When you're applying for jobs online, it's easy to become discouraged. After all, every job posting receives hundreds of applicants, and only a small percentage of those applications will ever make it in front of a real person. An even smaller handful will get an interview, and only one person gets the job. How can a recent graduate with little work experience compete?
Like many things in this modern age, succeeding at the post-college job hunt will rely on understanding how the machines work. In this case, the machine is an applicant tracking system (ATS), which companies use to automatically reject unfitting applicants. It's easier than you'd think to get rejected by these bots — even if you have years of job experience.
But if you figure out the tricks, you can use your educational experience and skills to build a resume that will sail through the ATS. To build an ATS-friendly resume you can turn to our Resume Templates, and also read on to learn some helpful tricks.
1. Use standard fonts and formats
Before Before an ATS can do anything, it must to able to see your resume. Be careful of how you format and save your resume; an ATS may not be able to read PDFs or image files. To be safe, use the Microsoft Word DOCX file format.
"ATS systems convert your resume into plain text and use that to create an applicant profile of you," says Jon Shields, content manager at Jobscan, a service that optimizes resumes for ATS.
An ATS will also be picky about fonts. Maybe you love that curly font or the one that looks like vintage script, but there are better ways to show off your personal style. If the system can't read your text, it will skip over all your relevant experience and skills.
"Avoid uncommon fonts," says Shields. "The ATS might replace your font with a common one." That could throw off your resume's structure and design, or worse: it could turn your words into useless characters. Neither will be what you intended. Use standard fonts like Arial and Garamond that are universally available.
2. Avoid tables and columns
Blank space on your resume can feel disheartening, but unreadable, wasted text is much worse. Someone may have told you to add a table to your resume when you have a limited job history; they're common in resume templates as a stylish way to fit a lot of information on one page. But leave them out of your resume. They may look pleasing to the eye, but they wreak havoc on an ATS.
"Tables and columns cause major problems for an ATS," says Shields. "Humans know how to read them, but the ATS reads straight across the page, creating a jumbled mess." If that mess ever makes it to the eyes of a recruiter, they won't be able to make sense of it.
3. Skip the graphics
If you were building a resume only for human eyes, you might want to highlight a quote from a teacher or employer using a graphic to help it jump off the page. Like tables and graphs, job seekers with little work experience often choose graphics because they fill space and offer a tiny reference right on their resume. But to an ATS, that graphic is a stumbling block. It can't see the text in graphics.
One way to get around this human vs. machine contradiction is to create two resumes:
- An ATS-compliant resume for online applications
- A creative, graphic-laden resume to bring to interviews and hand out at networking events
4. Match the job description with keywords
If you made it through the technical hurdles, the secret sauce on a new college graduate's ATS-friendly resume is keywords. The hiring manager created the job description — and the ATS filter — using keywords that describe the skills necessary for the job. Your goal is to match as many of those as possible. Don't forget to include relevant coursework and internships.
Read the job description carefully. Does it list required or recommended hard skills? The ATS will compare your resume to the job description and give it a "Match Score" that determines how closely your skills align with the job. You can also test out your resume's score using services like Jobscan or SkillSyncer. Here are a few reminders as you search for the right keywords:
- Avoid overstuffing. Try to get as many keywords in your resume while still maintaining a natural flow. You're writing this resume with an ATS in mind, but you also want it to be readable and engaging when a human reads it.
- Tell the truth. You just graduated from college, so of course you can't boast years of paid job experience. But avoid the temptation to stretch the truth, because lying on your resume could cost you the job. Do your best to include the exact words in the job description whenever they're relevant and truthful. Many employers are happy to train motivated entry-level employees.
- Spread out. According to Laura DeCarlo, in Resumes for Dummies, 8th Edition (Jon Wiley & Sons, Inc 2019), your resume needs keywords distributed throughout the document. "Listing your keywords in a section is not enough," she writes. "You need to provide proof of those skills in the body of your resume." Instead of relegating all your keywords to your work experience section, look for opportunities to use some in your summary and skills sections.
5. Limit your creative side
Varying word choice, altering tense and eliminating repetition are good writing skills, and you want a resume that reads clearly and naturally. Unfortunately, an ATS doesn't care very much about being articulate. It's looking for keywords and standard language. If you spell a key term wrong, you won't get credit for it. This can be confusing, especially since your school or major may have used specific terms for their programs or activities. When in doubt, stick to the job description's wording.
Your ATS resume should always spell out technical terms and job descriptions and be sure to put an acronym in parentheses the first time you use it. If you need a place to show off the skills you developed as an English major, turn to your cover letter.
6. Include the whole of your experience
If you are just out of college, you may not be able to claim some of those keywords as work experience. But you should absolutely include relevant educational experiences, such as:
- Internships. "[We] strongly encourage students to do some kind of internship in college," says Dean P. Skarlis, Ed.D., president of The College Advisor Of New York. "It will give you an advantage when applying for jobs."
- Coursework. Did you study programming languages or another subject that matches the keywords? Describe these courses and use relevant keywords in the education section.
- Interests and passions. If you care deeply about climate change, say so. Offer that you are a highly motivated learner and include keywords from the job description.
Getting past an ATS can be daunting and frustrating, especially if you are new to the workforce. Using an ATS is an easy way for companies to manage a lot of resumes, but it's not the only way to get a hiring manager's attention.
"Mount a campaign for yourself to get in there," says Skarlis. Maybe you know someone at the company or have a connection through your university. Use your network to pass along your professional resume and cover letter. "Despite all the technology, personal interaction is still king. It might even get you past the bots." Need help creating a resume and cover letter? Put LiveCareer's Resume Builder and Cover Letter Builder to work.