Have you ever submitted your resume through a career website, only to receive an email a few minutes later to say that your application is no longer being considered for the position?

If so, you may have been a victim of the dreaded applicant tracking system.

According to research by Jobscan, 99% of Fortune 500 companies use applicant tracking systems, or ATS. These systems are popular with businesses of all sizes because they are designed to sift through a large quantity of job applications and rank which ones are best suited for a particular position, before a hiring manager even looks at a single resume.

When applying for jobs, you may have been directed to a website with a URL that contains the words Workday, Taleo, or iCIMS. These are some of the most popular ATS. When you upload your resume into an ATS, it scans the document in a digital database to determine if it’s a match for the employer’s desired qualifications. But these systems can be finicky, and one small resume mistake could cost you a shot at getting the job. 

The good news is that it’s possible to adapt your resume to be ATS-friendly, ultimately increasing its chance of being seen by human eyes. Start by following these six rules for optimizing your digital resume. 

Keep the format simple

You might think that using graphics or a colorful design for your resume would put you ahead of the pack. And that’s possible if a hiring manager is reviewing the resume, but your plan could backfire if it has to go through an ATS first. Research from TopResume found that 21% of resumes include graphics or charts that an ATS cannot read. Instead, keep your resume to one or two simple sheets of white paper and choose a basic font like Times New Roman or Helvetica–no frills needed. If you’re not sure how to format it properly, you can try Scouted’s recommended resume template.

Incorporate keywords based on the job description and industry

The way an ATS determines if your resume is a good match for the job is by scanning the text for relevant keywords. Keywords usually refer to a specific skill (“Javascript”), educational background (“journalism”), or previous position (“marketing manager”). You can get a good sense of what the keywords for the job are by looking at the job description. Note what the employer is asking for in the “Qualifications” section and see what’s on the list of job responsibilities. From there, you can adapt your resume to incorporate the words and phrases that appear frequently. 

However, don’t “stuff” your resume with keywords. Using them once — or twice, if it’s an essential part of the job — will suffice. In addition, if you use industry-related acronyms in your resume, the ATS might only be calibrated to pick up on the full spelling of the word or phrase. It’s best practice to include both (such as “UX Designer” and “User-Experience Designer”).

Tailor your resume to the specific job

Remember how incorporating keywords is crucial? This means using a generic resume for all job applications is unlikely to get you very far because it won’t include the keywords for that specific company. This is especially true if you include an “Overview” or “Summary” section at the top of your resume. You won’t have to rewrite your resume from scratch every time, but minor modifications could make a huge difference.

Use section headers

Organizing your resume according to common headers like “Education,” “Work Experience,” and “Skills” signals to the ATS what keywords to look for in each section. There’s no need to get creative with your section headers (“Academic Background,” etc), since this will only confuse the algorithm. Furthermore, the “Skills” section is a great way to include a list of your qualifications that don’t necessarily fit into your previous employment experience or education, such as if you’ve taught yourself Photoshop but not used it in your college major or previous jobs.


An ATS will only pick up on exact keywords, not close matches. If you’ve misspelled an important word, you’re out of luck. So relying on a spell checker isn’t enough. Ask a friend, a teacher, or a family member with eagle eyes to read through your resume. You can also read it out loud to make sure everything flows properly.

Follow the directions to upload

Finally, when the ATS requests that you upload your resume, make sure you use one of the accepted file types. Usually this will be a Microsoft Word document or a PDF (we always recommend saving your resume as a PDF so it always appears the way you intended). If you try to upload a file that isn’t supported, then your application is over before it was even submitted. You can use a free online converter if necessary.
Don’t let your resume be part of the 75% that’s filtered out by an ATS. By putting in a little additional work on your resume at the outset, you can greatly increase your chance of advancing through the application process and landing the interview.