Sound familiar? You find the ideal job that matches perfectly with your background, you spend time crafting the perfect cover letter, and then within seconds of applying, you receive a rejection letter? This means that your resume was caught in the proverbial black hole.

More than 75% of all resumes are rejected before they ever are seen by a person. This happens because the resume is going through an Applicant Tracking System (ATS). Here is how to write a resume that gets out of the black hole and seen by a person:


Most people do not know what an ATS is – let alone how to write a resume that will get through one. Simply, an applicant tracking system is software used by employers to manage and organize candidates into a searchable fashion. The ATS was initially used only by large employers, but is now widely used by most companies.

In fact, there are over 900 different commercial applicant tracking systems in use right now in the US and globally. On top of that, many employers will build their own ATS customized to fit their particular hiring needs. Each one of these systems has their own quirks, but they all work the same.


Applicant tracking systems are all built to be a gatekeeper for the recruiters and employers using the system. The ATS is fueled by keywords which are either preset, customized when the system is set up or defined by the recruiter when they run a search. Resumes are parsed (or combed through with a not so fine comb) to find the keywords and then they are organized based on these keywords. Thus, someone with a resume that doesn’t fit the ATS means that the software will see the candidate as unqualified and never to be seen by a person.


Like anything, writing a resume that is optimized for performance in an ATS simply requires an understanding of what the software needs. It’s not rocket science, but it does require a knowledge of how the applicant tracking systems work and how they are used by a recruiter. So, to really understand the best practices, the Contingent Plan resume writing team analyzed 1000s of resumes AND actually used the most common applicant tracking systems in use by employers to find out what really works to make the resume visible. Here are the findings:


Skills are really another way to add critical keywords to your resume that the recruiter will search for. This skills section should be customized to the specific job that you are applying to whenever possible. Think about the following when adding a skills section to your resume:

  • Industry specific skills. Toot your own horn whenever possible. Make sure to add in the industry-specific skills that you have. This could mean particular tools, methodologies, practices, or particular tactics used by someone in the industry where you are applying.
  • Technology. This can be mission critical for candidates at all levels of their career. Recruiters (and ATS) will search for specific software program names and types of software. So, it is ok if you have only used a proprietary (or custom) version of a particular software type. Just make sure to add it to your resume.
  • Training. The fact that you have been through ongoing professional development or training shows you have the skills. Including the names of the particular training, conferences, or other seminars will also add in the keywords that the ATS is looking for.
  • Soft skills. Never forget that most organizations are looking for a person and not a robot to do the job. This means that a candidate who is not only qualified – but that also fits the company culture. So, incorporate softer skills like communication, leadership, teamwork, or conflict resolution to show that you can fit the employer’s culture.


One of the most important parts of a resume are job titles. Even entry-level jobs are posted with the job title as a keyword that is sorted by the ATS. This makes it really difficult for people to get any experience, move up the ladder, or make a career transition. Here are some ways to make sure a resume won’t get hung up on a lack of titles:

  • Use your real job title. Do not forget to put your job title for each position on your resume. This matters more than the name of the company where you worked.
  • Titles are relative. When your job title isn’t reflective of what you did because it never changed or it was uniquely odd to the company (translating into zero meaning in the rest of the world), then use a title that actually reflects what you did. Stay honest by putting your other title behind or in parenthesis.
  • Mix it up. Titles can vary between companies and within the organization, so incorporate different known variations of the desired title or use the one in the job posting in your resume.


All applicant tracking systems are driven by keywords. The ATS system and the recruiters using the system will search your resume based on keywords to find what they are looking for. Consider the following when developing the right keywords for your resume and background:

  • Industry specific. There are some industries where experience and knowledge of that industry are critical to breaking in to or up in the industry. This is particularly true when applying to jobs in healthcare, medical devices, banking, insurance, consumer packaged goods (CPG), and retail. So, don’t underestimate the importance of incorporating these industry-specific keywords – even if you don’t have direct experience in the industry itself. ​
  • Job title specific. Focus on the actual job title that you are generally searching and using the resume for. There are keywords unique to that job title that will be searched by the recruiter and the ATS. Applying to more than 1 type of job title? Then check out these reasons why it may be time for more than 1 resume.
  • Experience. These are keywords that make your resume searchable based on the level of experience desired. Meaning, make sure to include years and numbers of years on your resume. But, be cautious as years of experience will not always be seen as a good thing.
  • Style. This would include things like work style, management style, personality, workplace culture. Make sure to incorporate the keywords on your resume that are applicable to you, the specific job, and the expectations of the prospective employer.


A simple format for your resume is always best. Even if you are handing the resume to a contact at the prospective employer, chances are that the document will still end up in an ATS. Thus, keeping your resume in a simple short format will always be the best option. Sticking to a simple format means things like:

  • Using clear bullets. No need for tables or graphs on a resume – ever.
  • Avoid images at all costs. Read here for more explanation on why graphics are always a bad decision for your resume.
  • Do not put key information in the header or footer. The ATS simply won’t pick it up and the recruiter will not be able to find you when it matters most.
  • Never use a .txt file. You may get through the ATS, but recruiters hate these. Don’t spoil your good work. Keep it simple and use a .doc or .pdf of your resume. Never forget that a person and not a software program will almost always make the hiring decision.


​Still having trouble landing the interview? You may want to review the content on your resume to make sure that it is optimized for the types of jobs that you are looking for currently. The Contingent Plan offers a free expert report to analyze your resume. The resume analysis report checks your resume for what you are doing right and compares it to what the ATS sees. This free resume analysis report is completely free and comes with no obligation. Request your free expert resume analysis report today!


With years of experience in the job acquisition field, Kathy has delivered exceptional service by providing in-depth knowledge about recruiting qualified employees, and crafting the perfect resume. The Contingent Plan comprises a team of expert recruiters, resume writers, and outplacement experts—all ready to help you! Read Kathy’s blogs, and discover simple tricks and tips to help you land the job of your dreams.