Résumés for Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS)

resume tracking system

Résumé tracking is the norm these days. Most mid-sized to large organizations receive hundreds and even thousands of résumés through the internet. Company representatives must deal with these huge volumes and somehow find and select the ideal candidate. As a result, employers and recruiters rely on technology to automate the résumé selection process.

Driven primarily by the increasing volume of applicants, the Applicant Tracking System (ATS) was born. Through the ATS, employers are able to sort, rank, store, and manage the considerable number of résumés they receive on a daily basis. Ideally, only a few good résumés will be selected out for recruiters and employers to read and they will never need to spend time handling the rest.

There are many different ATS systems on the market, and each is somewhat different. Some have multi-layered functionality and others have quite basic features. As with most technology, no ATS is perfect. They parse out poor candidates, but they sometimes filter out strong, qualified ones, too.

Many résumés are misread by ATS. This is because the system requires specific formatting and structure. Veering from this even a bit may hamper correct scanning, interpretation, and filtering.

Your client may be the ideal candidate, but if he or she does not have the right résumé, no one may ever know it. But, if you understand the way the system works — including its weaknesses — you can improve your client’s chances of being selected for an interview.

To ensure that your client’s résumé passes the résumé tracking system, analyze it against the following areas that might be missed, misaligned, misunderstood, or muddled by ATS systems:

  • ATS systems are gluttons for information — they can take in seemingly unlimited amounts of data. Your client’s résumé can be as lengthy as it needs to be so that you can give the system as much relevant information as possible.
  • ATS can’t decipher the meaning or significance of the subjective and intangible value the job seeker brings. To improve the résumé’s relevance and ranking, ensure that it includes words and phrases that match the job posting or job description closely.
  • While “longer-the-better” résumés may be effective, you can boost the ATS ranking by cutting articles, pronouns, and other unnecessary words out of the document.
  • Keywords and key phrases are crucial to the functionality of ATS, but the ATS cannot always translate or exchange synonyms. Consider including many variations of keywords and phrases in the résumé.
  • ATS algorithms are designed to select keywords and phrases that are specific to a particular job, but unique and different from other job postings in its data base. Your client’s résumé will be ranked not only against the post, but also against other résumés that are submitted. Take your keywords to the next level by adding keywords that other candidates might not think of using.
  • ATS résumés are parsed into components to compare applicants “apples-to-apples.” It expects to locate the following sections in your résumé: Contact Information, Summary, Work Experience, and Education. If you have anything important to share, make sure to do it in one of these sections so that the ATS ranking system will include the information in its tallying of “credits” (points).
  • Most systems only recognize a very straightforward reverse chronological structure. Even if your client has earned promotions within a company, list every job separately. In every section, include the company name, job title, the start and end dates, job responsibilities, and achievements, in that order.
  • The system calculates the number of years’ experience for each competency to calculate the number of credits that the job seeker will be assessed. Therefore, it is best to list activities in every position held, repeating them multiple times if necessary.
  • Most ATS need work history to credit applicants for experience. Even if your client is a student, include a “work history” section; add projects so that the ATS will give credit for skills and competencies.
  • It is beneficial to include special sections such as: Certifications, Professional Memberships, Speaking Engagements, Publications, and Lists of Patents since it will allow you to incorporate additional keywords that are relevant for the ATS. However, these areas do not affect the résumé’s overall points and ranking within most ATS systems.
  • ATS prefer Word documents (.doc or .docx), but are also capable of scanning text files and PDFs. Some employers will specify the type of file they would like candidates to upload, so be sure to follow their instructions during the online application process.

ATS may be smart, but people are smarter. The most diligent recruiters know that they may miss strong candidates if the ATS does not “screen in” strong résumés, for whatever reason. They may continue to very briefly scan every résumé, just in case someone special is sitting in their candidate pool. In addition, many savvy recruiters will jump at the opportunity to meet candidates who take the time to call and explain why they are a perfect fit for the opportunity. So, if your client is not chosen for an interview, but is a strong fit for the role, recommend that he or she follow up with the employer directly.

Need training on creating ATS résumés that get results? Join us for Technology Optimized Résumés.

Sharon Graham is founder and executive director of Career Professionals of Canada. Committed to setting the standard for excellence in the career development profession, Sharon has authored top-selling paperback publications and textbooks, and has established a range of certificationprofessional developmentcommunity development, and mentoring and award programs. As executive director of CPC, she provides foresight and leadership within the career development sector and ensures that the mandate of CPC is upheld with integrity.


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I found this article very applicable and helpful. It is now in my favourite bar. It reinforced what I have already put into practice but also added some new ideas for me.


Hi Carol,

Glad to know that the article was helpful to you.

I always found the inner workings of Applicant Tracking Systems more than a bit baffling! I completed CPC’s Advanced Résumé Development course, though, and that’s when it all started to become clear to me.

A new class just started this week and it’s full to capacity, but you may want to check out the CPC events schedule and consider signing up for the next one. I’m confident that you’ll find it interesting, super-helpful, and a great investment in your professional development.

Take care!

A very interesting article with good suggestions which I will add in my work.
I would be interested to hear what people think about the length of the resume would be, as the article suggests as long as possible: could this be four or five pages? or should two pages still be the limit (excluding people who need to include articles written, papers produced and reviewed, etc.).
Also, the article suggest to be as repetitive as possible which is great if it is only a computer reading it. What happens when a real person starts reading the repetitiveness? Is there a possibility that they might question the writers ability to communicate?
I think we need to be wise when using and repeating keywords as well as the length of the resumes we assist with.

The résumé need to be as long as it must be in order for the ATS to pick up information that it needs to determine if the person is qualified. It’s good to be repetitive, but readability is very important. Always ensure that a person can easily read the résumé and the words flow nicely.

I work with disenfranchised clients. I’m concerned that more and more use of these systems actually further disenfranchises them. Yes the ATS makes reviewing resumes more efficient, but not sure that it leads to a more just hiring process. Does anyone know of any data that speaks to the inclusion implications of these systems? Thanks in advance.

I work with disenfranchised clients. I’m concerned that more and more use of these systems will lead to further disenfranchisement. Yes the systems can lead to a more efficient review of resumes. Not sure it leads to a more just hiring process. Does anyone have any data that speaks to the inclusion implications of these systems? Thanks in advance.

Many employers have polices and procedures in place to be inclusive. ATS systems typically “select” candidate who appear to have the qualifications of the role being filled. Without human judgement, it reduces unconscious bias and helps diversity because ethnicity, race and gender don’t come into the initial selection process. Whenever possible, if your client requires accommodation, the best way to address it is after they are called for an interview.

Finally, talking about the current issues for those Advisors who are back in the 20th Century … oh right! They have been around since the 20th Century! Start with your own resume and learn to empathize with our clients. Good Luck!

This is one of the best articles I’ve read on this topic. In fact, I’m now sharing it with all of my clients as part of their resource kit. One time I attended a job fair for project engineers. I stood in the lineup (pre-COVID 19) waiting to speak with the recruiter. It was a large energy company who did a lot of hiring. The recruiter told me that although they use ATS technology, she still looks at every resume! She told me she wanted to ensure they weren’t missing any golden applicants. Of course, not every recruiter will do this (nor will they be able to), but I thought it was an interesting insight. Thanks, again for this amazing article.

Thanks for the share, Maureen. I have heard the same from recruiters.

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