keyword banks have received a bad name. Job seekers looking to cut corners have installed enormous banks, often with keywords not relating to the particular job description, in an attempt to gain as much keyword volume as possible with minimal effort. Unfortunately, there is no quicker way to turn-off HR or the hiring manager than an overweight keyword bank. As such, we recommend no more than 9 keywords or phrases. This affords the resume writer a final opportunity to include hard-to-use keywords that are still topical, yet have no home within the body of the resume.
10. Structuring Bullet Points for an Applicant Tracking Systems ATS
The structure and consistency of your bullet points are arguably the most important aspect of your resume. Here is where you give the reader an impactful, predictable walk-through of your most pertinent achievements. To accurately construct topical bullets, your keyword sheet that you constructed in Chapter 5, should be kept handy.
As a fair warning, constructing bullets is time-consuming. The process should start out with a broad information gathering and recall followed by a streamlining of the material and restructuring. You may need to comb through old emails or chat with a previous manager to gather details and metrics. The more specific and detailed your notes, the more impactful the bullet will be in the long run. So, it’s time well spent.
During the information gathering phase, we recommend starting at the top of your keyword list and working down (from most common to least). After you’ve isolated a keyword, we suggest using the popular STAR model, or situation, task, action, and result, to gather the broad details of your achievement. In this way, it will be impossible to wiggle out of a bullet with broad summary or vague details. We’ll learn about if your strategy helped boost sales during a major downturn or fixed a critical system issue that saved your firm millions.
Before writing a concise bullet, you must first start with longer-form notes:
After constructing long-form notes for each keyword, it’s time to begin refining these details into a short, punchy bullet. While this step will take a bit of finesse it’s important to remember a bullet always follows the same form:
[Action verb] + Cause + Effect + Outcome (measurable)
By using the example above, we can readily translate the long-form note into:
Analyzed counterparty database to identify key risk factor during Financial Crisis; highlighted issue during management presentation saving firm $30M in counterparty exposure
As you can see, it’s easier to build an effective bullet by starting with more content than you need and then whittling-down to the critical details. By following this method closely, you’ll ensure that every keyword has a conceptual home within the body of your document. In addition, you’ll be building “mini case studies” as you go along, that are both memorable and measurable. These are talking points internally at your target firm and material to expand upon during an interview. As an added bonus, you won’t need to recall “on the fly” a time you performed a broad task with success; your resume will be an organized warehouse of these accomplishments.
11. Using Metrics
Metrics are the finishing touch to a great bullet that lend credibility and show an attention-to-detail in your professional resume. In our data-driven world, it’s not nearly enough to list a skill or achievement–we need to quantify it. A sensitivity to data and measurable accomplishments showcases that you don’t simply understand your job, you understand the purpose behind it and the overall vision and goals for your department. Even at a junior level, tracking metrics is critical. Do you know who else is looking for metrics besides HR? You guessed it, tracking systems.
During an ATS scan, dollars, percentages, and other numerical mentions outside of dates are collected and counted. Generally, applicant tracking systems are looking for at least 5 quantifiable achievements, and ensuring these are in the content of your ATS resume is a straightforward way to leapfrog other applicants.
If you’re struggling to find ATS friendly metrics, you’ve uncovered a clear issue with how you’re tracking your own performance. Are you in marketing, but don’t have ready access to your email open rates? It’s time to build this process into your workflow or suffer the consequences. Backing up a bullet with strong data will serve you throughout your career.
12. Word Count
The beauty of ATS friendly resume construction, and where it hinges on an art form, are its natural boundaries. To draw a parallel, think about how fun tennis would be without a net or lines on the court.
While there is no “hard line” in terms of word count, we’ve estimated that a human would not be able (or interested) to process more than 1000 words.
Keeping this upper bound in mind is critical when entering the prioritization phase of your ATS resume. Job seekers can’t keep everything on the page and will need to make challenging decisions about what stays and what goes.
But what about resumes that are too short? In our experience, ATS resumes that fall below the 500 word count are unable to organically satisfy the standard keyword volume present in modern job descriptions. Note “organically satisfy”, rather than relying on keyword banks or large lists to squeeze in the last possible keyword.
This is true for a wide variety of content (not just ATS resumes): we read from top to bottom, starting fresh and becoming fatigued (and bored!) as we read on. When analyzing website heat maps (colorful charts that display user engagement) a general pattern always emerges, interested and active readers at the headlines and the dwindling audience as we reach the footer.
Many applicant tracking systems are designed in the same way. Content located higher in the document receives priority over content lower in the same document. Therefore highly valuable keywords should be used at the first viable opportunity, with lower weighted keywords saved for later in the body of the ATS resume.
Putting keywords aside for a moment, we must consider the relative priority of bullets within a particular role. Bullets that you’ve identified as important (frequently mentioned skills across multiple job descriptions, direct product experience, etc.) should be listed first and cascade down to lower priority items. Every job category should be analyzed and ordered for priority, as humans are prone to skimming first, reading second.
14. Identifying a Company’s ATS Software
It’s important to note that while nearly all large companies use applicant tracking systems, there are hundreds of software providers to choose from. Each ATS operates differently and pitches its “secret sauce” or new AI engine trying to gobble up as much market share as possible.
From our internal research we’ve found the ATS providers below to be the most common with our clients' applications:
It’s critical to identify which company is using as each one will read your ATS resume differently. For example, one system may prefer the .docx file type, while another may consider a PDF to be a more ATS friendly resume. Or more frustratingly, one ATS may not recognize plurals, so “team” and “teams” become two different keywords entirely.
So, without studying each system and identifying it’s unique criteria (as we have at Resume Atelier) the most ATS friendly resume practice is to use keywords verbatim, in the same plural and tense if possible. Here, you should note if a job description is using common abbreviations or spelling out the skill/degree/asset in its entirety. This is a common cause of headaches during application submissions as “CRM” is often a different keyword than “customer relationship management”.
If you’re curious, it’s relatively straightforward to identify what ATS a company is using to sort resumes and track candidates. Generally, the ATS is hidden behind an “Apply” button on your favorite job board, like LinkedIn, Indeed, or ZipRecruiter. Once you click “Apply”, notice how the URL changes from LinkedIn to a new domain or subdomain. Often, we’ll see the name of the ATS here. For example:
If it still appears that you’re within the ecosystem of the company you’re applying for, check the page source code for additional hints. Here, you’ll be able to find sneaky URLs and redirects to hiring technology, as is the case for PhenomPeople’s ATS, who go to an extreme to hide the presence of their software within the employer’s branding.
15. Multi-Target Application
Not all job seekers are targeting one specific role with one company profile. Often, a job search will be broken into silos that share a common feature. For example, Project Managers may choose to build two silos: one for startups and one for Fortune 500 companies to reflect the difference in language and formality present between the firms. Another applicant may choose to group by role if they have experience that spans one discreet opportunity, such as Project Manager and Digital Innovation.
To tackle a multi-target job search with the most degree of success and without doubling your work (or confusing yourself) we recommend building a “parent” collection of bullet points that can be sorted into “children” resumes by function. In this method, the information gathering and keyword research takes place across the entire collection of roles. By “batching” the work together, we save time and reduce the risk of generating redundant information.
After a parent collection of bullets has been created, the candidate can manually sort priority bullets into the categories that she defined. In this way, we will avoid the “run on” resume that pulls every imaginable skill and achievement together, and deliver a highly targeted version that speaks to a specific set of criteria. Also, by maintaining a master list of bullets, new ATS friendly resume iterations can be delivered rapidly as new job roles become available or if another area of interest arises.
16. Avoiding Keyword Stuffing
Keyword stuffing is the practice of attempting to overtly manipulate an applicant tracking system with the use of extraneous, nonsensical, or redundant uses of keywords. This method harkens back to the early days of the internet when websites could increase their visibility on search engines simply by increasing the volume of a specific keyword. Pet food companies (for a brief period of time) could simply include the word “dog” as much as possible to increase their page ranking on early search engines.
Of course, the smartest search engines emerged (hello Google!) to take into consideration a variety of factors beyond mere keyword volume to determine a site’s authority online. While most hiring tech isn’t nearly as sophisticated as today’s search engines, keyword stuffing is always penalized at one point or another in the candidate’s journey and should not be considered ATS compliant.
Depth and focus on a certain valuable (and pertinent) keyword will do a candidate more good than hitting every single one. This is because an applicant tracking system will rank by a specific keyword and display top keywords on a candidate dashboard.
Finally, recruiters, HR, and hiring managers have no patience for job seekers who have clearly placed every keyword imaginable in their ATS resume. This is a tactic that undermines even the smartest candidates and should be avoided at all costs. In other words, even if your resume passes ATS, HR would be apt to reject “spammy” resumes upon manual review.
17. Redacting Your ATS Resume for LinkedIn
LinkedIn is the first place the hard-researched content of your resume should live. However, it’s important to note that many aspects of your resume are highly-sensitive and not designed to be displayed to the entire world. Therefore, it’s important to create a redacted version of your resume that is ready for online use.
While the main rule of thumb a candidate should ask themselves is “Am I comfortable sharing this detail with the entire world: my firm, my firm’s competitors, and potential clients?”, we’ve outlined key areas to look for when redacting a resume below:
What not to include on your LinkedIn profile:
Job seekers, especially those from publicly-traded firms, should avoid listing dollars and cents on their LinkedIn profiles. If there’s a major statistic that requires attention, we recommend translating into percentage terms. Redacting your resume for these areas will disturb your keyword volume minimally, while saving the most critical details for interested, qualified parties.
18. Closing Thoughts
While there is a vast amount of technical details to consider when preparing a resume for applications, an optimized resume is no substitute for a solid skillset and practiced interpersonal skills. Put another way, an ATS friendly resume gives a candidate the opportunity to present and prove these skills during additional phases of the hiring process as most job seekers are filtered-out automatically by applicant tracking systems.
Thinking of the hiring process as a series of gates, an optimized ATS resume satisfies the first, most iron-clad gate. Over time, job seekers with optimized resumes have more visibility. Visibility equals consideration and subsequently more interview requests. Like a gambler with a small edge, over time she wins by increasing the amount of “hands” she plays. An ATS friendly resume is the only component in the lifecycle of a job application that she can control and refine in order to win over the long run.