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Creative Résumés in the Age of Applicant Tracking Systems

Published on February 26, 2018, at 6:23 p.m.
by Greta Banks.

Once upon a time, not too long ago — about five years to be exact — the résumé debate centered around simpler things, like whether hiring managers and recruiters preferred creative or traditional résumés. Now, you’re lucky if your résumé is seen by a person at all.

What are applicant tracking systems?
Applicant tracking systems, or ATS, have revolutionized the way companies are hiring people. According to, the average corporate job opening draws 250 applications. The lengthy hiring process was also the second largest obstacle to filling positions, according to Glassdoor. Now, ATS can offer hiring managers a faster, easier way to sort through résumés by automatically identifying and organizing the key information and presenting them with a ranking of candidates’ qualifications.

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“A lot of recruiters and hiring managers have a very limited amount of time,” said Christina Everett, digital marketing manager at, a company dedicated to helping jobseekers beat ATS. “What they’ll do is, set a filter within their system — say maybe they only want 60 percent and above or 70 percent and above to even show up at all — and the rest will get an auto-reject email without having their application even being seen (by a person).”

How do ATS affect résumés?
According to Appliview, around 70 percent of applicants are cut by ATS. This can be a frightening prospect for job seekers, especially when trying to make a résumé. Without knowing the precise settings and capabilities of a company’s ATS, it can be hard to make decisions about formatting and style.

“Making sure that everything is really clean and what you would want to see from a human eye generally works best within applicant tracking systems, as well,” said Everett.

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Since the goal is to make it past the ATS and receive an interview, it’s important that job candidates consider both the human and computer perspectives. However, applicant tracking systems are not yet as capable as humans are at reading more complex résumés. Logos, pictures and advanced symbols generally can’t be read by an ATS. Additionally, Everett said that colors and less traditional fonts can often be read, but may be auto-compiled into something more basic by the ATS, which isn’t necessarily attractive.

According to Everett, the best bet for creating a résumé that will be read by the ATS and retain clean presentation when it gets to a human, may be using a template.

“I would say to use a template, something like an applicant tracking systems friendly template … but using that as a baseline and getting creative within sizing and line breaks and things like that but not necessarily fonts and colors and not a whole lot of images.”

How can applicants be creative?
So, what can applicants seeking to showcase their creative abilities do if they aren’t satisfied with the limitations of an ATS?

“Bringing an in-person [résumé] is a good idea. As long as the information is exact, the formatting can be a little bit different,” said Everett.

Amy Bramlett, manager of student services and diversity outreach at the University of Alabama Career Center, agreed that having more than one résumé can be beneficial. Bramlett also suggested taking advantage of LinkedIn features that allow you to link to creative work like blogs and presentations, or creating a personal website with tools like

“Putting [a personal website] at the top of your résumé is going to get noticed probably even more than if it says LinkedIn because almost everybody has that now.”

Bramlett suggested playing it safe with the ATS, and waiting until you get to the interview to show off your creative skills.

“You have submitted your résumé, so when you get called in, you can show them your creative stuff in person. Set a portfolio in front of them, point out your website and ask them to look at it,” Bramlett explained.

What is most important?
Both Bramlett and Everett also pointed out that the résumé that candidates submit should change from position to position, and be tailored to each individual job posting.

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“Especially for students, résumé optimization is key, particularly when you maybe don’t have the job experience that uses key words,” said Everett. “Put in some course information and any kind of outside projects, and make sure that you’re using the key words from the job description or job requisition — ensuring that those match and that you have everything within your résumé that shows that you are capable of doing that job, even if maybe it’s something that you’ve never done in the traditional job setting before.”

“I always encourage multiple résumés … and really knowing your audience before you hit that submit button, because one size does not fit all, ever, in the job search, or in résumés, or in interviews,” said Bramlett.

Résumé optimization and content, it seems, should be more important than aesthetics these days, when having to go through ATS.

“I think there’s a place for creative résumés, I do, but … any creative résumé needs to measure up to a really conservative one in how much it can offer,” said Bramlett.

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