How can I prepare an Applicant Tracking System-friendly resume?

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Cloud 1Barbara from Utah State University asked:

I would like your advice on formatting resumes for submission online through Applicant Tracking Systems. Do most systems reject resumes with italics, bold, or font other than plain Times New Roman, Calibri or Arial? What is THE universally recommended font, if any? Should online resumes be submitted as PDFs to maintain formatting or will that make them unreadable in company applicant tracking systems?  If so, should students submit resumes as word doc/docx?

Hi Barbara –

Great question! A lot of people get hung up on what to do with their resumes to accommodate the machines (automated  Applicant Tracking Systems) that sometimes stand between them and the recruiters and hiring managers in the companies where they wish to work.  I do have some general advice and some resources to recommend.

What is an Applicant Tracking System?

An Applicant Tracking System (ATS) is a software tool some companies – particularly large companies – use to manage and monitor their hiring process from  job postings and application management  to applicant screening,  tracking and, eventually, hiring.  Companies that use ATS programs typically require candidates to upload their resumes into the ATS, which uses complex computer algorithms to search resumes for key words and phrases and rank resumes in relation to specific positions the company is trying to fill.  The general idea –  the ATS will help identify the best candidates quickly and efficiently by comparing and matching information on resumes with information in the job description.

Do you need to be worried about Applicant Tracking Systems?

Are you interested in working for a large company?  Are you interested in working for a company that has government contracts?  Are you interested in working for any company that routinely needs to do any kind of high volume recruiting?  If you answered “yes” to any or all of these questions, you probably need to craft your resume with Applicant Tracking Systems in mind.

If you are interested in working for a small organization or any employer that does not routine need to screen high volumes of candidates to fill position, you probably don’t need to be concerned about ATS systems?

If you are a creative professional and the best way to feature your qualifications to employers is through a graphically creative resume, you probably don’t need to be concerned about ATS systems.

If the words on your resume (what you say and how you say it) are the best way to feature your qualifications, you probably should be concerned about ATS systems.

See, there isn’t one answer to that question.   The ATS question may or may not be relevant to you in your job search.

Should you upload a Doc or a PDF?

You should be fine uploading your resume as a document or as a PDF.  Most ATS system can search both document types, but if you want to be extra careful, I recommend uploading a Word .doc or .docx.

What about the formatting on my resume?  Fonts, Font Styles and Graphics?

If you want to create and ATS-friendly resume, stick with commonly used fonts, avoid tables, graphics and images altogether, and don’t use the header and footer sections of your resume.  Go ahead and use different font styles (bold, italics, etc.) but don’t go overboard.  Too much formatting is bad thing, regardless to whether a person or a machine is trying to read your resume.

Also, write well and use proper punctuation (just as you should when preparing your resume for human eyes).

Remember, eventually a human is going to see you resume!

It’s not about the ATS magically selecting your resume and telling the human that uses it to hire you.  It’s about people (recruiters) using a technology tool to make it easier to effectively consider candidates from a very large applicant pool. These people do still look for referrals, both from within and outside their companies.  Whether they learn about you through a colleague, a conference, a cold call by you, or a computer ATS system, they are going to get to know you better (and make their hiring decisions) based on how well you present your qualifications and how closely your qualifications match their needs.  It’s not about outsmarting the ATS, it’s about conducting a comprehensive job search campaign.

Here are links to two good articles on the topic, as well:

Resume, Meet Technology: Making Your Resume Format Machine-Friendly
5 Tips for Optimizing Your Resume for an Applicant Tracking System

Good luck,


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