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Job-Seeking? Escape The Black Hole of Applicant Tracking Systems By Christine Andrelczyk, NLU Career Advisor

jobsearchphotoWhen you submit an online job application, do you ever feel like your resume is being sucked into a black hole, never to be seen or heard from again?

It may have something to do with the Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) that many companies use nowadays to scan incoming resumes in order to narrow down the applicant pool. Resumes that successfully make it through the ATS will then move on to the next stage of the hiring process. While ATS is a great tool for employers to use in order bring speed and efficiency to their hiring process, it can also be difficult, confusing, and frustrating for job applicants to navigate.

What many job seekers don’t realize is that there are certain things the ATS can’t read, and other things (like keywords) that it specifically looks for and is disappointed if it doesn’t find. Designing your resume with ATS in mind gives you the best chance of making it through the initial resume-cull and into the interview pool.

Below are some helpful guidelines to keep in mind when writing an ATS-friendly resume:

  1. Format: The most effective formats for resumes are simple, clear, and well-organized. While exotic formats may look visually striking, they can confuse ATS which is sifting through searching for key pieces of information. Similarly, you should steer clear of pre-fabricated resume templates which often rely on special fields like text boxes and tables since the system can’t reliably read the information contained within them. For the same reason, never put any information in the header or footer of the document.
  2. Font: Use a clear, web-safe font. There’s some disagreement about whether serif fonts (like Times New Roman) are safe, but sans serif fonts like Arial, Verdana, and Calibri are known to be safe. Try to avoid underlining words, as that can appear visually confusing and the ATS may be unable to read it properly.
  3. Keywords: Key-word optimizing your resume is critical to ensuring your application makes it through to the interview stage. Keywords are skills, experiences, or trainings that are crucial to the job in question. For example, keywords for a teaching job might include words like instruction, assessment, conference, teaching license, and classroom management. If these terms are included on the job description, then the ATS will sift through your resume specifically searching for them. Applicants with the most keywords have the best odds of getting an invitation to interview. If you’re curious which keywords are common for your industry, you can do some research using O*Net ( or simply skim through some sample job descriptions.

In addition to using keywords, be sure to double-check your resume for typos and grammatical errors. While it’s never good to have errors on your resume, it is especially important with ATS because the system is not going to guess at what you were trying to spell, so make sure everything is spelled correctly.

In summary, a resume with a simple, straightforward design and keyword-optimized content will give you the best shot at pleasing the ATS and landing an interview.