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How to Optimize Your Resume for an Applicant Tracking System (ATS)

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Used to save time and money while honing in top talent, applicant tracking systems (ATS) streamline the hiring process at companies big and small. The ATS process, however, has become a major hurdle for job hunters. After spending hours filling out forms and uploading documents, well-qualified applicants are left wondering why they’re not being interviewed for jobs they consider attainable.

The reason isn’t necessarily the person; rather, it’s the information supplied. An ATS works by pulling resumes that contain a variety of important terms. The terms are selected by the recruiter or hiring manager who’s tasked with filling the position. If your resume doesn’t contain the right keywords — or enough of them — you’ll end up in a virtual black hole.

Fortunately, cracking the ATS code isn’t as complex as many job hunters make it seem.

  • First, start by creating a list of important keywords used in your industry. For ideas, check out LinkedIn to review colleagues’ profiles as well as people who hold a position similar to what you’re going for.
  • Another helpful step is to look at various industry job descriptions. This copy is rich with keywords that are useful to include in your resume and application. Look for terms and words common across different descriptions and be sure to stress those when possible.
  • Because no technology is perfect, phrasing choices can be confusing. For example, an ATS may not be able to distinguish between Master of Business Administration, Master’s degree in Business Administration and MBA. You would never list all three, so what should you do?
  • For all cases where there is a shortened acronym or a term, try to include both. For instance: Master of Business Administration (MBA). For other questions and concerns, always reference the job description. It’s likely that the terms used in that copy are the same ones programmed into the ATS. Customize your resume to reflect these words and phrases exactly.
  • Remember, keywords are the most important step in getting past the ATS filters, but you still must write with a person in mind. Keyword-stuffing may get your application flagged. Worse, if your resume makes it to a human eye, it will be difficult to read and comprehend, which will eliminate you from the running.
  • Beyond keywords, there are a few additional steps to help you optimize your resume. Strive to keep things simple in regard to formatting and order. Graphics and charts cannot be comprehended, so skip them completely. Keep headings standard because creative alternatives may get dismissed.
  • Finally, verify the ATS guidelines for acceptable resume formats. If you can’t find those guidelines, Microsoft Word or PDF is the safest bet.

The ATS is not the job hunter’s arch nemesis. In fact, if you understand how these systems work, you can bend the odds in your favor with strategic phrasing and resume design. Just remember to do your research and customize each application. Then you’ll be getting a call back before you know it.

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