Creating ATS Friendly Resumes

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An in-depth view of how an ATS works under the hood and the ways to craft a resume that always lands you an interview.

An applicant tracking system is not a magical decision making application, but simply a database. Some have advanced features that scan in resumes, (the dreaded optical character recognition), and can do some cursory review, commonly referred to as scoring.

Having spoken with people who have developed ATS from scratch, we would like to provide a bit of separation of fact and fiction from multiple perspectives. There are tons of systems out there available off the shelf currently. Taleo (Oracle), Bullhorn, BambooHR, Workday and BrassRing are some of the bigger ones you may have heard of.

In the background a few things happen

Someone in HR does a review. This is where 50% or more of the resumes get rejected, things like spelling and grammar, lack of keywords (more on this later), and bias come in (FYI, this is a huge issue). If the system has a scoring tool, one will be applied, these are based on keyword counts, add on tools like readability, spelling, and grammar, job titles, even length of experience. The score helps as a comparative. Some implementers set a minimum threshold. Again removing the human factor is always bad, but you need to be aware of this.

The resume and application are sent to the hiring managers portal along with recommendations and sometimes additional comments from a phone screen they may have done or observations from HR. This is sometimes called a hiring, screening, or candidate package. The hiring manager reviews the hiring package, they might reject a few as they do not meet what they are looking for, or apply additional bias. Rejected candidates will usually get an automated email. That is it in a nutshell. Based on the individual systems, and process variances, there might be a few adjustments, but generally speaking that is how it goes.

Getting eliminated early

In the last few years, some additional automations have been occurring which at first glance makes sense, but can be troublesome as it eliminates the human factor. Beware of the bots! Many of these systems now allow you to pre-program some basics. A bot will ask “are you over the age of 18?” for instance. If the job requires it, and you happen to answer no, you are immediately rejected.

This is very important on why you want to read the job description very thoroughly. If it reads “must have eight years of technology xyz”, then later on the bot simply asks, “how many years’ experience do you have with technology xyz?” Your answer needs to be greater than or equal to eight years, or you can be eliminated.


At its core, what any applicant tracking system is programmed to do when it “reads” a resume is the same as what a person would do: It’s scanning for key pieces of information to find out whether or not you’re a match for a job opening. “ATS algorithms aren’t that different from the human algorithms, we’re all kind of skimming for the same things,” says Jon Shields, Marketing Manager at Jobscan. So when it comes to writing a resume that can make it past an ATS, you want to make sure that key information is there and that it’s easy to find.

If you want to make it past the ATS, you’ll need to include those important keywords on your resume. Hint: Look for the hard skills that come up more than once in a posting and are mentioned near the top of the requirements and job duties. Hard skills include types of software, methodologies, spoken languages, and other abilities that are easier to quantify. (The most important keyword could even be the job title itself!)

ATSs have brought up a whole new host of problems with applicants “trying to cheat the system,” Owens says. You might have come across advice about how to tweak your resume to fool an applicant tracking system—by pasting keywords in white, pasting the entire job description in white, repeating the keywords as many times as possible, or adding a section labeled “keywords” where you stick various words from the job description. Don’t do any of this!

Solving for Bias

If you feel you need to be more or less masculine/feminine, change your ethnicity, moral code or beliefs, stop, thank the interviewer, and move on to the next opportunity. But in the real world you will run into people that have bias, it can be minor, like preferring certain skill sets, or significant such as color gender, religion, etc. Again, it is a personal choice but it is better move on and look for a better opportunity.

Another thing to watch for is “culture fit”. When people talk about a good culture fit, they are actually talking about bias. Culture is hugely important for some people and organizations, but the ones that use this excuse for not hiring have simply practiced bias and may have missed out on a good candidate. When you see job postings that have this (along with other red flags), keep in mind that the organization is built on bias.

Skills vs Attributes

Skills are always formatted in the following ways:

Attributes are usually always something we confirm through the interview, and often on the job. A good hiring manager will recognise this and hire for the skill. Here are some examples:

Do not use those phrases. At all. If you can’t quantify it or demonstrate it in the immediate, leave it off your resume. Think of your resume as a statement you are putting to the record.


This is the area everyone fails at first. The test of this is immediately evident. If you have been uploading your resume and after processing, you constantly get misread job titles, duplicates, weird formatting or dates, names, etc. you have a bad resume.

You’ve seen it, remove the lines, symbols, odd fonts, weird formatting, multiple columns (these are enemy number one to ATSs), colors, pictures, hyperlinks, geometric shapes, shading, all caps, etc.

You want a boxy series of left justified text. Simple bullets equal in size to the font being used, centered headers, a footer with your name and page number for multiple page resumes, and clean styling.

Creating ATS Friendly Resumes

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