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Tips for Optimising Your CV for ATS

Many companies use ATS (Applicant Tracking Systems) to sort through the large volumes of applications they receive. As such, it’s vital that your CV can be scanned and read easily to avoid being rejected in the first round. In this article, we’ll share a number of tips for optimising your CV for ATS to increase your chances of going through to the next stage of the application process.

What is an ATS?

An ATS or recruitment system is a software application that allows recruiters and employers to automatically manage candidate data, search for candidates and respond to applicants.

It typically contains a database with the details of applicants whose CVs have been entered, a search engine which a recruiter or employer can use to view candidates’ details and often a tool for replying to selected or rejected candidates.

In the days of online applications, where there can be hundreds or even thousands of applications for a single job, recruiters and employers use ATS to make sure that every CV can be read without the manual work.

How does an ATS work?

An ATS stores and collects CVs in a database with a search engine that allows recruiters and employers to search for candidates using a keyword or multiple keywords. Once a keyword has been entered, the search engine filters for candidates who have included the relevant keyword(s) in a relevant section of their CV, e.g. Project Manager under ‘Work Experience’.

Some ATS take this further and rank candidates according to how well their CV scores against each of the job requirements. Recruiters then filter out candidates that don’t score above a certain threshold.

Tips for beating the ATS

Now that you know how an ATS works, you can optimise your CV by keeping the following tips in mind:

  • Use the right keywords
  • Emphasise your skills and competencies in a separate section of your CV
  • Stick to the standard CV headings
  • Use bullet points
  • Avoid acronyms and abbreviations
  • Stick to sans-serif fonts
  • Pay attention to formatting and design
  • Avoid graphics, tables and special characters
  • Proofread your CV

Use the right keywords

The best way to optimise your CV for ATS is to include the right keywords. You can do this by reviewing the essential requirements or criteria listed in the job description and sprinkling keywords from these sections throughout your CV.

While it's never a good idea to lie in your CV, if you do have a skill or qualification required for the position, you want to make sure that you list a relevant skill using the exact same language as in the job description. For example, if you write that you’re ‘good with spreadsheets’, but the employer is looking for someone with ‘Excel skills’, the chances are CV will be rejected by the ATS. Similarly, if you’re a a project manager but you state that you’re a PM in your CV, your CV won’t make it past the ATS filter.

However, beware of over-optimising your CV with keywords. Not only will your CV be unnatural to read, but recruiters may question whether you really have all the skills you say you have.

Emphasise your skills and competencies in a separate section

To make it easy for ATS to read your CV, consider condensing your skills into a separate ‘Skills’ or ‘Core Competencies’ section.

Often, employers pay special attention to this section of your CV to see if you have the skills required to succeed in the job. Therefore, the more keywords you can add in this section, the more likely that your CV will pass the ATS screening test.

Stick to the standard CV headings

An ATS scans your CV for relevant keywords and categorises those under specific headings.

Therefore, if you try to be too creative by renaming your ‘Personal Statement’ to the ‘About Me’ section, for instance, the chances are, your CV won’t make it through the ATS because it won’t recognise the heading you’ve used.

To be on the safe side, use standard section headings such as when you stick to the standard CV headings such as Personal Statement, Work Experience, Skills, Education, etc.

Use bullet points

Use bullet points instead of paragraphs to list your skills and experience. They’re a great way to organise information in your CV and they’re easy to parse for ATS as well.

To make sure that the bullet points you use are compatible with ATS, stick with the solid square or circle and steer clear of more elaborate bullet points.

Avoid acronyms and abbreviations

While an ATS may process some acronyms such as SEO (search engine optimisation), for example, it may not recognise others. To avoid confusing the ATS, always write out the acronym in full in brackets.

Abbreviations, on the other hand, should be avoided altogether as they’re likely to be misunderstood by ATS and recruiters.

Stick to sans-serif fonts

Of course, you want your CV to stand out, but if you use a font that is hard to read, there’s a good chance that the ATS will render your CV unreadable.

Let your experience speak for itself and use a font that’s easy to read such as Arial, Verdana, Helvetica or Calibri.

Pay attention to formatting and design

Elaborate CV layouts or designs may look creative, but will most probably not be scanned correctly by ATS. It’s also not a good idea to include your contact details in a header and footer section as an ATS won’t be able to parse the section properly.

Keep to a simple layout and list your experience in reverse chronological order to make your CV easy to scan and to read.

Avoid graphics, tables and special characters

Many ATS are unable to read images, special characters or tables:

  • Photos

If you need to submit a profile photo, many recruitment agencies offer the option for you to upload it directly into their system.

  • Special characters

When it comes to special characters, ATS software will not able to read accented characters even if they are part of your name and might replace them with symbols, e.g. ‘Stéphane’ becomes ‘St@phane’ or ‘St?phane’.

  • Tables

ATS have a hard time reading information in tables; as a result, they’re likely to jumble the information together or not recognise important keywords.

Instead of using tables, it can be helpful to use a CV builder such as Jobseeker to format sections of your CV properly. The benefit of using a CV builder is that you don’t need to spend hours adjusting margins or aligning bullet points.

All you have to do is pick a template and fill in your information, and the CV builder will take care of the rest.

Proofread your CV

Above all, don’t forget to proofread your CV. It can be easy to rely on spell check, but it won’t pick up everything, especially if the spelling of the word is correct, but you’ve misused it, e.g. ‘their’ vs. ‘there’.

What’s worse, if an ATS detects spelling mistakes, it may consider your CV not good enough to go through to the next stage. On the off-chance that your CV passes the ATS filter, a human hiring manager will almost certainly reject your CV if it contains spelling or grammatical errors.

Rather than relying on spell check, ask a friend or family member to give your CV the once-over.