Why Resume Formatting is So Important & How To Do it Right

Before the advent of ATSs, most job-seekers’ greatest digital challenge was whether to email their resume as a Word document or as a PDF. Since the wide-spread institution of ATSs, things have changed.

Nowadays, almost every resume shot-off into cyberspace goes straight into an ATS, making our digital challenges in resume-writing a little more complex than choosing the best document format. ATSs, unlike humans who might opt to struggle through mosaic formatting to get to (hopefully) the good stuff, are unforgiving. Ultimately, we are at the mercy of a robot about as sophisticated as R2-D2.

A couple of weeks ago, I discussed this relatively new phenomenon known as the Applicant Tracking System (ATS), which by the way, is here to stay. ATS technology is rapidly becoming the convention in resume-screening and applicant-selecting among recruiters, hiring managers, and HR departments.

In my earlier article, I described (briefly) what an ATS is and how to make it love your resume. I focused on explaining why it’s so important to use the keywords and phrases from the job posting in your resume.

To help you out with that, I gave you the link to a very useful tool over at Jobscan. Today, I share with you another equally-important method for making sure your resumes are ATS-friendly. That method is proper formatting, and it is far more important to an ATS than you might realize.

What is Resume Formatting, Really?

The resume format is, essentially, the layout and features you incorporate into your document. Put another way, the resume format is what you’re left with when you remove all of the words from the page.

When you remove all of the words, what are you left with? Could be lines, bullets, shaded boxes, tables, dashes, vertical bars (or pipes), etc. Word processors offer lots of fun and creative styling tools you can use to fancy-up your resume. But, a word of caution.

ATSs aren’t impressed by fancy style. In fact, ATSs are confused by too many creative touches, and when an ATS gets confused, it eliminates the source.

Here’s the rule of thumb for ATS-friendly (and human-eyeball-friendly) resumes: keep it clean and simple.

While a touch of subtle creativity may be visually appealing to human eyeballs, the trick is to get your resume past the ATS. The humans will never see your unique styling if the ATS vaporizes your resume out of utter confusion.

In your resume-writing approach, always remember you are writing for the ATS first. Keep it clean and simple with ample white space. The white space is for the humans, because, believe it or not, even in 2020, interviewers print resumes and make notes on them, so indulge them by leaving room.

The best way to illustrate “clean and simple” is by illustration. And by the way, I’m talking about Traditional resumes, not Creative resumes for those in graphic design, website development, media/publishing/advertising, performing arts, etc.

Okay, here is the illustration contrasting the difference between “clean and simple” and too creative for the ATS to deal with.

Your Resume Is Not an Art Project

Job-seekers can find endless templates like the one above (left), offered online to help the masses create so-called modern resumes. But be aware, these templates are not ATS-friendly.

What the designers of these templates fail to appreciate are the ATS’s limitations. ATSs have a hard time parsing the critical information they are programmed to look for if the resume’s formatting is too complex.

Crazy bullets and icons, bars and shaded boxes, and especially tables, interfere with the ATS’s keyword search. Unlike a human who can look past the complex formatting, the ATS will simply become confused and vaporize these “artsy” resumes.

ATSs like “clean and simple” because it makes their keyword search easy and efficient. ATSs scan resumes, “parse” or pull out information, and rearrange the resume into a digital candidate profile.

But, ATS aren’t sophisticated enough to recognize, distinguish, and interpret some of the formatting features they come across. They are known to miss important information when the formatting is too “creative”. So, at the risk of sounding like a broken record – clean and simple is the way to go.

How to Format Your Resume for the ATS

Use ATS-friendly font. Times New Roman and Arial are ATS’s favourite, but they’re okay with these as well:

  • Cambria
  • Verdana
  • Trebuchet
  • Garamound
  • Calibri

Use one font consistently throughout your resume. Using different fonts isn’t necessary to make your Section Titles stand out. Bold and “ALL CAPS” your Section Titles, such as PROFILE, WORK EXPERIENCE, EDUCATION, and, you can slightly increase the font size as well (but I don’t think even that is necessary).

Use 10, 10.5, or 11 point font. When you are trying to keep your resume to one page, experiment with fonts and sizes. Cambria 10.5 will fit better than Times New Roman 10.5. Never go above 11, except for Section Titles. There, you can bump it up to 12, but keep the body of text to 10.5 or 11. I always recommend 10.5 for the body.

Use whole words ahead of acronyms. For example, spell out Licensed Practical Nurse and follow it with (LPN). A human will enter keywords into the ATS to search out viable candidates, often using the “spelled out” version of what they’re looking for. The ATS won’t necessarily know LPN is the same as Licensed Practical Nurse, and may not return resumes containing acronyms only.

Use round bullets exclusively. ATSs have a hard time parsing stars, diamonds, check marks, and icons. Don’t challenge it with fancy bullets – it won’t put in the effort.

Use sentences to describe your skills, not bulleted tables. ATSs have a hard time parsing information contained in a table. In the digital rearranging process, this info gets all messed up and becomes unsearchable by the humans. Anyway, you should be describing your skills in your work accomplishments, not in short bullet points. Tables like this one are friendly to neither the ATS nor to the humans.

Use spelled-out dates complete with months
. I get pushback on this one, but my recommendation is supported by the Recruiters I’m in constant touch with. Jobscan’s ATS research says 03/2020 can readily be parsed by ATSs, so that’s all good. But, humans prefer January 2010 to March 2015 instead of 01/2010 – 03/2015. ATSs read the months spelled-out as well, so use spelled-out words to make your resume both ATS-friendly and human eyeball-friendly.

Use your word processor’s “red flags” to correct spacing issues. ATSs aren’t sophisticated enough to figure out you accidentally put an extra space in one (or more) of your critical keywords. If you put an extra space in a multi-keyword, like “safety coordinator”, the ATS won’t recognize it, and that critical keyword gets omitted from your digital profile. The humans will never know you have experience as a safety coordinator. Most word processors will show a squiggly line indicating an extra space, so pay attention when you see them.

Use an appropriate file name. Not all ATSs are created equally. Some will pick up on keywords in the file name, and some won’t. But the file name is important to the humans, and, with the ATS, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Name your file with your name and the position: John Doe Safety Supervisor.docx.

Writing hundreds upon hundreds of resumes, day-in and day-out for years, I’ll admit I get bored with the “clean and simple” resume format. Years ago I did a creative resume for an ad-copy position and had a blast with it. It was fun, it turned out great, and it got the client the interview.

But, I know “clean and simple” works for traditional resumes that have to get past the ATSs, so I stick with it.

Why not grab your FREE copy of HOW TO WRITE A KILLER RESUME! to get access to the Resume Format Template that ATSs love!


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terri at resumepro

Terri is an expert resume-writer and a pretty good job coach. During her 30 years in the conventional work force, Terri was fired from 11 jobs, got laid off from 2 jobs, quit 3 jobs, sued 1 employer (successfully), made another cry, and wrote over 100 resumes for herself alone! Since embracing the good old “take this job and shove it” attitude, Terri decided to put all of her shitty “workin’ for the man” experiences and life-lessons to good use, and thus was born www.goresumepro.ca/blog. Enjoy!

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