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How to Optimize Your Resume for Applying Online

Woman revising her resume before submitting it online.
Roman Samborskyi/Shutterstock

When you apply for a job, you might imagine your resume landing on the desk (or in the inbox) of a hiring manager. They’ll read through your resume carefully, find what they’re looking for, and call you for an interview.

However, the days of a hiring manager being the first to read—or even skim—your resume are largely over. Today, many companies use software to speed up the hiring process. While this is great news for overworked recruiters, it adds a new layer of difficulty for job searchers.

Luckily, there are ways to make a resume that will get through the software scan and into the hands of a real person. Use these tips to strategically update your resume for an online application—you never know when a resume bot will be on the other side.

What Is an ATS?

ATS stands for applicant tracking system, which is the official name for resume scanning software. An ATS can scan massive amounts of resumes in seconds. Each resume gets scored according to how relevant it is for the job, and only the top ones make it through this automated filter. Then, the hiring manager makes their interview decisions from those top resumes.

Smart Ways to Optimize Your Resume

This robotic system can make the job search seem hopeless. But with the right strategies, you can ensure your resume makes it through the ATS scan. Make these changes before you submit your resume, and you’ll find yourself getting more callbacks.

Add Keywords

Using strategic keywords and phrases to impress human hiring managers is smart. But keywords are also one of the main things the ATS uses to filter resumes.

Those keywords tend to be easy to find—they’re right there in the job description. They’ll often involve soft skills (like “communication”) and hard skills (like “Photoshop experience”). Never lie on your resume, but include as many relevant keywords as you can. Don’t forget to include the actual job title somewhere, such as in your Summary, too.

However, avoid “keyword stuffing.” The keywords should look natural and contextual, not overdone and robotic. Remember that your ultimate goal is to have a real person read your resume, and it needs to look good to them, too.

Take Care with Formatting and File Type

Formatting your resume properly is always important, but you’ll need a slightly different formatting approach for an ATS.

First, pay attention to the file type. If no preferred file type is specified in the description, use a Word or plain-text file. These file types play nicer with an ATS than PDFs do, even though PDFs are otherwise great. Word documents allow for lots of formatting flexibility while still looking good to both ATS and human recruiters.

When it comes to formatting for an ATS, keep it simple. Logos, colors, charts, and other non-traditional elements work well on some resumes, but don’t fare well in an ATS scan. Stick to plain black-and-white text, and avoid non-standard fonts. You should also avoid putting anything important in the header or footer—an ATS usually misses information in those places.

Try to keep your section headers predictable. Resume software is looking for the usual sections, like Education, Skills, Experience, and so on. Unusual sections, like Professional Affiliations, might trigger the ATS to reject your resume.

Check the Details

Spelling and grammar errors can also cause an ATS to reject your resume. While it’s always important to check your resume for these errors anyway, it’s extra important when you’re applying online. Something as small as a misspelled job title can get your resume automatically tossed.

Resume scanning software might sound futuristic and weird, but it’s not really all that different from the way resumes have always been handled. In the past, a busy hiring manager would quickly scan your resume for keywords, organization, and errors. In just a few seconds, they’d decide whether to keep it or toss it. That same process simply happens much faster now with software. Follow these tips, and you’ll have a resume that stands out to both the ATS and the real person who reads it next.

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a freelance and creative writer from the Pacific Northwest, and an MFA student at the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop. She specializes in lifestyle writing and creative nonfiction. Read Full Bio »
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