Sailing Through an Applicant Tracking System

By: Nancy Ordman

Job seekers used to learn how to construct resumes that hiring managers would read rather than toss, literally or figuratively, into File 13. Now applicants face a different kind of hurdle before their resumes move past the initial screening - the applicant tracking system. ATSs are the robots that scan resumes by the hundreds to reduce the burden on human resources staff. Are the rules for writing resumes for robots different from the previous rules for humans?

Much of the advice that applies to human-evaluated resumes also applies those to that a robot reads - for example, using keywords from the job ad and keeping the format simple. Writing for a robot requires stringent adherence to these rules, and others. Humans apply intuition to resume interpretation, understanding that a particular word or phrase means the same thing as language from a job description, for example. The following advice will help applicants nail resume-writing when the initial screener is not human.

Use Plain Formatting

ATS robots cannot handle images, artwork, logos, sections with unexpected labels and other non-routine chunks of text. Robots also do not yet handle PDF documents well. Use a standard typeface with standard sections - like, qualifications, professional experience, education and skills. According to The Muse, sections with professional associations and publications confuse ATSs, so leave this information out. Several sources recommend saving resumes in rich text format or as a Word document, very common formats that robots will understand.

Ditch the Career Objective Section

Hiring managers care about what value a potential employee can contribute to an organization, not where this person wants to work or what they want to do five or ten years down the road. A qualifications summary, a few sentences or bullet points long and written with relevant terminology, conveys immediately useful information.

Use the Right Keywords

The process of finding appropriate keywords for machine-read resumes is similar to the search for human-reviewed content. Mine the job description from the position posting for skills-oriented words and phrases. Use technical terms associated with the expertise expected for the position.

Writing for The Muse, Mark Slack and Erik Bowitz offer the clever suggestion to use Wordle and TagCrowd to identify the most important keywords. Feed job descriptions into these tools and examine the resultant word clouds for candidate terms to use in a resume. The same authors suggest using both the spelled-out versions of acronyms and abbreviations – PE and Professional Engineer, for example.

A counterintuitive piece of advice for using keywords - do not overuse them. Once or twice is fine; more than that can alert the ATS robot to look for gratuitous keyword stuffing.


Robots can be just as offended by misspelled words as a human reader. Use a spellchecker on resumes and any other documentation submitted for a job application. After finishing a spellcheck, read over text, or have a friend do so, to catch errors a spellchecker can miss, like substitution of “two” for “too” or other grammar lapses.

The Payoff

The next stop for a resume that passes robot scrutiny will be human review. Resumes optimized for an ATS are also optimized for a hiring manager, with the right amount of information about relevant qualifications and experience.