How to properly format an ATS friendly resume

The way you layout information in your resume is critical because it impacts readability. The style and layout should enhance the content of your resume and make it easier to see, not hinder it.

Accordingly, you don’t want to use messy layouts that have too much going on. You may think that you’re standing out from the crowd, but what you’re actually doing is making it more difficult to read.

Your goal should always be to make your resume as easy to read as possible.

There are a lot of really fancy, dual (or even triple) column layouts floating all around the web. While they may look really cool, they will more than likely hurt your chances of success because of how incompatible they are with applicant tracking systems (ATS – more on that later).

I generally recommend using a simple, single-column layout that’s been prepared in programs like Microsoft Word, Google Docs, Apple Pages, or LibreOffice. Avoid using LaTeX resumes because they too can cause trouble with ATS.

Below, I’m going to go into more detail on the various aspects of your resume’s formatting.

Resume Length

This is a very controversial topic in the world of resume writing. You’ve probably heard people tell you to “keep it to one page no matter what if you have less than X amount of experience”.

The rationale behind using a one-page resume is that your entire story can be viewed in one glance. However, the problem arises when you have a lot of valuable experience and accomplishments that you’re sure would benefit your candidacy. What do you do then?

My advice would be to use one to two pages, no matter your experience level, depending upon your needs. If you have five years of experience but have accumulated an impressive list of accomplishments that requires two pages, by all means use two.

On the other hand, maybe you’re a tradesperson that has been with the same company for 17 years, doing the same type of work. Using one page is totally fine in this case.

A few exceptions to watch for:

  • If you’re in academia, you’ll be using an academic CV, which can be anywhere from 3 to 15 pages long.

  • If you’re in IT, cybersecurity, or software engineering, two to three pages is considered standard.

  • If you’re a senior executive with an extensive work history, three pages is totally acceptable.

Fonts


The key with choosing any font is that it should be clean and easy to read. See image below for an illustration of how different fonts can play out.


Font Size


For body text, keep size to between 10 and 11. Too small and readability suffers, while too big will impact space and efficiency.


Header Fonts


The text you use in your headings and for your name at the top don’t need to be the same font or size. For example:


The difference in font and size plays an important role and that is to help the reader distinguish the various sections and content in each.

Bold, Italics, or Underlined and Capitalized Text


Bold, italics, all caps and small caps can all be used in moderation to draw attention to information on your resume.


Dividing Lines


Dividing lines are another useful tool to compartmentalize the various sections and provide a clear distinction between where one section ends, and another begins.


To add a bottom border divider in Microsoft Word, see below:



Shading


I like to use shading in section headings to help that stand out. You can also use shading to distinguish other content in your resume, such as a testimonial. However, like bold, italics, and caps, this should be used sparingly. See below:


Alignment

I like to fully justify the body text of the resumes I write because I find it gives it a cleaner and more symmetrical look on both sides.


This is particularly useful for ensuring your dates are aligned to the right of your resume. To align information to the right, simply tab before the text you want to right align.

Margins

In the past, the resume’s margin, which is the space between the edge of the text and the edge of the document, needed to be a certain size (around 1 inch or around 2.5 cm) on the sides and the top/bottom. This is simply to make sure all of the stuff on a resume came out during printing.

Nowadays, few recruiters actually print a resume and because of this, you can use a smaller margin for a more modern look. You also get the added bonus of being able to fit more text into the document.

To change margins in Microsoft Word, go to the ‘Layout’ tab and click on ‘Margins’ in the top left corner. I typically like to use margin of 1.5 cm or 0.6 inches for the sides and 2 cm or 0.8 inches on the top.


 

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About the Author

James Cooper is a Certified Professional Resume Writer and has been in the recruiting, career coaching, and writing business for almost 14 years. He began his career recruiting for AECOM, a Canadian engineering firm, and he's gone on to work with and help professionals land roles at top Fortune 500 companies.

Have questions about resume writing? Reach out at jc@finaldraftresumes.com.