5 Ways to Optimize Your Resume to Beat Applicant Tracking Software

John Krautzel
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Before human eyes ever view your qualifications for a job, a computerized applicant tracking system examines your resume. The software analyzes the content of your document, compares it to the resumes submitted by other candidates and ranks you in a list up against other potential employees. Applicant trackers make hiring more efficient for large corporations, and they give job seekers the opportunity to optimize their resumes so these programs move the best candidates to the top of the heap.

Relevant Keywords in Context

Determine the right keywords to use in your resume, then keep these keywords in the right context. Do not sprinkle keywords into the document at random. Keywords must be next to the proper words and in correct order as if you read the resume yourself.

Job descriptions are the perfect place to find the right keywords. Look at the most important qualifications, and include these words in the right place within your resume. If a hiring manager needs someone who is proficient in Microsoft Office, can create regular press releases and lead a team of 10 people, those keywords should be somewhere within your resume.

Bullet Points in a Career Summary

Create four bullet points of your most important accomplishments, qualifications and skills at the top of your resume. Label this section "Career Summary" or "Personal Brand" instead of "Objective." These bullet points create a context for several keywords that an applicant-tracking system picks up as it scans the resume.

Cover Letters Add Keywords

Add more keywords when you write a relevant cover letter, especially when an application requires it. Sprinkle in some of the most important keywords with the cover letter along with your personal story as to why you are the perfect candidate for the job. The cover letter should introduce your resume rather than repeat any information in it.


Examine your resume very carefully, and correct any typos. Give the document to someone else to read, and make sure you spell every word properly. When computer software picks up a misspelled word, the program may reject your resume immediately simply because it does not recognize a word on your document.

Know Where to Put Things

Applicant trackers know where certain keywords should be in a resume. This software has the ability to find the "Education" section to find out what kind of degree you have. In the "Skills" section, the ATS could find out your proficiency in Java, written communication, lathe operation and typing speed. Put the keywords in the right places so the applicant tracker realizes the relevancy of the keywords.

In your "Work Experience" section, put your previous employers first before the dates you worked for them. Applicant trackers may reject your resume for being in a wrong format. Start with the employer name followed by the date, position held and job description.

If you create a normal resume with the right keywords, you could be successful at getting past an applicant-tracking system. Keep in mind that these systems normally come into play with large and mid-size companies. Small businesses may not use this type of software, and sometimes, a human touch is better than optimizing for a computerized system.

Photo Courtesy of Artur84 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net


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  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    @Shawn thanks for your comment. Unfortunately it looks like the ATS is here to stay - at least for the time being. So, as we are job hunting, we have to make the best of it. It does seem like it's hit or miss. As long as you are trying to use appropriate keywords throughout your resume, you have a better chance of a hit. All the best.

  • Shawn W.
    Shawn W.

    I cannot express enough how much I hate this hit or miss software, because that's what it feels like!

  • Nikki Hughes
    Nikki Hughes

    I have to be a little mean to @Rhona B because she is a "consumate proofreader and"-what was that? An "and and spellcheck"? I only point that out because I feel the same way about myself and you just showed me not to get so full of myself and maybe even have someone else review my work! I also have a comment to @Lynn & @Cheri: I have this prob as well. To highlight the virtually nonexistent accomplishments I probably need....I look inside myself. For example; I may not get noticed or applauded for anything but I have went above and beyond for customers many times. Once, it wasn't even a good outcome so I wrote: "I went above and beyond for a customer, calling and Internet searching for the rare item he was looking for. Although I was unable to find it within the budget he had requested, this customer told me that not only had I gained a 'lifelong customer for the company', but that he would 'refer others' to us for a gain of future business. And I will make sure that the old adage 'an unhappy customer/client will tell 10+people of their bad experience, but a happy customer/client will only tell 2-3' works to your benefit....3 satisfied customers at a time!"

  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    @Lynn thanks for your comment. Can you quantify how many cases you assisted on in say a month? Is there an average caseload that the company identifies for each attorney? Maybe you assisted the attorney in going over and above that. How about tracking hours and expenses with 100% accuracy? Or finding errors that saved so much money for the firm? Or due to your skills and knowledge you were able to complete the necessary paperwork and get a case on the court docket in a few days instead of a few weeks? Just thinking off the top of my head but maybe something along these lines. These could be accomplishments that can be quantified. What do you think?

  • Lynn D.
    Lynn D.

    Thanks for the response, Nancy, but it's not helpful to my situation. I have more than 20 years' experience as a legal secretary/assistant/paralegal, and assigning metrics to these kinds of positions -- even for performance review purposes -- is all but impossible. The goal: keep the attorneys happy, which essentially means being quick and accurate and being pleasant and helpful to clients, outside counsel, judicial staff, etc). There are no points given for going above and beyond (which isn't easy anyway) and special projects are few and far between (if ever). Bottom line: it's not quantifiable in any way I've been able to identify.

  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    @Kimberly thanks for your comment. Remember to customize your resume for each position. The same is true of your cover letter. You need to cull the keywords from the job posting and include them in your resume and cover letters in order to get passed the ATS. Best of luck.

  • Kimberly Yarborough
    Kimberly Yarborough

    I love the wealth of information. We can always and should take time to refresh our resume when looking for a job or even reapplying as well. This is really helpful. Thanks I try to keep up with all possible niches to help me help others gain long term employment that fits their skill level and abilities.

  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    Thanks for the comments and questions. @Lynn and @Cheri everyone can find some accomplishment no matter how small. Working in support positions means that you talk to people and help them out - right? So how many people do you talk with in an hour or in a day? Quantify that. What are the results? Do you get call backs or are you able to solve their issues during the first call? Accomplishment!!! Your accomplishments don't have to be ones where you maybe got a promotion or a bonus or where it was made known publicly. These accomplishments could simply be that you averaged 10 calls per hour on a continual basis. I hope that helps.

  • Lynn D.
    Lynn D.

    I echo Cheri's question. My career has been in support positions, where there is little opportunity for personal accomplishments, even "merely" quantifiable ones. In my 20+ years in my field, I have been able to identify only two accomplishments, one of which was peripheral to my actual job. What do you advise?

  • Cheri E.
    Cheri E.

    highlighting accomplishments seems to be key; what if I don't have any?

  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    @Rhona your resume should not be rejected for your name even though the spelling is different. The software might reject it for using unknown acronyms but usually it's rejected because it doesn't contain the keywords that the ATS is looking for. Every job posting will have keywords in it that are appropriate for the industry and position. What I do to find those is I compare several like positions and see what words were used in most of them. That gives me a good basis to modify my resume. Just take a look at the qualifications they are requesting and then modify your resume to include those. Same is true of your cover letter. The ATS is looking for certain keywords there, too. Hope that helps.

  • Tina P.
    Tina P.

    Very informative! Appreciate the heads-up for free.

  • Rhona B.
    Rhona B.

    So software will automatically reject resumes with a word they don't recognize....does this apply to names? I notice spellcheck and autocorrect are always putting a red line under my name. It has even happened a few times with company names on my resume. Besides that, I'm a consummate proofreader and and a personal spellcheck.

  • chimezie e.
    chimezie e.



    very informative; who knew?

  • Jannese L.
    Jannese L.

    Very informative message about how to present a better resume. Thanks for the heads up.


    Thank you for the advice

  • Olga g.
    Olga g.

    Thank you a lot.

  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    @William so very true. Just a straightforward resume with all of the sections that are applicable to you and your position along with bullet points is the best way to go. Don't try to get fancy or cute. I have found that, if I compare two or more of the same type position, the keywords are more visible because they will typically be in both. So yes, use some of those keywords in your resume where they truly fit in with the context. @Hema don't try to "stuff" your resume and cover letter with keywords because it will get rejected. The ATS is set up to discard resumes that have excessive keywords. Just some common sense here. Use the keywords from the job posting that FIT into your resume and cover letter. Never try to force those keywords in because it's quite obvious not only to the ATS but also to a human who may read your information.

  • William Browning
    William Browning

    I find that the easiest thing to do for formatting is to just write a normal resume. Include all the relevant sections, a career summary, bullet points and the right mount of white space on the page and you've got the format down. After that, simply mine the job description for the right keywords. Don't forget to scan your resume to see how it stacks up against computer software.

  • Hema Zahid
    Hema Zahid

    Is there a point where the ATS can detect that there are too many keywords in a resume? It’s tempting to include as many keywords as possible, especially if they are relevant. I know too many keywords might put off a human hiring manager, but will it put off the ATS as well?

  • Katharine M.
    Katharine M.

    Having another person proofread your resume is so important: when you proofread it yourself, you may not notice an error because your mind reads what you expect to see on the paper.

  • Mia Greenwood
    Mia Greenwood

    This is a good reminder of why it is so important to tailor the resume and cover letter to a specific job, rather than send a generic application. I make sure to use the wording in the job description, but in a way that flows naturally so it doesn't look like I'm just repeating a bunch of keywords.

  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    Thanks for the comments. @Kellen it probably depends upon how the company has the ATS set up. Personally, if you can do it, send all of your info in a .pdf unless the job posting indicates that they only want a certain file. Many job seekers use infographics and other "eye catching" means to get a hiring manager's attention. Trying to send those in a file other than a .pdf can cause the information to be garbled and thus thrown out. I prefer .pdf myself. @Jacob keywords are here to stay. It may seem artificial but, without those keywords, it won't get passed the gatekeeper. We are not saying to just stuff keywords into your resume and cover letter without any forethought as to how it will read. Strategically placed keywords are the way to go.

  • Jacob T.
    Jacob T.

    While the prevalence of ATS systems is undeniable, is it really advisable to sacrifice the clarity and structure of your resume and cover letter to squeeze in more keywords? It seems like that kind of artificial sentence structure and forced information spewing would really cause a hiring manager to think twice about going to the next step.

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