How to successfully get your CV through an ATS into human hands

Job hunting can be tough. You keep applying to numerous roles and receive only few or even no replies from employers. You start wondering if your applications have been read at all. You should know that when you apply for a job through an online form or portal, your application is almost certainly going into an applicant tracking system first (ATS).  Before your CV gets into a hand of a recruiter or hiring manager, it must first pass the initial ATS screening.  Whether your CV will be seen by human eyes could depend on how well your CV is optimized for ATS algorithms. Therefore, it is crucial to know what an ATS is doing and how to write a CV that can pass one successfully.

Photo of man using computer

How to successfully get your CV through an ATS into human hands

What is an Applicant Tracking System?

An ATS is a technology used by companies to automate the hiring process. Applicant tracking systems collect and sort thousands of CVs. They screen CVs automatically acting as a filter. The software is designed to scan all submitted CVs in real time and reject the least qualified ones for a role. This short listing is based on the important keywords and qualifications according to the job requirements. Only the most relevant CVs are then forwarded to a hiring manager or recruiter. An ATS is certainly helpful to find a perfect candidate, but if the perfect candidate submits a CV that is not formatted for an ATS, the recruiter might never know they exist.

Why do employers use ATS’S?

Recruiters and hiring managers use applicant tracking systems for a variety of reasons, but these are the main ones:

ATS helps to save time and money. It removes the need for any human involvement in the early stages of the hiring process. By using an ATS, employers can easily organize job applications, track their progress, quickly eliminate unqualified candidates and focus solely on those who are actually qualified for a specific job. It improves efficiency, productivity and quality of hire.

An ATS helps ensure legal compliance. Potential hires are ranked and chosen based on their skills and background, not their gender, race, ethnicity, orientation or appearance.

As more and more companies begin to use applicant tracking systems, the more likely you will face them too. Luckily, passing through the ATS is a lot easier than you might think. If you're on the job hunt, it's time to carefully revise your CV. 

Follow the next tips and create an ATS friendly CV that will reach the hiring managers and impress them too.

  1. Include the right keywords customized for the job
  2. Use standard section headings
  3. Keep your CV simple and avoid fancy formatting
  4. Check spelling and grammar
  5. Don’t try to cheat the ATS
  6. Use both full title and acronym 
  7. Apply, even if you might not be qualified
  8. Follow up with the employer


1. Include the right keywords customized for the job

When you submit your CV, the ATS will scan through the content and compare it to the relevant job description. It will look for the specific keywords - key pieces of information such as a job title or skills to find out whether or not you’re a match for a job opening.  So if you want to make it past the ATS, you’ll need to include those important keywords on your resume.

A common way recruiters filter out CVs in an applicant tracking system is by searching for key skills and titles. For example, if a recruiter is hiring for a Product Manager position out of 400 resumes, their first step will most likely be a search for “Product Manager” .This will isolate candidates that have done the exact job in the past. Anyone that doesn’t have that exact term in their CV is out of luck.

The best way to figure out which skills and keywords to include in your CV is by carefully analyzing the job description. Look for the hard skills, experience or qualities that are most important and highlighted in the job description and use the same language to describe your experience, your accomplishments and skills. This means that your CV should be tailored for each position you apply.

2. Use standard section headings

Applicant Tracking Systems use headings to navigate your CV and parse information in each section, therefore, you should use standard headings that the ATS will recognize easily. Commonly, the ATS will sort your content into these four categories: Education, Contact Information, Skills and Work Experience, so be sure to use these titles for the section headings of your CV.

3. Keep your CV simple and avoid fancy formatting

Complex formatting elements such as tables, text boxes, logos, columns, hyperlinks, less common fonts and even headers and footers can confuse an ATS.

In order to scan your resume for relevant keywords most ATSs will convert the document to a text-only file. This would cause all fancy formatting being lost. The ATS won’t be able to recognize the important information, causing your CV information to get distorted or lost. This means vital keywords or details might not be imported and so a person may never have a look at your CV.

Basically, an ATS-friendly CV formatting is similar to recruiter-friendly CV formatting. The ATS is programmed to read from left to right and top to bottom, like a human, so keep that in mind. Use a chronological or hybrid resume (avoid functional format) and use traditional fonts like Helvetica, Garamond or Calibri.

Save your file as a .docx if possible. While PDFs are best to keep your format intact, the .docx format is the most accurately parsed by ATSs. Of course, follow directions in the job posting for a certain file type.

4. Check spelling and grammar

This advice applies of course to all your CVs but it is especially important for your ATS friendly CV. The ATS is scanning your CV for relevant keywords looking for an exact match. With a spelling mistake the ATS will not know what you are talking about and the misspelled word won’t be recognized even if you are perfect for the job.

5. Don’t try to cheat the ATS

Include both the acronym and the full title in your CV. In some cases, an ATS scanning for keywords will only register exact matches. So if you have the correct experience, but you wrote it using language that’s different from what the system is looking for, you might not come up as one of the most qualified applicants. For example, if you write that you’re an SEO specialist but the ATS is checking for “Search Engine Optimization,” it might drop your resume.

6. Use both full title and acronym

Don’t use tricks to cheat the system. ATS algorithms can be tricked by stuffing your CV with keywords-using “invisible” white text to secretly add additional keywords, pasting the entire job description in white or just overusing keywords.  Don’t do any of this! After scanning your CV, the ATS will display all the text in the same color. Even if your application reaches the hiring manager or recruiter, they will discover all the tricks. They will see that you added the full job description text or that you were repeating the same keywords as many times as possible. You would not only fail to prove that you are the right candidate for the job but also show that you would cheat to get ahead resulting in your application being rejected immediately or even getting yourself blacklisted from the company.

7. Apply, even if you might not be qualified

Like with any job application, the ATS is looking for the best match and the best match is almost never 100%. Don’t hold yourself back if you think you are not fully qualified. You could be the best possible match at this particular moment. Even if you don’t have all of the recommended years of experience, or the job is in a different industry than you are in currently, or if there are certain responsibilities listed that you have never done before, you could still be a great employee. It is worth a try so share your enthusiasm, passion and soft skills and go ahead and apply.

8. Follow up with the employer

Don’t let machines stand between you and your desired job. Sending a note that you are excited about the job can leave a great impression on the employer. If you can’t reach a hiring manager or a recruiter directly, try to reach out to someone within the company. This could lead to your application being found among others in the ATS and getting a second look.


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