Beating The Applicant Tracking System – Your Formatting Is Crucial


Last week I shared tips on using the proper keywords on your resume to get through the Applicant Tracking System. Today, I will discuss proper resume formatting, to avoid the dreaded “Resume Black Hole”!

Applicant Tracking Systems are actually very simple systems. They read the information on your resume as data, categorize it and use it to populate the hiring company’s candidate database. It then rates how qualified each candidate is by matching their resume with the keywords from the job posting. Equally as important as keywords is the formatting you use for your resume. If your formatting is not compatible with the Applicant Tracking System, it literally cannot read the information on your resume!

You can be the most qualified person for the job, but if the automated recruiting software cannot read your resume, your resume is not flagged for review. No human being will ever read it. And if the hiring manager never sees your resume, you would lose out on the opportunity.

Here are some specifics on ATS-friendly formatting.  

  • Be careful of using resume templates, as many contain incompatible formatting. To be safe, if you see a template you really like, recreate its layout in a new document.  
  • Be sure to use standard fonts such as Arial (which is my favorite), Times New Roman, Verdana, or Calibri.  
  • Do not use headers and footers — most ATSes can only read the information within the body of the document. If it can read the contents of the header or footer, it frequently dumps this information somewhere in the middle of your resume, which will not make any sense.
  • Many of the design elements that we use to make resumes look visually appealing are not compatible with Applicant Tracking Systems.  Do not use:   symbols or special characters,  tables,  multiple columns,  page borders,  graphics, non-standard bullets  or text boxes.
  • Do not use advanced font formatting such as different character spacing or all small capitals.

Applicant Tracking Systems are programmed to recognize the standard resume sections. Use standard section headings like PROFESSIONAL EXPERIENCE and EDUCATION do not combine multiple sections. For example, do not combine your Training or Certification with Education.

If the ATS does not know how to categorize your data, it will be lost.

You can use fancy formatting and design elements for the hard copy resume you bring with you to a job interview, but use a resume with clean, simple formatting for online applications and resumes you send via email.

And most importantly of all, save your documents in the generic Microsoft Word .doc format. This is the standard that most Applicant Tracking Systems can read. Some systems out there cannot handle (Microsoft Word 2010) .docx formatting.

Only upload a PDF if the system specifically states that it can handle PDFs. There are many different PDF-makers out there, and they operate differently. A PDF is literally a “picture” of your document. If the Applicant Tracking System does not have the Optical Character Recognition capability, it cannot read your resume. Your resume might as well be blank, and you just wasted your time applying for that job.

Another thing to keep in mind — as you know Macs and PCs still do not speak well to each other. So, if you have an Apple MacBook and an iPad, it is safest to create your resume in a Windows-based version of Microsoft Word, and save it in the .doc format.


While you will probably never love them, hopefully you will now be able to navigate through Applicant Tracking Systems a little easier and improve your job search results.

Although there are no guarantees, optimizing your resume and cover letter should increase your chances of getting through whichever Applicant Tracking System the employer uses, so that your resume will actually be reviewed by a human being.

Not sure if your resume is Applicant Tracking System-compatible? Request a resume critique and we’ll let you know. Best of luck in your job search!

Trish Thomas founded The Resume Resource in 2009 to help people develop the tools, strategies and confidence to build satisfying careers. As a Career Coach and Resume Writer, she helps her clients articulate their unique value to stand out from the competition, and guides  them through the job search process to make it less overwhelming and more successful.

2 thoughts on “Beating The Applicant Tracking System – Your Formatting Is Crucial

  1. Michael Wilkinson

    PDF documents may contain images, but are usually well structured with extractable text. If a PDF document is generated from either Microsoft Word or Libre Office it will be well formed, readable by up to date tools, editable, with the text parse-able by current generation tools. When interviewing job candidates, if they send me a document that is in legacy Word 2000 format, i.e. with a .doc extension I will count that against them. The format has a number of security weaknesses, and as it has to be converted before use by modern versions of Word will be subject to different rendering. Working is software and software security I expect candidates to produce documents that are compliant to current standards.


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