Hack #1 – Your CV and Applicant Tracking Systems

By Chris Cutting – CV Adviser

This is the first of three CV hacks, over this and the next two weeks, which are aimed at increasing your chances of success with online applications; CV and Applicant Tracking Systems.

The online recruitment world has made job searching much easier in one sense and paradoxically more complex in another. As a recruiter and CV Adviser, I’ve seen these changes over time. 

Pre internet, a job search was carried out through a handful of sector specific recruiters and a few professional journals, the local papers and the “broadsheets” on specific days. Searches and applications were so much simpler due to less choice. You made sure of a well written CV and sent it off by post. Selection was done manually.

How has it become easier yet more complex?

Job search and applications are easier now due to a proliferation of large and small agencies, generalist and specific job boards of all kinds such as Four Day Week, several social and professional media platforms with subgroups within each, not to mention the myriad of company website career pages. All operate 24/7. These channels can be aggregated, along with job alerts, into your email, reviewed, and responded to quickly by attaching a CV and clicking “send.” However, there is a catch!

CV shortlisting has become increasingly automated and it is this automation that has complicated matters. The general term used for these softwares is Applicant Tracking Systems or ATS. 

The problem arises in that there are a number of different systems available for recruiters to buy and though similar, all operate differently. This is a real issue. Your CV may be “read” and selected by one ATS but not by another. As a candidate you won’t know who is using which system and how your CV may fall foul of it. In some instances ATS will insist you fill out the boxes which are sometimes inadequate for showcasing your skills and achievements. How do you steer through this minefield? 

The ATS minefield

There is a plethora of online information on this subject and the need for brevity in a short blog necessitates covering the most common issue; Word DocumentPDF

Some systems will read both easily, some will have difficulty with PDF. You might reasonably conclude that submitting a CV in Word is a safe bet. It is generally, until you insert a “table” into the document. Some ATS can have difficulty reading these tables. The same is true for using graphics and in some cases, bullet point markers. To add to the confusion, the version of Word you use can also make a difference. If the recruiter has a version of Word which is incompatible with yours, they won’t be able to open the CV. In some cases the ATS won’t show the recruiter the entire CV. The answer to this conundrum is surprisingly simple.


The answer is keep things simple. As a rule of thumb, it may be safer to adopt the following principles. The caveat is that the solutions can only ever be a set of compromises that increase the likelihood of getting your CV through the ATS.

In making the CV as easy as possible to access information, avoid tables, graphics and possibly bullet markers

Save the CV in Word using .doc and avoid the .docx file extension if possible, making it accessible to all versions of Word
(An exception here may be a graphic designer who would use PDF or other format to visually demonstrate their skill and get graphics through ATS) 

If there is the possibility of uploading a CV, when filling out a job board application, do so bearing in mind the above