If you’re applying for jobs online, it’s crucial to know how to get past the applicant tracking system (“ATS” for short)
Most employers use these automated systems to check your resume for keywords and other crucial info before a real person sees the document. And without the right information, presented in a way that the ATS can find it, your resume might not even get read!
So if you want to get the interview, step one is beating the applicant tracking system.
Fortunately, this article is going to cover everything you need to know about how the system works and how to get your resume past it step-by-step.
Applicant tracking systems use filters and keyword analysis to screen resumes to find the most qualified, best-suited candidates to save an employer time. Many online job postings get 100+ applications, so this saves the employer a lot of time and helps them filter the candidates who are well suited for the job immediately.
Unfortunately, these automated systems aren’t perfect, and do make “mistakes” or rule out good candidates! It’s possible to be someone who could fit perfectly in a job but have your resume not get past the ATS!
So now let’s talk about how to make sure this doesn’t happen to you…
If you’re creating a resume in Microsoft Word, use simple formatting and headers. Bold, italic, and bullet points are all fine (as long as they’re done in moderation).
However, where I see job seekers run into trouble with online job applications is using rows, tables, columns, and other special formatting.
Many of the newer resume templates for sale online (or available for free) feature a two-column layout. They have a “main” column and a thin side column for your contact info and other details.
These designs look great, but some applicant tracking systems and online applications can’t read this smaller column. So while it may look sleek, it’s not helping you get past automated job application systems.
Keep your resume simple with one column if you’re concerned about how to beat applicant tracking systems.
Here’s a full article if you want more info on how to format a resume.
There’s some over-aggressive advice out there about resume fonts for getting past applicant tracking systems. For example, I’ve seen people on LinkedIn say that job seekers should only use Times New Roman.
That’s not true. No company would use an ATS software that can only read one font. However, it is best to stick to a commonly-used font. For example, I’d avoid Google Fonts, and stick to something standard within most word processing programs.
I personally like Calibri, which is default in many of the newer versions of MS Word.
Helvetica, Georgia, or Arial are other good font choices.
And I’d actually recommend avoiding Times New Roman. While it is a font that the ATS can read, it tends to make your resume look very old and dated, which is not the impression you want to give hiring managers.
If you want to get past the ATS and impress hiring managers, don’t send out a generic resume for each job. A company’s applicant tracking system is set to look for specific criteria based on the job’s requirements. So the best way to get a sense of what skills they want is to read the job posting and adjust your resume for that.
As explained in that article above, you can add info from the job description that you hadn’t mentioned on your resume, and you can also remove unnecessary or irrelevant info.
Sometimes less is more on your resume. If something isn’t related to the job you applied for, it’s just “burying” the more relevant info that’ll actually help you get hired. And that’s not going to help you get hired or get past online applications.
Not only will this help you beat the applicant tracking system with your resume, but it’ll also make the hiring manager more likely to want to interview you when they see your resume first-hand.
Part of why I recommend tailoring your resume (mentioned above) to get past online application systems is it helps you figure out what keywords to put on your resume.
Virtually every ATS/application system scans your resume for keywords from the job description, especially hard skills (like Customer Service, Web Design, Digital Marketing).
Don’t overdo it. You should always write your resume for a human reader first and foremost because that’s who makes the final decision on whether to interview you.
But including some keywords from the job description is the single best way to get past the online job application systems employers use to filter resumes.
You can include keywords in your bullet points, job titles, skills, intro paragraph, and more.
And once you get to a real person, it’ll help you there, too! Many recruiters and hiring managers use “Ctrl + F” to quickly locate keywords on a resume. So by putting top keywords and skills that they’re looking for – from the job description – you’ll be more likely to impress them.
The bottom line is: Adding relevant keywords to your resume is a win-win and will improve your odds with the ATS and a real person, too.
Use both long and short variations of keywords on your resume when possible.
For example, MBA / Master of Business Administration.
You never know which keyword the employer programmed into their online application system, so if you have an opportunity to vary how you’re saying it, that’ll boost your odds of getting through to a human reader.
Another important step if you want to get your resume past applicant tracking systems: Use a chronological resume format.
This means listing your past employment in order, with the most recent position appearing at the top of the list. This is the only resume format I recommend because it’s what recruiters and hiring managers prefer to see. As a recruiter, I never liked seeing a “functional resume” or anything that hides the dates of work.
Employers and recruiters want to see a list of past jobs, dates, and bullets for what you did and learned in each job! And employers typically program the ATS to look for this, too.
If you don’t have dates of employment next to each job title on your resume, and a clear order of jobs you’ve held, it may get you rejected by applicant tracking systems.
So chronological format is the best resume format to beat the applicant tracking system and to get interviews once a hiring manager is reviewing your profile.
If you want to put something small in the header or footer of your resume for styling reasons, go ahead, but don’t count on an applicant tracking system picking it up or “reading” it. So nothing you put in a header or footer of your resume will help you get past the ATS.
I recommend not using a header or footer at all when creating your resume in Word. Just use the main section of the document.
And pay particular attention to the formatting of your name and contact info. It should be part of the “main” document, and not in a separately-formatted header section.
Don’t get fancy when it comes to the headers before each section of your resume.
Keep it simple with names like “Work Experience,” “Skills,” “Professional Summary,” “Education,” etc.
This is the best way to make sure you don’t confuse the applicant tracking system and have it miss one of the key sections that might have gotten you the interview!
If you want help with naming each resume section, here’s a full article on resume sections and titles.
Most applicant tracking systems know to look for different titles. For example, a typical ATS would recognize “Employment History” or “Work History” or “Experience” as a section title. But you don’t want to stray too far from those common titles that most applicants are using.
Don’t forget that at the end of the day, it’s a real person who will be making the final decision on whether to interview you. So while you should follow the guidelines above for how to beat the applicant tracking system, never make a change that would appear odd to a real person. Because the goal is for a real person to see it and read it (and like it enough to invite you to interview).
This means using good grammar, making sure each sentence, bullet point, and other piece of info seems relevant and makes sense, etc.
If you do this, you’ll get your resume past the applicant tracking system while also impressing the hiring manager or recruiter who sees it!
The tips above should be more than enough to get you through even the toughest online job application systems, show those resume robots you’re a good fit, and land you the interview.
However, the interview is critical, so make sure you’re taking time to prepare.
Review the job posting again before the interview. Review your own resume, too. That way, the information will be fresh in your mind and you’ll be better equipped to answer questions about your background from a hiring manager or recruiter.
Here are a few more interview tips to help.
Also, practice answering some common questions that you expect them to ask.
For example, are you ready if they ask – what’s your greatest weakness?
Taking a few minutes to think about your strengths and weaknesses, why you’d perform well in their job, and why their job excites you, will help you give better answers to a variety of interview questions.
I don’t recommend trying to memorize full answers to questions they might ask. But you should think about key pieces of information you want to mention for each topic and try to fit them in as the interview progresses. This will make your answers appear spontaneous.
Also, prepare a stunning elevator pitch to catch their attention right off the bat.
If you read the steps above, you now know how to get past online job applications, and you’ll be ready to turn your interviews into job offers, too.
While nobody gets a response from 100% of their online applications or turns every interview into an offer, you now know how to boost your odds of beating the ATS, which will give you the best possible chance of success when applying for jobs online.
Get our free PDF with the top 30 interview questions and answers. Join 10,000+ job seekers in our email newsletter and we'll send you the 30 must-know questions, plus our best insider tips for turning interviews into job offers.