Resume tips: A guide to getting past the ATS machines

By Tiffany Leong posted 02-19-2020 11:04

Resume tips:
A guide to getting past the
ATS machines

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Recently, there was an interesting conversation on ConnectBGS about getting your resume through the online systems and software that HR departments typically use to narrow down the number of applications they manually review.

BGS member Abbey called it “getting past the machines.”

It’s a fitting term, to be sure: the process almost completely removes the human element of human resources. But in the HR industry, they call it an applicant tracking system (or ATS). You’ve seen them before, even if you didn’t realize it at the time: you might recognize Taleo, Brassring, Bullhorn or BambooHR, among others.

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How do applicant tracking systems work?
When you apply to a job through an ATS, your resume is added to a database for the recruiter or hiring manager. It gets scanned for relevant keywords and terms to determine how closely you match the job you’re applying for. Your application is then rated with a match score based on how closely your resume mirrors the job posting.

The ATS is used at many large companies and corporations—and it’s a necessary tool for HR managers to go through high volumes of job applications.

Since ATSs aren’t going away, let’s look at how to create an ATS-optimized resume for online job applications.

1. Simplify your resume’s formatting and structure.

When an ATS scans a resume, it doesn’t understand the formatting techniques many people use—like headers, columns, or tables. The system will strip out that formatting, and all the information contained in them could become a jumble of words and phrases that ultimately lowers your match score.

The best way to keep this from happening is to remove the following elements from your ATS resume:

- Headers and footers
- Sidebars
- Columns
- Tables and graphs
- Text boxes
- Graphics and images
- Nonstandard fonts and text effects
- Bullets and “advanced symbols" (ones not found on a standard computer keyboard)

A clarification on bullets
You can still use bulleted lists on your resume—in fact, most resume experts recommend it. You’ll just have to manually add a symbol or character to represent the bullet. Commonly used alternatives are asterisks (*), dashes (-), and plus signs (+).

2. Include the right keywords—but use them correctly.

Are you familiar with SEO? An ATS uses similar principles: you’re essentially optimizing your resume with the right keywords so that the ATS sees your resume and experience as relevant to the job you’re applying for.

Look at job descriptions and take note of specific words or terms that are used a lot; aim to include them 2 to 3 times. To get more keywords into your resume, add a skills section and a keyword-packed professional summary statement.

When using an acronym, include the full words as well—the ATS might not be able to translate some acronyms. So, if we’re using the MBA as an example, try writing it on your resume like this: Master of Business Administration (MBA).

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3. Test your resume’s digital readability.

When you’re done making content changes to your resume, save a version of your resume to a plain text (.txt) format and see if it still makes sense. When you save a file as a plain text document, it strips out the formatting that an ATS can’t read—it will give you a sense of how your resume would look when it gets through the system.

A plain text resume (aka ASCII resume) is the best format to send to recruiters or hiring professionals—you can paste it into online applications, attach it to emails, or add it into the body of emails without a risk of compatibility issues.

4. Check your match scores.

To get a better idea of how your resume will come across in an ATS, try out online tools like Jobscan, SkillSyncer, CVScan and CV Saviour. When you paste a resume and the job description from your target job into their online forms, it scans them to give you a match score.

Because every ATS is different, your results on these sites probably won’t be exactly the same as what you’ll get when you apply to the job—but it will give you a better idea and, hopefully, help you determine if the changes you’re making are helping. You can usually get a free scan on these types of sites, but the paid versions may offer additional tools and insights about keywords, missing skills and other factors affecting your score.


All of these suggestions can help you get through ATS machine and onto the interview faster—there’s no doubt about that. But there’s a faster way: leverage your existing networks of friends, family, classmates, your school’s alumni network, your local BGS alumni chapter, your LinkedIn network, fellow parents and teachers at the PTA, and members you’ve met on ConnectBGS.

Have you tried other techniques to get your resume through an ATS? Tell us about it in the comments!

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1 comment



04-23-2020 14:24

One of the ways I have analyzed my resume (along with many other text material(s) during my career) is with Megaputer PolyAnalyst.  

It has always provided me with a good understanding of key word linkages/strength, and other factors that let me judge whether my message is getting through.  

Not saying it is perfect ... just that it has been helpful at fine tuning my efforts.