Resume Tip Tuesday: Beat the Bots - How to Outsmart an Applicant Tracking System (ATS)

Posted February 09, 2015

Welcome back to Resume Tip Tuesday! Come to CareerBliss every Tuesday for a brand new resume tip to help you in your job search! Check out the archive for resume tips galore!

Beat an ATS

More so than ever before, employers and recruiters are turning to Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS for short) to help them sort, weed and keep track of the overwhelming number of applications they now receive for every job position advertised. These days, 72% of all companies rely on an ATS, verses 28% who use human-only resume screening.

The downside of this is that a machine will most likely read your resume before it reaches the hands of a human - and in some cases, your resume may never reach a real person at all. A resume may get rejected purely because the ATS can't read it properly, due to formatting errors, confusing wording or simply an incorrect format.

If you've slaved over the perfect wording, design, colors and fonts for your resume, you may find this treatment of your masterpiece a little insulting. Fear not, CareerBliss is here to help you use this new hiring trend to your advantage.

Here's how to....

Beat the Bots

First up, a quick tech lesson on how an ATS system works.

1. Your resume is received - by a machine.

2. Your resume is run through a Parser, which is a program that strips out all formatting and converts your resume to plain, boring text (yes, we know that's depressing).

3. The system processes the bare text and automatically files resume sections it recognizes like your contact details, work history, years of experience and education.

4. When the company Hiring Manager receives word that a new job has become available, he searches for job-specific keywords in the ATS.

5. The ATS automatically picks the most relevant resumes that match the exact keywords entered by the employer.

6. Those resumes that the ATS gives the highest score are retrieved and displayed to the Hiring Manager. He or she does not see any other resumes but these.


As you can see, KEYWORDS are the name of the employment game these days. The best written cover letter, or the resume with the best designed professional template simply don't make the cut any more if you don't include the right keywords in your resume.

What does this mean? Basically, if you want to work for a large employer who will most likely use an ATS, you need to learn about keywords.

We've put together this handy guide to help you out.

All About Keywords & Penguins

In the olden days (read: 5 years ago), hacking keyword-based software such as ATS's with keywords was easy. Say your resume was for a Penguin Keeper job position at the zoo. All you had to do was simply type in the keyword 'penguins' as many times as possible into your resume, and lo and behold, the ATS would rank you highly for penguins, and yours would be the first resume the ATS would recommend.

People would go crazy, typing 'penguin' three times in every sentence, or even typing the word a hundred times in white font on the white page in tiny 3-point text. A human eye wouldn't see it, but a machine could pick it up.

Software designers caught onto that ruse pretty fast, and this technique is now called 'keyword stuffing.' The practice will now no longer get your points with an ATS, and may even get you demoted or blacklisted in the ATS's rankings.

Nowadays, the golden key that gets you high ratings on ATS's (or indeed any other keyword-based software such as Google search engines) is semantic matches - meaning lots of related keywords. We call this the 'Batman-Robin' game. (Sites like Monster Jobs use this technique to find the best matches for their jobs - you can test-drive this feature here to see exactly how it works.)

The Batman-Robin Game

Going back to penguins, semantic matches for penguins would include words such as: black, white, flippers, beak, eggs, snow, Antarctica, fish, Emperor, King. So for a real-life job such as a Digital Magazine Editor position, an ATS loves to see words related to magazine editing sprinkled throughout your resume, such as: editing, editorial, edit, proofreading, writing, copy writing, spelling, content, print layout, and so on.

The ATS then 'knows' that you have real experience in the field of magazine editing.


But wait! There's more. It's not enough to use the right keywords. You also have to use them in the right way.

CareerBliss talked to Brooke Dixon, co-founder and CEO of, about using keywords wisely to ensure you beat any ATS.

“Let’s say you’re looking for a job in Sales,” says Dixon. “You input words in your resume or online job profile such as “market trends” or “partner relationships,” believing that these words would sync with an ATS. But context is key. Without the correct context, an ATS may “read” your work experience as someone who has a background in marketing. Since there are a lot of crossover in these fields, keywords aren't as black and white as you may believe.”

Lesson learned: use related words sparingly, in context.

ATS Tips and Tricks

To further optimize your resume for an ATS, run through these tips and apply each one to your resume.

1. Never copy-paste your resume in or out of Microsoft Word. The reason? WORD embeds all kind of invisible formatting code into your text, which carries over when you paste it. YOU can't see it, but the ATS can, and it may well render your resume unreadable to the ATS. Strip any 'invisible' formatting by simply copy-pasting all your text into Notepad. Then re-select it, copy it, and paste it back into your Resume document.

2) As the ATS attempts to work out your total years of experience for each skill, it will look for each keyword in all your positions to figure out how long you've been building on that skill. Capitalize on this by adding your top keywords into each job on your resume.

3) Don't use images in your resume. Photos can confuse an ATS and make it skip nearby sections of text.

4) Have a friend proof-read for typos. It might be tempting to rely on a spell check, but many misspelled words are also real words that a spellcheck won't highlight. Typos can give an ATS a real headache and it might wind up miscategorising your resume.

5) Use simple formatting. Tempting as it might be to use a fancy template with a ton of pretty borders and separators, each step you take away from plain text increases the chance you'll confuse the ATS.

6) Don't include accented words or special characters.

7) Use only bullet points rather than arrows or fancy shapes for your lists.

8) Don't abbreviate. For instance, write 'Certified Public Accountant' rather than 'CPA,' and write 'Bank of America' rather than 'B of A.' No ATS has a full database of every possible abbreviation for every available skill or company name.

9) No tables, shading, or text boxes.

10) Stick to safe fonts such as Verdana, Times New Roman, Georgia or Arial.

Tune in next Tuesday for another awesome resume (or cover letter) tip!

Natasha Rhodes is a careers expert and writer for CareerBliss, an online career community dedicated to helping people find happiness in the workplace. Check out CareerBliss for millions of job listings, company reviews, and salary information.

photo of Natasha Rhodes

Natasha Rhodes

Natasha Rhodes is a careers expert and writer for CareerBliss, an online career community dedicated to helping people find happiness in the workplace. Check out CareerBliss for millions of job listingscompany reviews, and salary information.

Other Articles Written by Natasha Rhodes

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