ATS explained

Are ATS friendly resumes important?

The short answer is VERY – in fact, probably the most important aspect of your resume is the actual template that you use.  The statistics of organisations and recruiters using an Applicant Tracking System (ATS) to process submitted resumes for advertised positions is now quite staggering – with reported numbers of 75% to 95% of businesses now using HR management software which incorporate the ATS functionality in addition to payroll and employee management.

What’s more, as dozens of new ATS are being introduced, it is not just large organisations using ATS – Small to Medium Businesses (SMBs) are quickly following suit.  Why? It comes down to time equals money.  Even a small to medium business with less than 50 employees needs to expend a considerable amount of time in processing the often-hundreds of applications they receive for every advertised position they offer.  Without ATS, they would have to manually read each of these applications (meaning most will probably be discarded after the first page), which can take weeks – whereas, an ATS can do this process automatically simply by resume parsing (reading) and using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) to extract keywords that have been configured into the ATS algorithms by HR Managers for each advertised position.

Do I need to know this?

Well, yes – if you are submitting your resume for an advertised position today, it’s probably going to go through an ATS before human intervention and, if it is not ATS compliant (in structure, content and layout), then chances are it will never be read by a human despite how much your knowledge, skills and experience match up to the advertised position.  Statistics show that on average, up to 70% of resumes received for every advertised position are rejected by the ATS.

You have probably scratched your head on a number of occasions wondering why you didn’t get an interview for a position you applied for – in most cases, it’s because your resume simply could not be read by the ATS and/or it did not contain the appropriate keywords for the advertised position.

What is an ATS friendly resume?

Quite simply, it’s a document that can be easily read/parsed by the ATS – i.e. a clean, simple, uncomplicated template that contains relevant headings, data and keywords that align to the ATS algorithms for specific advertised positions.  How the algorithms are set up for that position will determine the success of your resume passing through the ATS and ultimately being read by a ‘real’ person.  An ATS friendly template should include:

  • A suitable font type and a suitable font size – i.e. Sans Serif (Calibri, Arial etc) rather than Serif fonts (Times New Roman or Cambria) and an ideal font size for body text (depending on the font choice) of 10.5pt to 11pt with Section Headings two points larger than the body text;
  • Appropriate margins – not too narrow and not too wide – generally, a left and right margin of around 2 cm contains data nicely and does not ‘confuse’ the ATS;
  • Appropriate use of ‘white space’ – don’t cram the information so close that the ATS is confused by where a section starts and ends and, on the other hand, don’t overuse white space, i.e. multiple lines and excessive gaps between sections and data;
  • Avoid Tables and Text Boxes – at this time, most ATS software generally has difficulty reading/interpreting data/content placed in tables and text boxes so avoid these;
  • Correct sequencing of data – generally the ATS will firstly look for your name and contact information which should always include your full address (resumes can be discarded without this) and the ATS will usually be programmed to look for section headings such as: Overview/Professional Overview | Education/Qualifications/Professional Development/Courses/Training | Skills/Skills Overview/Skills Summary/Areas of Expertise | Experience/Professional Experience/Related Experience | Role | Responsibilities/Accountabilities/Core Activities | Achievements/Key Achievements/Awards | Referees/References. Depending on the advertised position, these may also include: Publications | Presentations | Research etc. 

What an ATS doesn’t want or need to know is that you play tennis or the guitar in your spare time, that you volunteer as a lifeguard on the weekends, and what your career objective is.  Quite simply, it is attempting to identify your ‘value proposition’, i.e. what you can bring to the position and the hiring organisation by firstly, interpreting your content (if it can); and secondly, matching your content with the keywords set up in the ATS algorithms for the advertised position.

How do I know which keywords the ATS will be looking for?

The first step is to really read the advertisement and, if available, the position description, particularly the specific requirements for the role and any associated selection criteria.

Depending on the advertised role (say, for example, a contact centre customer service role), there will generally be a number of ‘common’ keywords in all ATS algorithms such as: customer service | frontline customer service | customer facing | customer focus | complaint resolution | customer solutions | etc.  There will also be a number of ‘job specific’ keywords which could include: call centre | database management | CRM | inbound customer service | outbound customer service | account management | portfolio management | sales development | etc and even keywords such as: passion | enthusiastic | energetic | exceptional | etc.

So the rule of thumb is to carefully check the specifics of the position advertisement and/or position description and/or selection criteria and redress (tweak) your resume and application cover letter to incorporate these.  Keep in mind that this does not mean a total re-write of your resume every time you apply for an advertised position as, in most instances, you will be applying for ‘like’ roles – if not, then consider another version of your resume when you are applying for totally different roles in different industry sectors.

Chronological, Functional or Hybrid templates - which one?

Whilst the majority of resumes are in a chronological format where the data is listed in a chronological, descending order (i.e. most recent job first), this is not to say that in some instances a functional or hybrid or a combination of all three formats is more appropriate than a strictly chronological format.  The functional format, for example, emphasises the key aspects of the ‘role’ (rather than a number of dot-points breaking down each ‘responsibility’) and also the ‘achievements’ associated with each role.  The hybrid format is where your ‘skills’ and ‘career achievements/highlights’ are the first feature of your resume.

Given that an ATS will probably ‘read/parse’ your resume before human intervention, the most appropriate format, we believe, is a combination of all three (i.e. Chronological, Functional and Hybrid).  An ATS has no problem with each of these formats and, at the end of the day, your resume must firstly be ‘readable’ by the ATS and, secondly, contain the relevant keywords that align with the ATS algorithms because, if not, it will be discarded despite your knowledge, skills and experience match.

The final word: give thought to how your resume will process through an ATS before submitting any applications for advertised positions.

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