1. Career Advice
  2. Resume & CV's
  3. What is a Resume Keyword-Scanner? And how to optimize your resume for ATS!
What is a Resume Keyword-Scanning

What is a Resume Keyword-Scanner? And how to optimize your resume for ATS!

Artwork by: Stas Podgornov

  • What is an ATS?
  • How does an ATS work?
  • Why do employers use an applicant tracking system?
  • How can I make my resume ATS-friendly?
  • 1. Create your resume in an ATS-friendly format
  • 2. Avoid including important information in the header and footer
  • 3. Optimize your keywords
  • 4. Choose the correct file format
  • 5. Write for humans, not robots
  • Key takeaways

Wondering how a resume keyword-scanner can impact your job search and how you can optimize your resume to get past Applicant Tracking Systems? Read on to find out all you need to know about ATS and beating the bots!

If you’re a job seeker, you’ve probably heard about “keyword scanner” or “resume scanner” software that is serving as a barrier between you and the interview. These programs are called “Applicant Tracking Systems” or ATS programs, and they’re a crucial part of modern hiring.

Applicant Tracking Systems save recruiters significant amounts of time and money in respect to the application and hiring process. The digitization of the recruitment process is also a top priority when we consider the impact of the global pandemic and increase in remote working.

Yet despite how common they are, most people outside the hiring world don’t really understand what a resume keyword-scanner is or does. More importantly, they don’t know how to navigate the system and get their resume where it needs to be.

If you are wondering how to optimize your resume to be ATS-ready, read on to find out:

  • What is an ATS?

  • How does an ATS work?

  • Why do employers use ATS?

  • How to optimize your resume for ATS

Statistical Insight

According to an article by Forbes, a whopping 90% of large employers use an Applicant Tracking System to screen job candidates who submit their resumes online. 

What is an ATS?

An ATS is exactly what it says in the name. It is a system used for tracking applicants, basically an electronic database of folders and categories used by hiring managers and recruiters to sort through applications and move them along the process.

This means that interview scheduling, recommendations, and job offers are all managed by the applicant tracking system. It’s important to realize that an ATS is not a robot making decisions on its own, it’s more of a tool used by human hiring managers to make their job more efficient.

So if a recruiter tells you to fill out a job application online, that’s not a brush-off. It may actually be the first step to getting you in the system and getting the process rolling.

There are hundreds of different kinds of applicant tracking systems that have unique systems and specialties. While they all share similar basic features, they don’t all have the same method for scanning, ranking, or filtering your resume. However, it makes sense to exploit these common features to your advantage on your resume.

How does an ATS work?

Most ATS systems use resume keyword-scanners, but not all of them are set up to make a “pass-or-fail” judgment. Instead, some of them will scan the keywords into a database, which recruiters and managers can then search through and select candidates.

For example, a job opening for an Android Developer might receive 500 applications in one day. A recruiter can pick terms they care about such as “testing,” “UI,” or even just “Android,” and search the applications for those terms, selecting the ones with the best match to move forward in the process.

Other applicant tracking systems may use a “ranking” system for applications. This means they will generate a numbered list of applications whose content best matches the keywords that the employer needs for the role.

Remember, getting through the resume keyword-scanner does not guarantee you the interview. Otherwise your resume would just be a list of terms. Just using keywords isn’t enough; you also have to use them in context i.e., using them in sentences and bullet points to prove you know what you’re talking about.

Expert Tip

Include an “Areas of Expertise,” or “Core Competencies” section on your resume that outlines your strongest hard and soft skills. Refer to the job description for keywords while creating this section and try not to make it too long as it won’t be impactful when it is seen by a human.

Why do employers use an applicant tracking system?

The exponential rise of the internet proved an amazing resource for everyone, particularly job seekers. The ability to instantly apply for numerous jobs from the comfort of your home made the whole process of looking for a job a lot simpler. 

The problem here is that many job seekers tend to have the thought process of “Why don’t I just fire off lots of applications? Even if I am not strictly qualified for some of them, it’s worth a shot.” Hiring managers and recruiting teams then have to wade through this sea of applications, where many of the applicants are not suitably qualified.

Harnessing technology to streamline this process makes sense. Utilizing an applicant tracking system can save a company precious time and money (not to mention the sanity of its HR recruiters). 

Here are some of the key features and benefits applicant tracking systems can offer an employer.

  • Time savings on repetitive tasks - Eliminates the need for both manual posting of jobs and human filtering of incoming applications, saving the hiring team valuable time.

  • Improved cost-per-hire - The cost of an applicant tracking system ($100 - $150 per month) is considerably lower than the cost of hiring a recruiter ($2000 - $3000 per month).

  • Enhanced inter-departmental communication - Centralized system improves communication between the recruiting team and other departments involved in the hiring process.

  • Improved quality and speed of hires - Employers can cherry pick qualified and talented candidates and not risk losing this talent to competitors via a speedier recruitment process.

  • Enhanced candidate experience - An automated applicant tracking system improves efficiency in the hiring process. This efficiency jumpstarts human contact with candidates fairly soon after receiving their applications which can favorably impress those candidates.

Understanding what an ATS actually does and how it benefits an employer can make the ATS seem much less daunting. So, let’s get started and optimize your resume for ATS. 

How can I make my resume ATS-friendly?

How do you get your resume through the ATS and in front of the hiring manager’s eyes? Follow our five steps to creating an ATS-friendly resume.

1. Create your resume in an ATS-friendly format

Design-heavy resume templates do not perform well on an ATS. Tables, images, and columns can all make your resume difficult for the software to parse. 

Keep your resume simple, using a chronological or hybrid format and traditional fonts such as Arial or Calibri. Use common headings like “Work Experience” to break up the sections. Include relevant keywords from the job description in context throughout the resume.

Here is a sample to follow.


Heading Section:

Include your name and job title (relevant as much as possible to the job opportunity) as well as up-to-date contact information. 

Professional Summary or Objective:

Professional summary - Short paragraph at the beginning of your resume that outlines your relevant experience, skills, and professional achievements. 

Objective - Recent graduate or seeking a new career direction? Use a resume objective instead of a professional summary. Detail relevant studies, work experience, and/or voluntary work as well as what value you can offer to the role and company.

Work Experience & Education:

The order of these sections will depend on whether experience or education has more importance to the role you are targeting. For example, for a recent graduate, education will probably come before work experience.

Focus on including relevant keywords and specific details in these sections. The job description is a good place to start as well as other similar job advertisements.

Core Skills:

List your strongest hard and soft skills. Refer to the job description for keywords while creating this section and try not to make this overly long.

Additional Information:

Any additional information can be placed in the final section, such as technical skills, languages, and professional training. These can be grouped together as below:

Technical Skills: MS Office Suite, Adobe Creative Suite, Oracle

Languages: English (native), French (fluent), Spanish (basic)

Professional Training: Project Management Professional (PMP)

If you have a lot of information for one of these areas then create a separate section. For example, if you were an IT executive, your technical skills will probably require a section of their own (perhaps “Relevant IT Knowledge”) that would precede the additional information section.

2. Avoid including important information in the header and footer

Some applicant tracking systems cannot read and parse information correctly from the header and footer sections. 

You may think that a good way to maximize space on a resume is to include your name and contact details in a header or footer, but if your resume goes through an ATS, your vital contact information could be missed or recorded incorrectly.

Make sure your name and contact details are outside of the header and footer sections on your resume to avoid missing out on a potential job interview.

3. Optimize your keywords

Including the right keywords is critical. These keywords need to be targeted to each specific job opportunity as much as possible. While this may be time-consuming, it’s definitely time well spent and will improve your chances of getting an interview.

Review the job description and look for terms that are repeated or emphasized as important skills and experience. You can also check out common keywords that are used by other employers for the specific job role.

  • Include both abbreviations and the longer term in your resume. For example, if you use the term “Know Your Client,” you should also include KYC. This will ensure you tick both keyword boxes.
  • Overuse keywords too much. Too many keywords in your resume will make the content unclear and not impactful when it actually reaches a human. Use keywords naturally rather than every other word.

4. Choose the correct file format

Check the job advert for specific details on the format the employer prefers. If this is not detailed, the best option is to submit a DOC or DOCX file format. While PDF’s are a great way to preserve file data, they are not always compatible with ATS. If you or the employer prefer a PDF file, then it’s a good idea to submit a DOC or DOCX file as well.

5. Write for humans, not robots

Even at major companies, eventually your resume will be seen by human eyes. Make sure your resume tells your work story and presents you the way you want to be seen. Go beyond the keyword list and prove you’re good at your role.

Finally, keep in mind that ATS programs are completely out of your control. You have no way of knowing what specific applicant tracking system a company uses, how they use it, or even if they do.  

A more effective (and healthy) approach is to spend less time worrying about resume keyword-scanners and more time focusing on what you can actually control. You can control the information you put into a resume, you can control your relationships with recruiters and contacts, and you can control how much you know about positions or companies.

Key takeaways

  1. Understanding how applicant tracking systems are used is important, but you don’t have to fear some merciless rogue robot making decisions without human input.

  2. Employers are increasingly turning to automation in the hiring process due to huge savings in terms of time and money. It makes sense to build your awareness of this technology so you can use this information to your advantage.

  3. Tell your branded story, use keywords in their proper context, and stick to a simple resume format that is not too design-heavy to maximize your success with ATS.

Share this article