How to Beat Applicant Tracking Systems: 10 Tips for Success

The computer says “yes”.

Reviewed by Electra Michaelidou

How to Beat Applicant Tracking Systems

Let’s take a look at a typical application process in 2023:

  1. You write a résumé that effectively markets your top skills and achievements, and that’s tailored to a specific job.
  2. You submit it as part of your job application.
  3. It gets reviewed by a hiring manager who will, hopefully, invite you to an interview.

But, sometimes, hiring managers aren’t the first to review applicants’ résumés.

In fact, something else often calls first dibs: robots. Yes, robots. Or, rather, applicant tracking systems.


In this guide, you’ll learn all about applicant tracking systems — including what they are, how they work and, most importantly, how to beat them.

What is an applicant tracking system?

An applicant tracking system, or ATS for short, is a software program that more and more employers are increasingly incorporating into their recruitment efforts, which allows them to automate time-consuming administrative hiring tasks.

Essentially, an ATS is designed to help HR and recruiting teams organize job applications and quickly identify potential hires. It does this by implementing artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies to collect hundreds (sometimes thousands) of résumés for a specific job position, and automatically analyze each résumé to assess the applicant’s fitness for the advertised job.

How exactly does an ATS work?

It all begins with recruiters inputting specific parameters for a particular position into an ATS program, such as job title, location, desired or necessary skills, certification and educational requirements, and required work experience.

Once you submit your application for the position, it gets directly fed into the ATS, which automatically scans your résumé to determine whether you’re a good fit based on those parameters.

Then, if your résumé meets the basic criteria, it gets moved on to the next stage in the hiring process, where it’s reviewed by a hiring manager. If it doesn’t meet those criteria, or it’s unscannable (because of poor design and formatting, for example), it gets immediately discarded — without ever being seen by human eyes.

How can I tell if a company is using an ATS?

Well, you can’t. Not really.

While a joint survey by KellyOCG and Human Capital Media found that 66% of organizations use ATS tools as part of their recruitment efforts, it’s impossible to tell exactly which 66% of employers are using them and which 34% aren’t. It’s not like companies advertise the details of their internal processes and hiring practices in job ads!

If anything, you should just go ahead and assume that the company you’re applying to is among the 66%, and optimize your résumé accordingly. Even if they’re not, it’s always best to be safe than sorry.

After all, if you leave it to chance and submit a résumé that isn’t ATS-compliant, your application could be headed for instant rejection. But if you make the time and effort to craft an ATS-friendly résumé, you only maximize your chances for success.

How to pass the ATS

The trick to beating the robots is to craft a résumé that has been optimized for said robots.

Not sure how to do that? The following tips and best practices will get you off to a good start:

1. Incorporate keywords from the job description

The first step to optimizing your résumé for applicant tracking systems is to carefully review the job description to understand what exactly the employer is looking for.

Take note of important points, like required skills and certifications, and pertinent keywords and phrases that stand out. (You might want to print out the job description and use a highlighter to do this.)

Once you’ve identified all these keywords, it’s time to strategically incorporate them into your résumé.

For example, let’s say that a job ad for an accountant requires extensive knowledge of GAAP. You can implement this in your résumé’s work history section by writing a bullet point along the lines of:


Prepared financial statements in accordance with Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP).

Likewise, if FreshBooks and QuickBooks are listed as required software knowledge, be sure to showcase them in your skills section — provided, of course, that you do have experience using them.

2. Be mindful of acronyms and initialisms

Using acronyms and initialisms (abbreviations formed by the first letter of each word in a phrase or term) can be a great way to save space in your résumé, but it’s best to steer clear of them — especially if they’re uncommon or ambiguous.

Even if they’re common knowledge and widely used within your industry, like “SEO” or (as mentioned above) “GAAP”, an ATS might not recognize them. As such, it’s better to them spell out in full. So, “SEO” would become “Search Engine Optimization”. That said, you can add the acronym in parentheses after the spelled-out form, especially if you believe it will help you better target the job description’s keywords — so: “Search Engine Optimization (SEO)”.

Likewise, avoid abbreviating common words. For example, “approx” should be written as “approximately” — but I would suggest finding a less complicated alternative like “about”, as this helps you save the space you want.

Your best bet is to keep technical jargon to a minimum.

3. Don’t add content in the header or footer areas

All — I repeat: all — of your résumé’s content should be placed inside the document’s main text area. Do not add anything inside the header or footer sections (that is: inside the top and bottom page margins), especially the letterhead containing your contact details.

Why? Because a typical ATS can’t scan those areas. And since it can’t scan them, it might come to the conclusion that your contact details have been omitted, and it will likely discard your application as a result.

You can, however, use the header and footer areas for trivial details like page numbers, but it’s otherwise a good idea to pretend they don’t even exist.

4. Focus on your hard skills

While employers do care very much about your soft skills (such as communication, teamwork and time management), they can’t exactly be quantified or assessed by an ATS.

As such, it’s best to focus on your hard skills and technical knowledge when putting your résumé together. Indeed, these are what an ATS will likely be scanning for, so make sure you strategically showcase them.

But don’t just reserve these for your skills section (where you should limit the number of skills to about 15). Try to incorporate them elsewhere, too, especially within your summary and work experience.

Say that Photoshop knowledge is listed in the job’s requirements; you could mention this in your summary:


Creative and meticulous Graphic Designer with 7 years of experience in Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign.

Still, do mention your soft skills in your résumé, where possible. For example, if you want to highlight your teamwork skills, you could focus your achievements around relevant action verbs such as “collaborate”, “cooperate” and “coproduce” — like so:


Collaborated with cross-functional teams to develop and launch the company’s Nuevo product line.

5. Choose a standard font

When formatting and designing your résumé, it’s important to choose common, easily readable fonts that are extensively available by default in most word-processing programs — like Arial, Calibri, Garamond and Verdana.

Sure, a premium, downloadable font like Aperçu or GT America looks great on paper (print or virtual). But if it’s not supported by the employer’s ATS (which is very likely the case), it will convert letters and other characters into tofu (those little blank rectangles you might have come across while browsing the web).

For example, “Work Experience” might look like “▯▯▯▯ ▯▯▯▯▯▯▯▯▯▯” when scanned by an ATS, ultimately making your résumé unreadable and — you got it — dismissible from the applicant pool.

Alternatively, you can use a tofu-safe font like Google’s very own Noto. It’s free to download, and it supports over 77,000 characters across 1,000 languages and 150 writing systems.

6. Avoid using columns…

Although organizing your résumé’s content across two or three columns might be good for presentation and possibly even help you save space, it’s best to stick to a single column.

This is because ATSs generally “read” from left to right and not all are capable of identifying columns, which means that sentences, paragraphs, bulleted lists and even entire sections become jumbled up when scanned.

Consider the following résumé example, which uses two columns — one for education and another for work history:


BA in Digital Marketing
CareerAddict University | 2022

  • Prominent coursework: Digital Content Creation, Intro to Digital Marketing, Marketing Principles and Practice
  • Honors: Member, Zeta Beta Zeta
  • CareerAddict Achievement Scholarship


Marketing Assistant
Company ABC | Sep 2021 – Present

  • Tracked, collated and maintained inventory of marketing materials.
  • Generated leads and helped close three sales opportunities.
  • Managed company’s Facebook account.

Now, let’s look at how most ATSs will read it:



BA in Digital Marketing

Marketing Assistant

CareerAddict University | 2022

Company ABC | Sep 2021 – Present

Prominent coursework: Digital Content Creation, Intro to Digital Marketing, Marketing Principles and Practice

Tracked, collated and maintained inventory of marketing materials.

Honors: Member, Zeta Beta Zeta

Generated leads and helped close three sales opportunities.

CareerAddict Achievement Scholarship

Managed company’s Facebook account.

Here, the résumé has lost its flow, and the information doesn’t make sense anymore: two sections have become one.

7. …And tables

As with columns, ATSs can’t “read” tables properly — especially if they comprise multiple columns. The exact same issue happens: the ATS scans the table from left to right, and then spits out jumbled information from all of its columns.

For this reason, it’s best to avoid tables altogether. And whatever you do, never — I beg you: never — use complex tables to layout your entire résumé or large sections of your résumé.

That said, there are certain cases where you can safely get away with using a table or two, so long as you do so carefully and strategically.

For example, a table might come in handy for your skills section, particularly if you’re struggling for space in your résumé. In this case, you could create a table with 2–3 columns, and individually list an equal number of skills across (ideally) a single row, like this:

  • Git
  • User experience
  • User interface
  • Responsive design
  • Wireframing
  • APIs
  • Jest
  • Enzyme
  • DNS management
  • Testing and debugging
  • Front-end frameworks
  • Document object model

As the specific order of skills isn’t particularly important, it won’t really matter if the ATS scans the table by row, from left to right, or by column, from top to bottom. As long as the necessary information is there, the ATS will still be able to analyze it.

If you do decide to use a table like this, though, it’s a good idea to set its border color to white so that it blends into the document’s background — it just looks better to the hiring manager who will later (hopefully) review your résumé.

8. Steer clear of images

Applicant tracking systems generally ignore images that have been incorporated into résumés. And since the ATS will ignore them, it’s best to leave them off your résumé completely — and instead put the newly freed space to better use: highlighting your achievements and your unique selling proposition.

Now, when I say “images”, I mean all types of images: photos, bar charts, graphs, and other design elements like icons and shapes. (This might mean reconsidering creating an infographic résumé or, at the very least, submitting an accompanying “traditional” version in your job application.)

For professional headshots, in particular, you can include them — but only if absolutely necessary (such as if you’re in a creative profession or you’re applying for a job in a country where résumé photos are standard practice). In this case, limit the size to 2 x 2 inches and place it in the top-right corner of your résumé. It’s also a good idea to add concise, descriptive alt text to your photo, like “John Smith professional headshot”.

9. Use the right file type

As a PDF “locks” a document’s text and formatting in place, it essentially becomes an image that most ATSs can’t scan. Of course, some programs are so sophisticated that they can “read” text-based images, but it’s best to shy away from PDFs, as — again — you don’t know which specific program the employer is using or, indeed, the program’s capabilities.

Instead, prefer submitting your résumé as a Word document, which is the most universally accepted file format for job applications (and about everything else).

The only time you should ever send your résumé as a PDF is when the job description specifically requests you to do so. In this case, it’s perfectly safe to assume that the company’s ATS is capable of reading it without issue.

10. Customize the file name

Generic file names (think “Resume(1).docx”) or those that contain special characters like asterisks may result in ATS parsing errors. They also hint to potential employers, should your résumé eventually get to them, that you couldn’t be bothered to spend an extra 3 seconds on perfecting your application — so, why should they bother with you?

An effective file name should be concise and include your name, your current or target job title, and optionally the word “Résumé” or “CV” — for example: “John Smith — CFO — Résumé.docx”. Alternatively, you can place a hyphen between each word, like so: “John-Smith-CFO-Résumé.docx”. (As an aside, you don’t have to spell the word “résumé” with the diacritical marks; “resume” is just as good.)


Avoid adding dates in the file name (for example: “John-Smith-CFO-2023.docx”), as this inadvertently implies that you’re submitting a generic résumé that hasn’t been tailored to the hiring manager’s company and the job you’re applying for.

Another (little-known) trick, meanwhile, is to customize your document’s metadata with relevant keywords. But don’t go overboard — and definitely don’t copy and paste the job description in here.

ATS-friendly résumé template

Don’t have the time (or patience) to optimize your résumé’s design and layout for applicant tracking systems? We’ve got you covered!

Our simple yet eye-catching ATS-Friendly Résumé Template will help you effectively market your top skills and achievements to potential employers — and get your application past the robots.

ATS-Friendly Resume Template

What’s included:

  • 1- and 2-page résumé templates in MS Word format (A4 and US letter sizes)
  • Cover letter template in MS Word format (A4 and US letter sizes)
  • Accompanying font files with installation instructions
  • Practical tips and suggestions to help you craft your application

Get the template now

As an example, we’ve put together the following résumé for a personal trainer to help you get an idea on how to go about the résumé-writing process:

John Smith
Personal Trainer

Phone: (123) 45678
Location: New York, NY
Email: jsmith @example .com


Certified Personal Trainer with 3+ years of experience in providing effective one-on-one and group training programs. Adept at creating weight loss and nutrition plans according to individual client needs.


Personal Trainer
Company ABC | September 2019–Present

  • Design personalized workout systems for 45 individual clients based on performance ability.
  • Train clients on a variety of cardiovascular exercises, strength training and stretching techniques.
  • Increased membership enrollment by 39% using innovative sales and promotional techniques.


BS in Kinesiology
University of Personal Trainers


  • Fitness Instruction
  • Client Goal-Setting and Motivation
  • Exercise Program Design
  • Nutrition Principles
  • Coaching
  • Human Anatomy
  • Strength and Conditioning
  • Pilates and Bootcamp-Style Workouts
  • Weight Management
  • First Aid/CPR

How to check if your résumé is ATS-friendly

Before you jump the gun and hit the “Apply” button, it’s a good idea to first test your résumé to make sure it really is ATS-friendly. And there are several ways you can do this, including:

1. Save a copy of your résumé as a TXT file

This will remove your résumé’s formatting and convert everything to basic text, which allows you to see how exactly an ATS will “read” your résumé.

Review everything to make sure the flow and overall structure and presentation of your document remains intact, and that important information (such as job titles, dates, contact details and bullet points) hasn’t been jumbled up or, worse, accidentally deleted.

If you locate any issues, go back to the original Word file and make the necessary fixes — and repeat.

2. Use a free online ATS checker

If you’re worried you might miss something if you check your résumé for ATS compliance on your own, consider using a free online ATS checker like Enhancv, Jobscan or Resume Worded.

All you have to do is upload your résumé, and you’ll instantly receive feedback on your résumé’s impact, searchability, keywords and overall ATS compliance.

Do practice caution when using free ATS checkers, though. While they’re fast and easy to use, they often restrict résumé scans to once a month based on your IP address, offer vague suggestions, and leave out the fact that you need to upgrade if you want a more comprehensive picture of your résumé.

3. Get an expert to review it

Another option is to get your résumé reviewed by an expert. Unlike ATS checkers, which are completely automated, a professional résumé review is done by an actual human being who knows the ins and outs of résumé writing best practices. You will, however, typically need to pay for a review, but it’s worth the investment.

An experienced and industry-qualified résumé writer will manually check your résumé’s content, language, formatting, keywords and everything else in between, and tell you what you’re doing right and what needs improving — something an ATS checker, try as it might, can’t do.

At CareerAddict (spoiler: shameless self-promotion here), our professional writers will critique your résumé based on how it matches up to your target job, and provide you with personalized, actionable feedback to make your résumé the best it can be.


Still have questions about applicant tracking systems? We’ve got the answers!

What is an ATS résumé?

An ATS résumé is, quite simply, a résumé that has been optimized for applicant tracking systems. This includes following best practices in terms of design and formatting, as well as tailoring the résumé to the target job by incorporating important keywords.

Should I optimize my résumé for ATS?

Yes, definitely! Although you can never really know for sure if the company that you’re applying to actually uses an ATS in its recruitment efforts, you should always optimize your résumé accordingly.

Is a two-page résumé okay for ATS?

Sure! Résumé length isn’t a major factor for an ATS, but you should aim to keep your résumé to one page. That said, if you need two or more pages, that’s okay — as long as the content is directly pertinent and relevant to the position you’re targeting.

Are all ATSs built the same?

No. Although they all largely use the same principles, some are more algorithmically and practically advanced than others. For example, one ATS might be able to “read” columns as intended, but another might not. As such, it’s always best to err on the side of caution and focus on optimizing your résumé for less sophisticated programs.

How difficult is it to get past ATSs?

Quite difficult. In fact, studies have shown that about 75% of résumés are rejected by ATSs and are never seen by human eyes (although some experts dispute this claim). Still, as long as your résumé complies with ATS standards and you have the necessary skills and experience for the job, you could be among the 25% of applicants that make it past the ATS.

Is it really true that hiring managers don’t read ATS-rejected résumés?

When a résumé is rejected by an ATS, it doesn’t disappear into thin air. It remains in the system, allowing hiring managers to review it if they want to. However, most hiring managers tend to trust the ATS’s sophisticated algorithms and programming when discarding what it deems an unsuitable application, so they only review those that have been okayed. After all, an ATS’s purpose is to help employers save time, so why double the work?

Key takeaways

When writing your résumé, you’re not just writing it for human recruiters. You’re also writing it for robots — something that many jobseekers aren’t even aware of — which act as the gatekeepers between your application and the hiring manager’s desk.

As such, it’s imperative that you optimize your résumé with the tips we explored above if you want a fighting chance of landing that job you’ve got your eye on.

To sum up, here’s everything we learned about applicant tracking systems in this article:

  • An ATS is designed to parse résumés based on preset criteria, and rejects those that don’t tick the right boxes.
  • Some 66% of companies use an ATS in their recruitment efforts.
  • As it’s impossible to know which companies use an ATS, you should always optimize your résumé accordingly, regardless.
  • There are many ways you can achieve this, including using keywords from the job description; avoiding columns, tables and graphics; and using an appropriate file format.

Got a question about applicant tracking systems? Drop us a comment below.

Originally published on March 25, 2019.