Dear Sam: The thought of applying to a large corporation overwhelms me. If my resume is just tossed into an applicant tracking system and not read by a human, how will I be able to break through the wall? Do you have any advice about writing a resume specifically for an ATS?  — Carla

Dear Carla: I’ll start by explaining applicant tracking systems (ATS) in a bit more detail. An ATS is a type of software that processes job applications and provides an automated way for companies to manage the recruiting and hiring process. An ATS does this by sorting through thousands of resumes to search for keywords, thereby determining which resumes best fit the positions for which they were submitted. An ATS can be used for screening candidates, applicant testing, scheduling interviews, managing the hiring process, checking references, and completing new-hire paperwork. For employers, the integrated nature of the system streamlines the recruiting and application process, therefore saving them time and money.

There is actually not much difference between an ATS and a human recruiter scanning your resume. In both cases, the reviewer is looking for certain criteria (i.e. keywords from the job description) to see if you meet the qualifications for the position. In some cases, human recruiters can actually be stricter, because they are also checking for spelling and grammar errors, formatting choices, gaps in employment, and more. It’s also not just Fortune 500 companies who use tracking systems in the recruitment process – the software programs are becoming increasingly popular amongst small businesses as well.

The trick to ranking highly within an ATS is to closely match your resume to a specific job posting. Both the presence and prevalence of keywords matter. In other words, the system develops a ranking based on how closely a candidate’s resume matches each keyword and phrase and how many of the keywords and phrases it finds on the resume. Most of the keywords recruiters look for can be found in the “Desired Skills” or “Qualifications” sections of job postings.

If you know you must submit your resume through an ATS, it is important to submit it in the proper format. Unfortunately, the time you spent making your resume aesthetically pleasing with tables and graphics will not show up in the software program, and could actually have a negative effect on your ranking if the system cannot interpret your information. Applicant tracking systems contain database fields for information such as a candidate’s name, contact information, work experience, education, employer details, and periods of employment. The systems try to identify this information on a candidate’s resume, but if a resume’s formatting is too complex, it won’t pull this information into the right fields and can sometimes miss the information entirely. In order to avoid having your resume be seen as too complex to interpret, avoid submitting it as a .pdf, don’t include tables or graphics, use standard terms (like “work experience” and “education”), and avoid starting your experience with dates (start it with your employer’s name, followed by your title, followed by the dates you held that title).

To be safe, you could also choose to submit your resume in a plain text version (a bare-bones document with no formatting). To do so, open the document in Word, click on “Save as, ”select “Save as type” as “Plain text”, click “Save,” and when the dialogue box appears, check “allow character substitution” and then click “OK.”

No matter if an employer chooses to use an ATS or a human recruiter as an initial screener, it is important to research the organization and customize your content for the position. Your resume should make it clear (within seconds) why you are a good candidate for that specific job. Best of luck with your search, Carla!