The way employers read through resumes has changed. What hasn’t changed is the hope candidates like you have when you submit your application, resume and cover letter before waiting in anticipation for the hiring manager to either send you a job offer or say they’re going in another direction.

In the past, candidates felt they had six seconds for their resume to leave an impression. While this is still true, there’s now a new step before that, which means there’s a chance no human will even see your resume. In fact, studies show 75% of applications are rejected before a human even gets a chance to read them.

Why? Employers have introduced applicant tracking systems (ATS) into their processes. Your resume must pass the ATS standards before it deems the resume worthy of a human reading through it. That means not only does your resume need to cater to an interviewer, but it must now also cater to a bot and the ATS algorithm.

Before you apply for your next role and send an application, continue reading to find out what an ATS-friendly resume is and how you can write one.

What is an ATS?

The short answer: An ATS-friendly resume is one that features enough keywords to beat the bot’s algorithm, ensuring only the best make it into an employer’s hands.

An ATS in more depth

An applicant tracking system is software employers use during the hiring process to collate and rank the job applications they receive for vacant roles. At one stage, it was thought only major organizations would benefit as they’d receive literally hundreds of thousands of applications with no human or team having the time or resources to search through each resume.

Now, companies of all sizes have adopted an ATS so they can streamline the hiring process and only look through the best resumes.

Think of an ATS like a gatekeeper or final signoff for employers. An ATS will scan through a resume’s content and analyze the keywords used. If enough relevant keywords have been used, the ATS will hand off the resume to the interviewer and if the ATS can’t spot relevant keywords, an employer will never see your resume.

It makes sense why employers would make this switch. An ATS can identify the resumes that don’t qualify, leaving interviewers and hiring managers with more time to focus on better-fit candidates. If yours is unknowingly an ATS-friendly resume already, then you don’t need to worry. An ATS is removing the bad-fit applications, not the best ones.

The unfortunate downside to an ATS is that even if the contents of your resume are outstanding and better than other candidates, a poor format or template that doesn’t cater to the ATS can miss out on being read by an employer.

How to write an ATS-friendly resume

Your goal from now on is to create a resume that’s both human-friendly and ATS-friendly. You can’t exaggerate to please one or the other, but there are ways you can transform your current resume into one that will pass through an ATS successfully.

Choose the right format

The majority of resumes are in PDF format — something that isn’t ATS-friendly. PDFs have been the go-to for years because they preserve layout and design, but most ATS software wouldn’t recognize a PDF file type. This can vary between software, so the safest bet is to stick to a .docx or .doc Word file to make your resume as ATS-friendly as possible. While it can limit your formatting and design options, these two factors won’t help you land a job.

Leave important information out of the header and footer

As advances as an ATS is, they’re bound to make mistakes. One of these errors is they can’t always read information added in the header or footer of a document. Your essential details, such as your contact information, should be placed outside these areas for the best chance of an ATS deeming your resume suitable.

Avoid going overly aesthetic

A graph, images and charts can sometimes tell a better story to the person reading your resume. However, images like these won’t make it through when the resume goes through an ATS. That’s because an ATS can’t read such images and it won’t tell the reader the whole story. If it’s an important addition, write it out rather than relying on images.

Utilize bullets

To highlight your experience and accomplishments on your resume, make it easy for an ATS to deem it suitable by using bullet points. Make sure they’re simple bullets, too, and nothing fancy as it can confuse an ATS. Anything you do to your resume, take a second to think if you can do it simpler. If the answer is yes, pick the simpler option to cater to the ATS.

Implement a clear hierarchy and design

You might have spent hours on your resume’s design in the past, but it’s borderline meaningless when an ATS comes into the equation. Now, you don’t need to put such a big emphasis on the design as complex designs can throw an ATS off. Plus, recruiters might not be too bothered about a design either when all they want to see is valuable information.

Search for keywords on other job listings

Every time you apply for a job, your resume must be tailored to that specific role. Now that you have an ATS to please, you need to add relevant keywords to your resume — so search for similar job listings and note down a range of keywords you notice multiple employers posting.

Don’t just use one other job listing; look over a few. It should give you a better idea of the keywords to use in your industry, position and experience. Whenever you notice repeat keywords, write them down in the exact order they’re mentioned. While Google might be advanced enough to recognize keywords in any order, an ATS isn’t at that stage just yet.

This includes synonyms and acronyms. Don’t be tempted to divert from the keyword as an ATS will be set to recognize the keyword exactly as programmed. Variations might not go down too well either, so be strategic with the keywords and phrases you add.

Add the keywords to your resume

After you’ve created your keyword list, it’s time to naturally scatter them throughout your resume. Read through your resume and add in keywords wherever possible. You shouldn’t go overboard where it can look like spam and doesn’t make for good reading to a human, but ensure the keywords are used enough to match your skills and help you get past the ATS.

To avoid further confusion with the ATS, try to reiterate your skills throughout your entire resume, rather than limiting yourself to one specific section.

Customize your resume for each application

ATS are on the rise, so you need to do yourself justice by writing a resume that will get past the screening phase and into the hands of a hiring manager. This is why you should create a new, custom resume tailored to each job you apply for, adding relevant keywords in each application. While the bulk of it, such as the format and file type, can stay the same, the contents should be different and relate to the position you’re applying for.

While it does take more effort doing this for each role, it pays off when an ATS successfully screens your resume, ready for an interviewer.

Test your resume for ATS-friendliness

Following all of these instructions is just one side of making your resume ATS-friendly. The next stage is to ensure it meets the criteria by testing it out. The first time you test shouldn’t be when you submit your job application. There are plenty of options online and platforms that can help you tweak your resume to ensure it passes through an ATS with little to no issues.

By following the tips above, you’re in a much better position to transform your current resume and start passing the ATS test. In some cases, companies will outright refuse to look at any other applications unless it has come through the ATS. So, although you need to cater to both the machine and the human, you need to tweak your resume to ensure it actually makes it in front of the right eyes.

Boost your chances of landing your dream role


Although an ATS can be a barrier when trying to secure a job and are used by more companies each day, it’s people who hire people. The hiring manager will want to hire someone they know, not just based blindly on a resume the ATS said is worth considering.

Still, your resume should pass ATS tests, so you know you’ve done everything on your part to have a human consider your application. Don’t let robots get in the way of you and your dream career.

To be in with the best chance of passing through the ATS algorithm, set up a profile on VanHack. You can sign up and create an engaging profile to stand out from others to increase your chances of landing your perfect role.

If you need help with the interview process, the VanHack Premium Academy is also on hand to help you get prepared with effective interview answers.

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