Employment Advice Column: How to Beat the Applicant Tracking Software (ATS) with a winning online application!

Dear Joanna

How does this ATS system work? How can I prepare a resume and cover letter application that will include those “keywords” that will be picked up by this ATS computer system? Please can you explain how I can increase my chances for a job interview with the right type of online application?

Signed: Keyword Confusion

Dear KC,

After consulting with the Reena job coaches from Channels, SET and RSES, as well as information from Borsellino’s, here is some advice to consider.

  1. Understand the system. All ATS systems are programmed to read the resume and cover letter to find out if you’re a match for the job opening. Just like you would scan a document, so do the recruiters but through this software. One way that the ATS selects candidates to interview is by searching for specific “keywords”.
  2. Including the right keywords. If you want to be noticed by the ATS, you need to include these special words that the recruiters search for – the most important ones for performing the job. Look for the “hard skills” that come up more than once in a posting and are mentioned near the top of the job posting’s requirements and duties. For example, for a receptionist job posting, the ATS keyword might be “customer service” or “MS Office”. Depending on your job goal, certain degrees and certifications could be important keywords. For example, if you are applying for a kitchen helper, your resume’s Food Handling Certification will most definitely be picked up in the ATS.
  3. Don’t Trick the ATS. You can’t fool the ATS or the recruiter. For example, I know one job seeker who pasted the entire job description in white, repeated the keywords many times in the resume and even added a section labeled “keywords” with various words from the job description. Guess what happened? The application was flagged by the ATS. And this trick was discovered by the recruiter who saw that the candidate added the full text of the job description in the resume and just wrote “customer service customer service customer service” many times. You’re showing the recruiter that you’ll cheat to get ahead. In the end, you need to be able to do the job and prove it on your resume.
  4. Choose the right file type. There are two formats to submit your application (resume and cover letter). Either “.docx” or “.pdf”. According to the blogger, the .docx format is the best one to be picked up by the ATS. However, it’s important to follow the instructions of the application process.
  5. Prepare an “Easy-to-Scan” resume by humans and the software. Recruiters want to find the information they’re looking for very quickly and in a readable form. For example, the ATS prefers chronological and combination resumes because your experiences, qualifications, education and skills are much easier to read in these formats. Don’t prepare a fancy resume with creative fonts and images. Avoid tables, text boxes, graphics, visuals, headers, footers, columns, hyperlinks, and more suggests Borsellino. Did you know that the ATS will convert your document to a text-only file? All the fancy formatting will be lost. And the ATS won’t be able to detect the important information on the application! Your application will not be presented!

If you want more information on this topic, visit Borsellino’s blog website and/or  feel free to ask me any questions or make any comments in confidence at


About Joanna Samuels

Joanna Samuels, B.Ed (in adult education), M.Ed, CMF, RRP, is an employment resource supervisor at She has over 12 years of frontline experience in providing supported and customized employment/career coaching, job development, and workshop facilitation to unemployed and underemployed job seekers from diverse communities and fields who are individuals with disabilities and multi-barriers. She also helps employers with building an inclusive workforce through innovative recruitment programs, as well as offers “train the trainer” courses. Also, Joanna is a certified Life Skills Coach, and certified Personality Dimensions Facilitator. She is a published author, and employment advice columnist as well as a guest speaker on issues related to employment and careers at conferences and podcasts as well as being featured on Kelly & Company, and