Lists: 10-Point Checklist for an ATS Optimized Resume

Here is a step-by-step guide to making sure that your resume gets through the applicant tracking systems (ATS). 

For most people, applying to jobs starts with looking through countless job postings and online applications. There's a huge surge in people looking for a new challenge right which means that the competition for open positions is fierce. This also slows down the hiring process and requires employers to rely on their applicant tracking systems (ATS) more than ever. Below you will find the checklist to make sure that your resume is ATS compliant.

What is an ATS?

To understand why an ATS compliant resume is so important, you first need to know how they work and what they are. The applicant tracking system is simply the software that employers use to sort, scan, and manage the candidates for their open positions. In fact, there are over 900 ATS programs that are used commercially right now. There are countless more programs that are unique to the company or that have been highly customized.

Over 95% of all Fortune 500 companies report using an ATS in their hiring process. Over 50% of all other companies use some kind of ATS as well. The complexity and functionality of these programs can vary dramatically. But, they are all driven by keywords. These systems will scan the resumes for these keywords and provide the employer with details about your qualifications as a candidate based on how it reads the words on your resume.

Why does an ATS Compliant Resume Matter?

An average of 70% of resumes submitted to open positions get stuck in the proverbial black hole - never to be see by a person. In many cases, this is because the person doesn't have the right information on the resume or in a way that the ATS can read it. These bots cannot make inferences and they are highly customizable. So, here is the checklist to make sure that your resume is ATS compliant for your next job application.

#1 - Use Appropriate Formats

The best choice of file format is typically a pdf. Do not submit a word, google docs, or pages file when applying to a position unless it is explicitly requested. Using a pdf format prevents the compatibility issues that can happen with the other types of files. This is particularly true with pages or google docs as not every company has access to the systems that are required to view those file types. Moreover, the ATS tend to be quite slow in adapting to file types and cannot always parse the alternative file formats.

Keep in mind that those other formats are for you - so you can edit the resume. But, you don't want people to edit them once you hit submit. These other file formats also include a lot of data about who created them, when they were created, and how long it took to edit them. You don't always want the potential employer to see this information. So, convert the resume file to a pdf before you hit submit.

#2 - Do NOT Use the Header and Footer

Remove any information in the header and footer if possible. The ATS cannot and in most cases (is configured to not) parse the data in those fields. So, make sure to remove that information from the header and footer files whenever possible. This is particularly true if you are required to submit the file in .doc format.

#3 - Optimize Your Keywords

This is the most important step of your resume. Make sure that you have included all of the relevant keywords and concepts on your resume. This information needs to be conveyed in an easily digestible way by the ATS and by the person that is skimming your resume. So, you cannot just create lists of keywords. Instead, you need to incorporate the keywords and concepts ACROSS your resume.

Putting keywords across your resume requires some strategy. It means that you need to have the right keywords for the types of jobs that you are pursuing and that they are used properly. The use across your resume is important because it prevents the phrases from being excluded arbitrarily by character limits or fields that may be configured to fully capture all of your information.

Remember that some keywords may require variations to best convey the right messages for your application. For example, people may use "attorney" and "lawyer" interchangeably. The phrases mean the same thing to most people, but the system may be looking for one version of this concept and not the other one. Thus, you should not pick one variant and stick with it. Instead, generally, it is better to intentionally use the variants on your resume so that you can match the ATS algorithms.

#4 - Basic Formatting is Best

Most applicant tracking systems cannot parse resumes with heavy formatting or a lot of style elements. Instead, the ATS is programmed to find the words on the page. It cannot work properly to read your resume if you have a lot of formatting or style on your resume. Keep your resume simple in terms of formatting so that the concepts can be found by the bots.

However, you have to remember that the goal of getting past the bots is to get your resume in front of a person. So, you DO NOT want to create a file that only works for the bots. Instead, make sure that the file is simple in terms of formatting but that it is still visually appealing to a person. And, remember that you are not building this resume for yourself. Instead, you are building it for the hiring manager and talent acquisition team that will skim your resume for details. So, make sure that you cover all of the information that people may want to see on your resume in a way that anyone could find it and understand it quickly.

#5 - Remove Graphics

Putting graphics to visualize your experience or including a picture of yourself will only hinder your applications. The applicant tracking systems can't interpret most images because they are built to parse for the words on the resume. Similarly, there are also programs that are designed to remove pictures and other details that could create bias in the review of your application. So, for resumes that will go through the ATS, the safest strategy is to remove these items so that you can make room for the information that matters in the process.

#6 - Use Specific Details

Clarity in your experience is key to ensuring that your resume is ATS optimized. For this,  you must put job titles, company names, times in the roles, degree names, educational institutions, software experience, etc. Basically, all of the specifics for your professional experience. Choosing to leave off this information will only result in you being viewed as unqualified by the ATS for the job.

The other most important detail to include is your contact information. You could have the best, most relevant experience on your resume. But, if the employer can't contact you for an interview, then it won't matter. It may seem obvious, but make sure that you have your name, city, state, zip, phone, and email on your resume. These are the basic details needed to contact you for the interview and, in many cases, that enable you to show up in geography-based searches of the ATS

#7 - Put the Words on the Page

The ATS may be a bot, but it is not a mind reader. In most cases, the systems cannot make inferences about your skills if the content is not plainly on the page. Thus, you must take the time to cover the details on your resume to show that you have the skills and achievements necessary to be viewed as qualified for the job. Take the time to read your resume one more time before hitting submit to ensure that you have all of the relevant details on it for the position/company that you are applying to.  

This is also important for the people that will skim your resume after it clears the ATS. Studies consistently show that people spend about 6 seconds before they make their mind up about a candidate. They may take a little more time to read further, but this is typically to confirm the decision they already made about the person. So, you need to have the right information on the page for someone skimming your resume to find it quickly or you will definitely be passed over.

#8 - Address the Requirements of the Job Posting

The next step to creating an ATS-compliant resume is to ensure that all of the minimum and preferred qualifications outline in the job posting are explicitly addressed on your resume. As noted above, the systems will not make inferences about your abilities. Instead, the resume needs to plainly address the requirements of the job on its face whenever possible. This can mean that you may need to modify your resume for specific jobs to cover unique qualifications. Or, you may be able to use a resume that is built for that job type. However, you cannot get through the ATS bots if you do not have the minimum requirements on your resume.

This can be particularly challenging when trying to change your career. The key, in this case, is to focus or reframe your experience whenever you can in a way that the applicant tracking systems can understand while remaining honest in communicating your background. If you find that you can't do this effectively or that you are consistently being rejected, then you may want to re-evaluate your search strategies so that you are focused on the right types of jobs in your career switch.  

#9 - Remove Unnecessary Concepts

The resume needs to focus on the types of jobs that you are applying to. If your resume contains a lot of concepts that aren't directly relevant to your current job search, the ATS will likely pick these up as the wrong types of skills. Or, you will get flagged as unqualified. In either case, these skills that aren't relevant will take up the space that probably needs to be used for concepts that should be fleshed out. So, take the time to review your resume to ensure that all of the keywords, achievements, and responsibilities are relevant to the types of jobs that you are now pursuing. If they aren't they should be removed and replaced with content that will advance your current efforts.    

#10 - Follow Directions

Most importantly, make sure that you follow each and every direction in the job postings that you are applying to. Meaning that you complete each and every step that is requested when submitting your application. This can mean a particular file type, sending emails, completing additional assessments, filling out more fields, etc. This is important to ensure that your application isn't rejected by the ATS as incomplete or for a failure to follow directions. It is ok if you don't want to follow these directions or if you find that they are too cumbersome. But, if you choose not to follow them on the resume or in the submission of your application then you will likely end up quickly rejected by the applicant tracking systems.  

And, remember, every step in the hiring process is a test of your skills. Make sure that you are showing the people behind the ATS how you use your skills in the process of pursuing the job. For example, if you say on your resume that you are detailed, but you fail to follow the directions in the application. You can almost guarantee that the person behind the ATS that skims your application will reject you for this reason.

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