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ATS Resume Guide: The Complete Guide to Applicant Tracking Systems

Updated: Jan 31

If you've been actively looking for a job, you've probably stumbled upon the term 'ATS' or Applicant Tracking System - software used by employers to receive, organize and sort job applications.

But with all the conflicting information out there, you still may wonder how an applicant tracking system works and how to actually write an ATS-optimized resume.

With the help of this complete guide on applicant tracking systems, you will be able to create a perfect ATS resume and start landing interviews faster than ever before by ensuring your resume gets past the first filter.

In the next 10 minutes, you will learn:

Read on to learn everything you need to know about applicant tracking systems and ATS-optimized resumes to get ahead in your job search and be successful in today's job market.

Disclaimer: This article includes relevant affiliate links to services, resources, and tools I wholeheartedly recommend. If you buy something through these links, I get a small commission at no extra cost to you. Your purchase helps me share more helpful content. Thanks if you choose to support me this way!

Let's start with basics.

What are applicant tracking systems?

Applicant tracking systems are frequently presented as AI gatekeepers that check, review and stop resumes at the virtual entrance to the company.

There are many myths around how applicant tracking systems work.

Based on the online information, many job seekers think that:

  • ATS rejects their job applications without allowing recruiters or hiring managers to see them

  • ATS independently makes the decision who will pass to interview stage and who won't

  • ATS auto-rejects all resumes that aren't designed in a certain way

However, ATS is much more well-intended business software used for organization of the recruitment process.

ATS is business software used for organization of the hiring process.

ATS works on a pretty simple principle. It collects, organizes, and stores job applications, helping recruiters manage the recruitment process more efficiently. While doing so, it also allows them to communicate with job seekers, share their applications with hiring managers, send bulk messages, invite them to interviews through the system, and so much more.


Why do companies use ATS?

A few decades ago, people landed jobs differently.

Many got jobs based on referrals and recommendations. Some submitted job applications in person, handing their resumes on a piece of paper. Considering that, companies were receiving a manageable number of applications.

Nowadays, everything is digital.

Resumes are rarely printed, job applications are submitted online, and almost the entire hiring process is virtual.

Since job seekers can now submit their applications to any company with just a few clicks, companies started receiving dozens or hundreds of applications per day. Reportedly, Google receives 50,000 job applications, while Amazon gets 75,000 -- per week.

To handle the increased number of applications, companies needed a tool to help them manage all candidates in a user-friendly way while saving time and money.

That's why applicant tracking systems (ATS) were developed.

Due to the changes in the hiring landscape and an increase in the volume of applications, applicant tracking systems became a necessary tool in almost any business.


How to know if a company uses ATS?

Companies that receive hundreds or thousands of job applications per year need a tool to screen and sort candidates. From their perspective, applicant tracking systems (ATS) simplify hiring and its organization.

Jobscan* and Kelly OCG research found that ATS is used by:

  • 98% of Fortune 500 companies

  • 66% of large companies

  • 35% of small companies

It's safe to say that most companies nowadays use some sort of a recruitment and screening tool to process applications.

Companies that use an applicant tracking system typically have an online form that needs to be filled in when submitting a job application. From a candidate's perspective, seeing an online form is the easiest way to recognize that the company is using an ATS.

So, it's safe to assume that the applicant tracking system is processing your application if you do one of the following things:

  • apply for a job in a large organization

  • fill in an online form as you're submitting your application

  • apply through LinkedIn, Monster or Indeed as they have built-in ATS

It's safe to assume that the applicant tracking system is processing your application if you apply for a job in a large organization, fill in an online form as you're submitting your application or apply through LinkedIn, Monster or Indeed as they have built-in ATS.

Considering the above, the chances are that you've already submitted multiple applications to and through an applicant tracking system without even knowing it.


How did ATS earn its notorious reputation?

Even though applicant tracking systems are simply organizing tools used to improve efficiency of the hiring process, somewhere along the way they earned a notorious reputation -- so notorious and prevalent across the Internet that job seekers have started dreading job applications, and even hiring professionals have started doubting their understanding of the ATS.

Thinking about how applicant tracking systems work, there are a few functionalities that could be to blame for their reputation, such as:

  • rejecting candidates based on killer questions

  • being keyword-sensitive

  • rating and sorting candidates automatically

ATS may reject candidates based on killer questions.

Example of an applicant tracking system ranking candidates based on the number of 'killer questions' they answered correctly.

The ATS and, more importantly, people behind it are only interested in qualified job seekers that have the specific skills required for this particular position.

To speed up the process of finding the best candidates, ATS may use a series of killer questions to pre-filter unqualified applications.

Killer questions allow recruiters to screen out unwanted applicants based on their eligibility for work, skills, qualifications and experience level.

For example, if you're applying for a digital marketing manager job in the UK, and the company is looking for someone with three years of marketing experience and a Google Analytics certificate, some of the killer questions could be:

  • Do you have the legal right to work in the UK?

  • Do you have three years of experience in marketing?

  • Do you have a Google Analytics certificate?

If you give a negative answer to any of these questions, your application could be rejected instantly.

This means that you must answer all of the questionnaire's questions as employers expect it to move your application forward in the hiring process.

However, even though applicant tracking systems use killer questions to screen out unqualified applicants, they don't do it automatically on their own.

These questions are configured for each job opening by a recruiter in agreement with a hiring manager based on the job requirements.

So, it's not just a computer program that automatically rejects you. It’s software that follows a set of rules set by the hiring team.

It's not just a computer program that automatically rejects you. It’s software that follows a set of rules set by the hiring team.

On a positive note, it's worth knowing that companies don't want to risk losing good candidates.

Despite the killer questions set up in the system, many of them still have recruiters manually review all applications and sometimes confirm with candidates if the details provided to the ATS are all accurate before rejecting an otherwise qualified applicant.

ATS are keyword-sensitive.

Applicant tracking systems work like search engines.

They store your application and feed your data into a company database.

Based on the keywords you used in your resume, recruiters and hiring managers can retrieve your application in the future if they look for professionals with a similar skillset. They do so by searching for certain keywords in the database search.

Optimizing a resume by listing the key skills and qualifications that relate to the keywords from the job description, rather than using creative wording, enhances the chances of your resume to be perceived as relevant - both by ATS and human readers (a recruiter and hiring manager).

Since ATS are keyword-sensitive, if you want to show your personality by being creative with your resume, an applicant tracking system won't recognize it. Instead, it may lead to getting your application rejected or lost in the database.

Some ATS automatically rate and rank candidates.

Example of an applicant tracking system ranking candidates based on % of keyword-match.

Not all ATS work the same.

Depending on ATS settings and how a company configures their applicant tracking system, employers may see a ranked list of job applications.

For example, candidates who answered all killer questions in a way that shows that they meet the basic requirements may be on top of the list. Or resumes in which a specific keyword from the job description appears repeatedly could be closer to the top.

However, ATS are still not sophisticated enough to provide a 100% accurate ranking, so companies don't blindly rely on those lists.

Instead, recruiters manually review all applications to identify the best candidates from the applicant pool.

Don't send a different file format than requested. Otherwise, your resume may not be readable by the company's ATS.

Some companies may misuse ATS.

ATS is built to help employers better manage the hiring process, but since ATS are software used for the organization and optimization of the hiring process, their negative reputation could boil down to this -- some companies misuse this software.

ATS provide various automation functionalities that allow employers to save time, from scanning keywords to filtering and ranking applications.

However, some employers may misuse this new technology by only looking at an applicant's resume when it passes killer questions or ranks high in the list generated by ATS software without manually reviewing any other applications.

Skipping job applications that are not put forward by the applicant tracking system is definitely not a standard hiring practice -- nor a good one. However, we can't deny that some companies may do so to speed up the process.


What to write in a resume to pass the ATS?

If you take into consideration that your resume might be processed by keyword-sensitive software that looks for certain words in documents, there is only one logical step you should take when writing your resume: optimize your resume keywords.

Since an applicant tracking system (ATS) can't make sense of human language, it's up to the applicant to use keywords and phrases in their resume that will let them pass through the gates.

The most important keywords are soft and hard skills specified in the job listing. Using them in your resume will show that you possess the experience, knowledge, and skills that qualify you for the job.

Read on to learn how to identify and use relevant keywords to enhance your resume.


How to identify keywords for an ATS-friendly resume?

Using the right keywords in your resume is key to success.

There are two ways to identify keywords that will help your resume rank well in the applicant tracking system:

  • a. manually review the job ad to find repeated and ATS-relevant keywords

  • b. use a word cloud to identify keywords that are used throughout the job description.

1. Review job ads to find ATS-relevant keywords.

A job ad with a job description is the most apparent resource for keywords.

Most job descriptions will include a list of required qualifications for the job. This list includes experience, qualifications and hard and soft skills employers are looking for in candidates. These are your keywords!

Highlight skills, experience and knowledge that they are looking for. Identify words they have used repeatedly. You will get a list of ten to twenty words that will help you optimize your application for ATS.

Write them down and find a way to incorporate them into your resume.

2. Use word cloud generators to find keywords.

If you're struggling to pinpoint what skills and competencies an employer might be looking for in their candidate pool, use a word cloud generator to examine the language used throughout the job ad.

Word cloud generators, such as WordClouds, will quickly identify and reveal a word cloud of the most repeated words in a job opening.

The result may surprise you and give you some new ideas for keywords to include in your resume, or it could validate what's already there.

The most convenient part about a word cloud generator is its visual nature. The words appear larger, bolder and darker based on how often they've been used in your resume. In this way, you can easily spot those resume keywords that need some more attention.


How to use keywords to create an ATS-optimized resume?

Once you have identified the relevant keywords, include them in your resume summary and use them where appropriate throughout your job history section and other resume sections related to work experience -- in your personal statement, skills section, and most importantly, employment history.

If possible, try to incorporate the most important keywords through your resume 2-3 times each.

For example, if you have worked as an SEO content manager, 'SEO' as a keyword should be used in your personal overview at the beginning of your resume and in the skills section, not only in the work experience section.

However, don't forget the fact that your resume will also be seen by humans.

Therefore, stuffing your resume with keywords and using them as buzzwords just to beat the ATS is not enough.

So, use the relevant keywords in the context of your work experience where they naturally fit in.

Explaining your experience and providing specific information of your previous (yet relevant) responsibilities, while using relevant keywords and terminology, is how you win recruiters, hiring managers and ATS over.


How to format a resume so ATS can read it?

Besides using the right keywords in your resume, formatting your resume properly has a vital role in making your resume ATS compliant.

Depending on how a company uses an applicant tracking system to sift through the applications, a well-written resume with a wow design and optimized keywords could still get overlooked if the format of your resume is not ATS friendly and made to be searchable.

Read on for the most important dos' and don'ts to create an ATS resume.

1. Avoid graphics.

Even though resumes that look like infographics can sometimes impress readers, if you fill your resume only with visual elements, you are missing a chance to include relevant keywords that help it rank better.

The thing is, ATS cannot read graphic elements.

If you include important information about your skills and experience in a chart or other visual form, you are making it invisible to the applicant tracking system. For ATS, it's like it's not even there.

But it's not only ATS that might have trouble reading graphics.

Since graphic elements are open to interpretation, a recruiter or hiring manager may struggle as well.

So, skip or minimize graphic elements. Focus on the content and relevant resume keywords. Make your resume worth reading, not only worth looking at.

2. Don't use text boxes.

Text boxes in Word or Mac Pages make formatting of your resume much easier. They are a drag-and-drop solution to placing your text in the document.

However, ATS sees text boxes as graphic elements (same as the point above).

Therefore, if your resume content is in text boxes, the ATS won't read it, which might lead to your application getting stuck in a database even if you're fully qualified for a certain job.

3. Don't include important information in headers and footers.

Not every ATS can read the information placed in the header or a footer of a Word document.

Avoid including any text or information there, as most likely it won't be read by the system.

Also, information in the header and footer takes up valuable white space, which may negatively impact the overall impression of your resume.

4. Use a clean resume design.

ATS may have trouble recognizing fancy fonts and graphic elements, so all the effort you put into creating a jaw-dropping layout won't matter.

A better option is to keep the formatting simple and go with a clean resume.

However, a clean and simple resume design doesn't equal a boring resume. Check out ATS-friendly resume templates with a unique layout that stands out from the pile of basic Word documents.

5. Use bullet points.

Typically, bullet points are easier for an ATS to read than paragraphs.

Use a standard round bullet - which the ATS will be able to read with ease. Don't use arrows or other special characters, as those might present a problem.

And of course, once your resume gets past the ATS, bullet points are easier for recruiters and managers to read as well.

6. Don't forget to proofread.

ATS scans documents and looks for keywords that match the content of a job listing. As such, it basically works as search engine optimization (SEO).

Therefore, if you misspell keywords in your resume, ATS won't be able to recognize them.

There must be a 100% match between the keyword that ATS is looking for and a keyword in your resume; otherwise, misspelled resume keywords may negatively impact your application.

Thinking long-term, even if you pass the ATS filter, recruiters and hiring managers will notice a mistake.

And they are quite quick on eliminating candidates with mistakes and typos on their resumes.

Therefore, proofread your resume multiple times before you submit your application.

It is also helpful to share it with someone else who can proofread it. A fresh pair of eyes is more efficient for catching mistakes you may have missed.

Pro tip: Cover letters also need to be readable by an applicant tracking system. Download an ATS resume and cover letter template and make sure your application is ATS-proof!


How to check if your resume is ATS-compliant?

Before you submit your next application, confirm that you have an ATS-friendly resume.

As all applicant tracking systems (ATS) work slightly different, it's best to test your resume using several methods to ensure your resume format is fully optimized.

To do so, use the following:

  • online software (Jobscan*or Skillsyncer)

  • a manual method of transforming your resume into plain text

a. Testing a resume with online software

To test your resume, rely on the new technology.

Firstly, use Jobscan - resume-optimization software* based on and tested with the most commonly used ATS, such as Taleo, Workday, Xeneka Factors (IBM) and iCIMS.

(Our resume templates were even featured on their site!)

With their ATS scan, you get a free resume review that can help you with keyword optimization.

Alternatively, use Skillsyncer, which also works as an ATS test.

Just copy or upload your resume and target job description to the online software. It will compare two documents and generate your ATS score along with personalized recommendations to optimize your resume keywords and formatting.

b. Testing a resume manually

Finally, triple-check your resume by transforming it into plain text.

This allows you to see if there is any part of the resume that less sophisticated ATS may skip.

You can do so by converting your resume into a plain-text file.

Copy the content from your resume, paste it into a plain-text document, and review the results.

If the plain-text version is missing details from your original resume, has characters saved incorrectly, or looks disorganized, then assume your resume requires additional editing.


How to save a resume for ATS to read it?

According to employer surveys, employers prefer two file formats: PDF or .docx (a Word document).

However, there is no one-size-fits-all answer here.

The file format an employer wants varies on the company's applicant tracking system (ATS).

The key to saving your resume in the right resume format is hidden in the job posting. There, employers usually specify the format they need.

Read the job description carefully and follow the instructions.

Don't send a different file format than requested. Otherwise, your resume may not be readable by the company's ATS.


Frequently asked questions about ATS

Finally, let's answer some of the most common questions about ATS.

I used an ATS-friendly resume template and it didn't perfectly fill in job application forms. Does it mean it's not ATS-friendly?

There are a lot of myths about how ATS and ATS-friendly resumes actually work.

To keep things simple, an ATS-friendly resume is any resume that can be read by ATS, meaning that its content will be recognized, scanned, and processed by ATS to fill in job application forms.

But will it perfectly auto-populate content with every job application you submit? Unfortunately not. And any resume designer or seller that tells you otherwise is either not 100% transparent or misinformed - sorry for being blunt about it.

The reality is that every ATS works differently and each job application form requires different information. This means that NO template can perfectly auto-populate content in all situations, no matter how it's designed.

How to know if your resume template is ATS-friendly or not?

Long answer: Read this blog post. Short answer: It's simple - if you are applying with a resume that is not ATS-friendly (e.g. graphic Canva templates), in most cases your content will not be recognized by the ATS at all – instead, you will need to retype your whole resume into the application. If it's ATS-friendly, you may need to review it and do some adjustments for each job application to ensure it's correctly filled - which depend on how ATS is programmed, not on the resume template itself - but your resume content will still be recognizable, accepted, and in some cases 100% correctly auto-filled.

Does it make sense to use ATS-friendly templates if they can't perfectly match all ATS?

Yes, absolutely! An ATS-friendly resume template can still make the job application process much easier, faster, and more efficient. It simply means that you may need to spend a few extra minutes double-checking each job application form before submitting it.

What happens with graphics in ATS-friendly resume templates?

Some ATS-optimized templates have simple graphic elements, such as lines or background shapes. However, they don't interfere with the content, so ATS can read it. ATS will not 'see' graphics, but it will be able to normally read content, scan the keywords and compare it with the job you apply for, so you can be sure that your resume can get past the first filter.

What font style is best for ATS?

When it comes to creating a resume for ATS (Applicant Tracking System), it is recommended to use default fonts available in MS Office, Google Docs, or Pages, such as Arial, Calibri, Calibri Light, Helvetica, and Verdana. You can choose from more options, but these ones work best as they look clean and professional, making them perfect for resumes. Custom fonts you've downloaded and installed on your computer may interfere with the software. This is especially true if you're using handwriting-style fonts, as they don't have clear and consistent letterforms that the ATS can easily recognize.

What font size is best for ATS?

Some guidelines suggest that font size in ATS-optimized resumes should be 10-12 pt. However, the truth is that the font size doesn't make a difference in ATS readability. ATS parses the content, but it's not done "visually." Even if you would submit a resume with content written in white color or size 0,5 that would not be visible to us, ATS would still be able to read it.

But, use the recommended size as a best practice because most fonts that size can easily be read by humans, i.e., hiring professionals who will also review your resume. So, besides optimizing your resume for ATS, make sure it's also optimized for humans.


Disclaimer: This article includes affiliate links. If you shop through these links, I might earn a commission, making this site fully reader-supported. Big thanks for your support!


Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) are notoriously known as AI gatekeepers that check resumes on the virtual entrance to the company. They collect, scan, and organize all resumes received as part of a job application for an open position.

To pass the ATS filter, you need to fill your resume with specific keywords from the job description.

Additionally, you need to apply a couple of rules to format your resume so ATS can read it properly:

  • Avoid graphics

  • Don't use text boxes

  • Don't include important information in the header and footer

  • Use a clean resume design

  • Use bullet points

  • Proofread

Or -- check out our collection of ATS-optimized resume templates! ➝ In the end, double-check if your content is readable by applicant tracking systems with Jobscan,* Skillsyncer or by copying the content of your resume into a TXT format.

Finally, save your resume in the file form requested in the job posting and beat the ATS!


Remember -- you only get one shot at impressing recruiters or hiring managers with your resume! If you want to speed up the process and land your dream job fast, we're here to help! Use our resume cheat sheet to write top-notch content. Or jumpstart your job search with a professionally designed resume template and impress employers right from the start.

Ana Colak Fustin

Ana is a former recruiter, HR consultant, and founder of Her career advice and business have been featured in Yahoo News, Jobscan, A Better HR Business, Starter Story, Best Colleges, and other global media. Since 2018, over 8,000 professionals worldwide have used her resume templates to land new jobs. She's on a mission to help 80,000 more.




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