5 Steps to Writing a Resume that Beats the Applicant Tracking System (ATS)

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

“A 5–10% positive response rate isn’t bad if you’re applying to competitive firms, but stronger candidates do even better.”

I’m a new grad Software Engineer — I interned at Amazon this past summer and will be joining the same team after I graduate. Before landing these jobs, I struck out during a humbling recruiting season my Sophomore year. What changed? I made crucial edits to my resume and the payoff was 6 software engineer internship offers my Junior year and 4 more new grad offers my Senior year.

Although I’m more or less coasting for my Senior year, my Sophomore year was a fat slice of humble pie. Most of what I have to say pertains specifically to budding software engineers, but I’ve found that issues with Applicant Tracking Systems run rampant in industry for all competitive internships and new grad positions.

I think a pretty strong indication of your strengths as a candidate is the positive response rate on your applications. That’s if a company reaches out to you for any sort of initial screen, be it a technical interview, behavioral interview, or coding challenge. For a long time, my response rate for software engineer internship applications was below 5%. Generally, 5–10% isn’t bad if you’re applying to competitive firms, but stronger candidates do even better.

Little did I know that my beautiful two-column LaTeX-typed resume was likely getting its contents butchered by the automated Applicant Tracking System. Luckily, I’m a firm believer in constantly redeveloping my resume during college, so I did some research and realized that my resume simply wasn’t getting through the automated process cleanly.

I turned things around by following the advice in this article, and you can too. Case in point: during my senior year recruiting season, I applied to 85 of the most highly competitive software engineering positions (since I had a return offer to Amazon in the bag). I heard a positive response from 27 companies, for a response rate of 32%.

What is the Dreaded Applicant Tracking System?

The ATS Software is something everyone needs to know how to manage. It is all powerful and acts as a robotic gatekeeper between you and the recruiter. Mess up this first test and your excellent resume won’t ever show up in front of human eyes.

Roughly, the way ATS Software works is that it filters your resume into generic pieces that get channeled into a database. Then, the recruiter can make queries like “Williams College, GPA 3.5 and up,” though I imagine their queries are more complicated and well-defined. Regardless, if you qualify in the query, you want to show up. It’s certainly a bummer when the Applicant Tracking System fails to recognize your college because you used a fancy two-column format that looked great to human eyes…

Why does ATS Software exist?

“Your goal is to make it into that X%.”

ATS Software exists because we, the candidates, fire off so many applications now that recruiters simply don’t have the bandwidth to keep track. One would hope that companies staff their recruitment team with enough people to make the process humane, but sadly that is not the case. I don’t have absolute numbers, because I’ve never been a part of a software engineer recruiting team, but I have heard anecdotally that about 10% of all applications make it to the recruiter. Whatever that number may be, it is not high, and your goal is simple: make it into that X%.

At the end of the day, nothing is going to save you if your resume looks bad to the recruiter as well, but at the very least you want to make sure that your resume escapes this first challenge. That means no weird fonts, fancy formats, photos, or other embellishments.

5 Steps to Writing an ATS-proof Resume

If you’ve ever put your resume into workday or lever and found that the automatic fill-in functionality is butchering your experience, then you probably need to make a few changes. That means that the resume parser they are using isn’t reading your resume correctly. Here are a few tips and tricks to make sure that doesn’t happen!

  1. Understand exactly what the ATS Software is, how it works, and why it is used.
    That means you should read the above sections about Applicant Tracking Systems.
  2. Don’t get fancy with your format.
    Make your resume format unoriginal, so the Applicant Tracking System gets what it expects. One of the biggest issues with my earlier resume was that it had two columns. Even if it looks super cool to humans, you might not get the desired effect there either. Any time a recruiter sees a fancy format, they immediately jump to the question “what is the candidate trying to compensate for?” That’s a pretty poor first impression.
  3. Remove the unnecessary stuff.
    No images, designs, colors, lines, or weird symbols. If the symbol is unrecognizable to the Applicant Tracking System, it’s just going to show up as a ☒. You shouldn’t have any of these gimmicks in your resume to begin with, but it’s doubly bad when a computer is parsing your resume. In general, keep things simple.
  4. Make sure your resume works in a bland text editor.
    A good trick to see if you’re on the right track is to highlight your full resume and copy it into a simple text editor like TextEdit. You’ll be able to see what symbols show up as ☒ and whether or not the format carries over.
  5. Test your resume on an ATS Software simulator.
    You can’t be sure that your new resume works until you test it. I have it on good authority that much of the industry uses a software product called the Sovren Parser and they do allow free trials if you have a corporate email account. But since that’s a hindrance to some, there are also free online softwares that simulate ATS Software and can check your resume for you. I don’t like to link sites, because I don’t have any specific company or agenda to push, but it’s out there. You just have to look.

That’s it! It might seem like extra work, but I promise that the peace of mind that comes with knowing that the Applicant Tracking System will parse your resume correctly makes it worth it.



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Kaizen Conroy

Kaizen Conroy

Software Engineer @ AWS and Amateur Disc Golfer. My thoughts and opinions are my own.