Avoid optimizing resumes for ATS (Applicant Tracking System)

June 22, 2018

Is your head spinning from all the rules? You should be optimizing your resume for employers, not ATS.

All other the internet I have read hundreds of articles from so-called "specialists" that tell job seekers to focus on optimizing their resume for ATS (Applicant Tracking System). Most probably you have seen this too. These articles are implying that you are not getting an interview because of poor resume optimization. More often than not they offer services to help you in this matter.

This sounds very similar to all the SEO (Search Engine Optimization) companies instructing to optimize your site for search engines otherwise you won't get traffic. While search engines like Google say it must be optimized for its users, not the other way around.

It looks like you should be optimizing your resume for employers, not ATS. But who is arguing against ATS optimization? Nobody that I know of.

It seems that most of the sites that promote ATS optimization have a lot to benefit from this.

Does it really matter? For most job seekers I would argue that optimizing a resume for machines is a waste of time and they should invest that time in being more active.


What is ATS?

ATS or Applicant Tracking System is a computer program that handles most recruitment needs but it is mostly seen by applicants as a gatekeeper. It searches through all the applications and based on the employer's search criteria it will filter the resumes based on relevance. Similar to Google but way more rudimentary. Of course, they are not perfect and often enough valuable people are excluded from the manual screening process.

And here starts the panic. Everybody want's to have a relevant resume so that an employer can evaluate it based on its merits. So job seekers are scrambling all other the internet to find the information that will help them "improve" their resume.


What are the ATS optimization requirements?

  • Use keywords that describe your strengths and skills seamlessly merged with your resume - What keywords should I use?
  • Keep fonts and formatting simple - But there are so many cool styles now
  • No borders, no lines, no symbols - Huh?
  • Don't use tables, text boxes, or columns - but... I need them
  • Little to no graphics - It will look so dull
  • Don't use important information in headers and footers - really?
  • Add a ZIP code so it identifies your location better - There goes my privacy
  • Name your headings in a standard way. For example, name your section "Skills", not "Abilities" - More time wasted searching how to name my sections
  • Don't write to much or it will think you're trying to trick the system with too many keywords - How much is too much?
  • Don't write to little or there won't be enough keywords - How many keywords should It have then?
  • Include industry jargon and company’s corporate lingo - Corporate lingo?
  • You shouldn't create your resume as PDFs because some ATS can't parse it. The format may differ from employer to employer - What? I don't want to make it multiple times

Is your head spinning from all these rules? Well... these are only a fraction of the total amount of specifications you will find online. A large part of popular articles are written by "specialists" that are actually working in recruiting and use ATS to scan your resume. Very convenient. Instead of working on improving their search algorithms they are asking the applicants to change their resumes with hundreds of ridiculous rules.


The result

After you follow all these rules your precious resume will look like it was written in Notepad.exe

Oh dear! Similar to how the internet looked before CSS. Remember Yahoo! in the good old days?

This is how most resumes look today. No formatting, no spacing, no taste, no personality. Like Yahoo! was back in 1990's.

You are more than that and it's important that the employers know it.


Why shouldn't I worry about ATS?

  1. 98% of businesses in the US employ fewer than 100 people. Do you think ATS is that important to them? For small and medium-sized companies you shouldn't worry about ATS. They will handle most applications manually because there aren't too many.

    Source: https://www.census.gov/topics/business/small-business.html

  2. Why invest hours or even days in optimizing your resume for something that only 2% of companies really use. You could spend that time by networking and applying to jobs like crazy. You never know what company will offer you a good position.
  3. In the end, your resume will be reviewed by a human. How will he/she feel about it when it was clearly written for a machine?
  4. ATS systems are getting better and better thanks to companies like Google that offer Artificial Intelligence ( AI ) services to interpret large amounts of data. AI improves each day. In a few years it may understand everything about an applicant just from looking at his resume. Subtle things like attitude, determination, vision, etc.

For me, as an employer, there are 2 things that really matter:

  1. Skills and Experience
  2. Personality and Determination

While everybody knows that skill and experience are important, in my view personality and determination are close to equal and sometimes more important. We often hire young people that don't have any experience but REALLY want to learn and bring value to the company. You can learn anything and be good at it if you have enough determination.



In the end, it all depends on your needs and what type of company you want to work for. If you are applying for an enterprise level company with 10.000+ employees and fierce competition then this article may not apply to you.

The future will belong to resumes that are online 24/7. One place where you update one resume your entire life and share its link to possible employers. We are already seeing this trend with LinkedIn, where many have created a social profile as their resume. Others have their own websites. It's only a matter of time when everybody will have a permanent online presence for their career. No more uploading resumes or printing on old fashion paper.

Leave your comment on our Facebook post and tell us your opinion. Do you think optimizing for ATS is worth the effort?

About the author
Michelle D

This article was contributed by Michelle D. She is a casual writer, exceptional manager, mother of a ridiculous amazing child, and a great person to have coffee with.

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