How to optimize your CV for Application Tracking Systems

Here is everything you need to know about Applicant Tracking Systems and how to optimize your resume in order to increase your chances for a job interview with a recruiter.

We have all been there. You find the perfect job offer, take hours to customize your resume and cover letter, submit your application online, and then never hear back.

“Is something wrong with my CV?”, “Maybe the recruiter didn’t like my background”? Those are questions, many job seekers ask themselves after their application seems to have disappeared in the resume “black hole”.

99% of Fortune 500 companies use ATS

One thing many job seekers do not realize is that in times of digital transformation, 99% of Fortune 500 companies, as well as an increasing number of small to medium-sized businesses use Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS).

What is an Applicant Tracking System?

An Applicant Tracking System (ATS) is an algorithm and keyword search-based software that automatically filters, sorts and ranks job applicants when they apply for an open position.

Your resume, therefore, isn’t typically going directly to a recruiter or hiring manager. It is first being processed by an ATS which determines if a human recruiter ever sees your resume.

How do Applicant Tracking Systems work?

An ATS typically scans a job applicant’s resume for specific keywords. This helps to determine if a candidate suits the job requirements and should be passed on to a recruiter. Its job is to weed out unqualified candidates to make the life of a recruiter easier.

Some ATS are able to compare your application to a job offer based on defined keywords and keyword frequency. Your application is then automatically ranked according to those.

Another common way recruiters filter applications is by searching for a combination of two or more keywords. If, for instance, a recruiter is looking for a ‘Social Media Manager’ with experience handling ‘influencer campaigns’, applicants who have used those keywords in their resume, will rank higher in the list, than applicants who didn’t do so.

How to optimize your resume for ATS?

Now that you are aware of ATS, you probably ask yourself how to optimize your resume for Applicant Tracking Systems and how to rank at the top of a recruiter’s selection list. So let’s jump right into it. Following are 5 tips to optimize your resume and beat the bots 😉

1. Be aware of your resume format

Many job seekers believe that a PDF is the most suitable file format when it comes to submitting an online application. Truth is, that it is the least ATS friendly and even worse, often not compatible with it. If you have the possibility to upload your resume in any format of your choice, make sure you stick to a Word document in .doc or .docx. Plain-text files are also ATS-friendly, however, they usually limit your formatting options.

2. Avoid putting important details in your file’s header or footer

Unfortunately, not all ATS are able to process information stored in your file’s header or footer. Various studies confirmed that most of the time ATS was unable to identify a portion of the job seeker’s contact information. Therefore, make sure you place all important info, such as contact details outside of the header and footer section.

3. Keyword optimize your resume

One of the most important points when it comes to optimizing your resume and ranking high within ATS is keyword research and optimization. Keywords represent your qualification, skills, and work experience.

Pro Tip: If you are not sure which keywords to use in your resume, start with collecting 3-4 job descriptions that match your background. Next copy the description in a world-cloud generator such as, then incorporate the key skills in your resume.

Many people use one resume to apply for a docent of jobs, according to the motto “one size fits all”. However, make sure to slightly amend each resume depending on each job description including used keywords.

Once you identified the keywords, you need to think about the frequency and placement of those in your CV. Some ATS will evaluate the strength of your skills based on the frequency your keywords appear in your resume. I advise aiming to add each term around 2-3 times. Besides, some Applicant Tracking Systems are able to estimate the level of experience based on where your keyword is placed in your CV. Make sure you keep this in mind.

4. Remove images, charts or other graphics

While images and graphs might look more professional on your CV, try to avoid adding them by all means. If you for instance insert an image or a graph to highlight your key skills, the ATS might be unable to read it, resulting in your info being lost.

5. Simplicity is key!

When it comes to ATS, simplicity is key! Next to removing any unnecessary images and graphs, as mentioned under point 4., try to use simple bullet points and traditional resume fonts (e.g. Georgia) when listing your achievements and qualifications. Try to stick to the simplest options, such as a solid, open circle, or square. I’d also advise not to use tables or columns, as they often cause parsing errors. The best resume format for ATS is chronological or hybrid (avoid the functional one).

Final Thoughts

With this in mind, you should be able to optimize your resume for Applicant Tracking Systems and increase your chances to get seen by a recruiter. Keep in mind that less is more. As you might want to adjust each resume individually per application, try to only focus on positions that truly match your background.

Were you aware of ATS? If so, what are your tips to beat the bots?


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