Do ATS Dream of Resume Formatting?

I won’t sugar coat it, the current job market is no joke. I’ve shared the value I feel networks offer. One undeniable truth is the need for a clear, concise, and machine readable resume is key. 

In February 2024 I, like many others, was impacted by the wave of tech layoffs. I am fortunate to have landed a new job, and also fortunate that my previous employer extended resume writing and job search resources to those impacted. As others navigate their own job search, I want to share some of the tips and tricks I learned about formatting a resume for an Applicant Tracking System (ATS) 

TLDR: No two versions of Workday (a common ATS) or any ATS are the same. There is no one size fits all for how to format your resume. That said, a good sniff test is to save /export your resume as a .txt file. If there is nothing funky happening you’re off to a good start. 

Specific tips resume coaches and trial and error taught me

  • Don’t use document headers for content. ATS cannot read document headers (or footers. Footers for things like name/phone as duplicative info on additional pages isn’t an issue). If you want a stylized document header it needs to be in the copy of the page. 
  • You can use H1, H2, and H3 text-headers for formatting for the human eye but an ATS likely won’t parse this separately or with any emphasis. Double check your export as noted in the TLDR to make sure any fonts and formatting isn’t causing unwanted or mangled text. 
  • Simplify your dates to either MM/YYYY or Month, YYYY. Different systems interpret formats differently and it is inevitable that you will have to fix this after the “auto import”. Avoid stylized shorthand or special characters outside of the date slash (/). 
  • Speaking of special characters, avoid pipes(|), dots (⏺), and other graphical text elements. Use commas and dashes. That’s all an ATS can understand. Everything else will bork it.
  • ALL CAPS company names in your job history. I don’t understand this, but apparently it’s a thing that helps systems parse company from role and dates.
  • Each ATS creates random line breaks on intake. This is a pain to go in and fix, but I’ve been told it doesn’t affect how the system reads the words. 
  • Obviously curate your resume for buzzword bingo based on the specific requirements of the job posting. If your resume says “created wireframes” and the job listing says “drafts wireframes”, use the word “drafts” exactly the way the job posting spells it

So what does all this look like in practice? 


Contributor, 01/2022 – 12/2023

PROS: All Caps Header, Commas, Clear Date format

Contributor, January 2022 – December 2023

PROS: Alternative date format
Not This The Interconnected, Remote 

Contributor | Jan ‘22 – Dec ‘23

CONS: Organization not capitalized, Vertical Pipes not machine readable, nonstandard date format

This list, along with networking and outreach, landed me back in the workforce. 

I wish those of you looking for employment the best of luck. This market is not a reflection of you. Your next role is out there. 

Author: David Farkas

David Farkas is a UX design consultant based out of Philadelphia. David works across industries and focuses on user research, workflow, and design process. David leads research workshops and workshops on adapting principles of improvisational performing for application across all phases of product design. David is co-author of UX Research through O’Reilly and self-published Collaborative Improv.