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Tips For ATS: Optimizing Your Resume With Keywords

– Posted in: Internet Job Searching Resume Writing

ATS-resumesWe’ve long been told technology is intended to simplify our lives.  While this may be true in some instances, in others it is most definitely not!  Job searching provides a perfect example of this apparent contradiction.

In general, technology has made the search part of job search easier. Those seeking a change in their employment circumstances are able to go online and look for job openings available anywhere in the world.  The Internet allows you to research an industry, a company, even a person with whom you might be interviewing.  You’re able to communicate in a timely manner and respond almost immediately, for example, to any requests for additional information you might receive.

There is, however, one aspect of searching for a job for which technology  has actually complicated matters for you: Submitting a resume online.  Now the act of submitting the resume itself is very simple. The difficulty, however, lies in getting that resume read.

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More than ever before, employers (and recruiters too) are employing the use of Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS).  These are essentially computer screening systems which assist in managing the often overwhelming volume of resumes an organization receives for a job opening.

Simply put, an ATS “reads” your resume in order to measure or score your qualifications against the requirements of the job the employer seeks to fill.  Because today’s job market is ultra-competitive, many HR professionals have given up on reviewing every resume that comes in the door, especially since some job postings generate dozens, if not hundreds, of applications.

Although this may seem like a good thing as it streamlines the screening process, this is only true if your application/resume have been optimized to benefit from an Applicant Tracking System, software that filters and screens your resume, analyzing it to identify keywords and word sequences in order to extract information most relevant to making a hiring decision.  It’s estimated that more than 50% of companies use ATS.   These tools are sometimes called “contextual parsers”, so that should give you some idea as to what they do:  Parse information.


What does all this mean?  While there are exceptions, particularly if you are taking full advantage of networking as a job search technique, if you are job searching through more common means (replying to ads and contacting companies cold), your resume will not be seen by human eyes unless and until it meets minimum standards regarding background, training, education, and other qualifications established by the employer.  Reportedly at least 75 percent of all resumes are discarded for failing to meet whatever requirements have been built into the system by an employer or recruiter.

Not only must your online application/resume meet whatever the current employer /recruiter preferences are with respect to number of pages, formatting, bio-style vs. bullet points, etc., you’ll also need to ensure that the content itself receives a score that ranks you highly enough in the ATS for your resume to be passed along to a living, breathing, human being (i.e., H.R. professional or recruiter) for further processing.

Here are the most important steps for optimizing your resume with the keywords and other contextual and design elements it needs:

Write to the job description.  No matter how “professional” your resume looks or how many times you’ve had it redone by consultants, counselors, or even recruiters, an ATS doesn’t care how impressive it looks, it will only search for specific keywords. Of course, the system won’t tell you which ones but it really doesn’t have to because the job description will.  Review the duties and responsibilities of the job very carefully, looking for industry terms, technical language, jargon, emphasis on specific requirements, skills, abilities, etc.  Read through it carefully. Highlight the requirements. Incorporate those words into your online app/resume.

Exactly those words.

Caveat – Only use those words if they apply to you.  If they don’t because you’ve tried to trick the ATS, you’ll pay for that later in an interview. Puffery doesn’t work any better here than it does when human eyes review your submission.  

Customization is critical.  Specify, specify, specify.  Words like “accomplished”, “highly-skilled”, “professional” and the like are useless in an ATS setting.  Remember, you’re attempting to illustrate to a software system that you meet the systems minimum standards and those standards are, quite simply, merely keywords. Be specific. Don’t just say you are skilled with Microsoft Office. Specify that you are an “expert user of Microsoft Office, including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Excel.”

Location, location, location. Keywords on the first page of your resume will be ranked more highly than the second page. Try to find a way to include the most important keywords on the first page of your resume.  These are intelligent systems. They primarily look for recent skills.

Context is key.  Refer to specific achievements when using keywords. When it returns results, the system highlights the keywords in yellow for the reader, and they want and need context. It is okay to list the most important keywords in bullet point format as part of your summary, but also use them in the body of your resume.

Watch your tenses.  Past, present and future.  For example, supervise is not supervised is not supervising.  If the job duties include “supervision”, use the word supervision.

No images, graphics, special characters or emoticons.  No really, some people actually use emoticons.  And don’t expand or condense the fonts.  You’ll confuse the system.

Keep formatting simple. No headers, footers, templates, borders, boxes, etc.  In particular, no tables or columns. What? So how do you make the resume attractive? Consider using and sending two versions of your resume. One will include all the design elements that capture attention and make you stand out to the human reader. The second should be formatted to maximize its ability to be read by ATS. You can clearly label this version with a name that indicates it is “ATS-formatted.”

Spl chk.  ATS do not recognized misspelled words.

Consistency counts. Use the same format and design for presenting like elements in your resume, such as dates, company names, job titles, section headings, etc.

Remember the details. Keep section headings simple and traditional. For example, “Professional Experience” is better as a header than “Chronology” as the ATS is programmed to understand the first and not necessarily the second. Also create separate sections for each element rather than combining them. For example, “Education,” “Awards,” “Memberships” are better as headers than “Education and Other Credentials.”

File format matters. Don’t send your resume as a PDF file if you expect it to be read by an ATS. It won’t read it accurately. Instead, send it as a simply formatted Word document, or better yet, a plain ASCII .txt document.

When dealing with an ATS, remember:  It’s about style and substance.

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The ULTIMATE Collection of Resume Examples That Show You Exactly HOW TO...
Maximize Your Strengths & Transform Even Your Toughest Challenges Into a JOB-WINNING Resume

“Finally! A comprehensive e-manual of professionally written sample resumes that show you step-by-step (using 101 REAL before-and-after examples) exactly how to create your own job-winning resume – or transform one that isn’t working for you!”

101 REAL examples, tips, strategies, and valuable professional trade secrets you can download and use right NOW!

About the author: Michelle Dumas is a multiply-certified, national-award-winning professional resume writer and career marketing expert widely recognized as pioneering thought-leader and trend-setter in the employment services industry. With 20 years of experience, Michelle has helped 10,000+ job seekers in all 50 U.S. states and across the world land rewarding jobs and build fulfilling careers.

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