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How To Make an ATS Friendly CV?

To better understand how an ATS works, we’ve looked at one of the most popular applicant tracking systems (ATS) on the market with some big-name clients, including LinkedIn, Ikea, and Visa.

Companies of all sizes use SmartRecruiters because it’s easy to use for hiring teams and candidates.

CVScan Thousands of Companies use SmartRecruiters
SmartRecruiters - Clients.

SmartRecruiters has a free version called SmartStart, so you don't have to be a big company to have an ATS.

We’ve created an account and deep dive into it.

CVScan SmartStart Welcome
SmartRecruiters - Welcome Email.

What happens when you submit your application via an ATS?

First we’ve created a job for an Advertising Sales Executive position in London, UK.

CVScan SmartRecruiters Create Job
SmartRecruiters - Job Ad Form.

Once a job ad has been created, a link to the application form is generated and candidates can start to apply to the job.

Candidates can upload a CV which will be parsed to pre-populate their profile with their contact information, work experience and education and can edit this information in the profile template prior to submission, which leaves little room for errors regardless of the layout of the CV.

For this example, we have used our free CV template which did a good job at pre-populating all the fields.

SmartRecruiters will parse CVs uploaded by the candidate in DOC, DOCX, RTF, PPT, ODT, TXT, PDF, PDF with image inside, or TIFF file formats. Although most advanced ATS will support these formats, we recommend using widely recognised formats such as DOC, DOCX or PDF.

CVScan SmartRecruiters Create Job
SmartRecruiters - Candidates Application Form.

In total we’ve submitted four CVs, and regardless of their profiles all applicants ended up in date order in what SmartRecruiters calls the People List.

From this list, recruiters can:

CVScan SmartRecruiters Applicant List
SmartRecruiters - Applicant List.

ATS Search Tips & Tricks

SmartRecruiters' search engine can search through all text inside candidate profiles and CV.


When recruiters search on candidates, SmartRecruiters looks at a number of different fields and give these fields different weights. Here are all the fields SmartRecruiters search on, in order of weight:

1 First Name

2 Last Name

3 Email

4 City

5 State - US only. Use Postcode instead for other countries

6 Current Position at current company

7 Tags - are simple words or short phrases attach by recruiters to a candidate's profile to describe their skills

8 Skills - parsed from resume

9 Past Positions at past companies

10 Education

11 Job Applied To

12 Attached Resume

13 Attached Cover letter

Weighting determines the relevance of the results returned by SmartRecruiters. SmartRecruiters determines the relevance by counting the number of instances of the keyword and examining the location (field) of each instance.

For example, a candidate with keyword Marketing in their "Current Position" will be ranked higher compared to a candidate with two instances of "Marketing" in their "Skills", because Skills have a lower weight than "Current Position."

Advanced Candidate Searching

When searching for candidates, SmartRecruiters will treat each keyword as an individual phrase. For example, this query:

product manager

will return candidates with profiles that contain "product" or "manager". But just like with Google, recruiters can use quotes to search for an entire phrase. For example:

"product manager"

will return candidates with profiles that contain the phrase "product manager", but not "product" or "manager" alone.

Boolean Queries for Candidates

Recruiters can also use Boolean operators when searching for candidates. SmartRecruiters evaluates Boolean queries with the same relevance calculation as any regular keyword search. The operators determine which candidates are included or excluded from the results.

AND - Find all candidate profiles that have all keywords joined by this operator. Useful for narrowing down the search with additional keywords.

OR - Find candidates profiles with one or more keywords joined by this operator. Useful when there are common synonyms for a skill or job title that might appear on a candidate's profile.

NOT - Recruiters can use this operator to exclude all candidates who have an unwanted keyword in their profile.

() - Recruiters can use parentheses ( ) to combine operators and create boolean strings. They can enclose multi-word phrases in " " so that SmartRecruiters looks for the whole phrase, not the individual words.

Here's an example of all four in action:

("Sales" OR "Account Manager") AND ("CRM" AND "marketing") NOT ("B2B")

Conclusion and Recommendations

Based on our experience and research, most ATS use a similar candidates screening process as SmartRecruiters, which means that what works for SmartRecruiters is likely to work for most ATS.

First and foremost, you need to make your CV searchable and for that you need to focus on the fields SmartRecruiters search on, in order of weight. You can’t change your name, the University you studied at, the companies you worked for etc. but you can significantly improve on the following search fields:

  • Current Title Position
  • Skills, their location and instances

Current Title Position

This is the first field to work on as it has the highest weight amongst the fields that can be improved.

For example, if we search through our list of candidates (Jane, John, George and Will) for the most relevant CV in "advertising", John comes first as his current title position "Advertising Sales Executive" contains the keyword "advertising" while Jane comes second even though her CV contains two instances of "advertising" in her skills located in her current position.

Recruiters can also filter by location and even proximity, so if you are planning to move to London like Jane, make sure to change your city and postcode - as applicants from another city or country will only be considered for a position that requires specific skills or if the company allows remote working.

CVScan SmartRecruiters Search for Candidates
SmartRecruiters - Search for Candidates.

Skills, their Location and Instances

In this search scenario, we use a boolean query to search for candidates with profiles that contain the phrases ("closing sales" AND "business development").

The query returns three candidates, Jane, John and George. They all have some closing sales and business development experience, but Jane comes first because she’s got two instances of "business development" and one instance of "closing sales" located in her current position, while John has one instance of "business development" and "closing sales" in his current position, as well as one instance of "business development" in his previous position.

George comes third with one instance of "business development" in his current position, and one instance of "business development" and "closing sales" in his previous position.

Use Keywords in Strategic Places

It’s easy to get carried away and incorporate your keywords into your CV more than you should. Unfortunately, ATS are wise to keyword stuffing and will now penalise CV that do this. Instead of repeating the keyword a hundred times in the "body," it’s better to focus on placing it in strategic positions on your CV. These are: Current Title Position and Current Position.

CVScan SmartRecruiters Boolean Search
SmartRecruiters - Boolean Search.

Keyword Match

Some ATS are built on simple keyword matching technology, and in these systems, if a resume or CV lacks a certain vocabulary or "keywords", the system fails to identify a match.

For example the search below failed to identify Jane and George as potential candidates for the query ("advertising sales executive" AND "business development") for the simple reason that their CVs does not contain an exact match of the value entered. While John’s CV contains the keyword phrase "advertising sales executive".

CVScan SmartRecruiters Search Exact Match
SmartRecruiters - Search Exact Match.

Advanced Applicant Tracking System

With the advance of technology, some ATS understand the relationships between different concepts in the text.

For example, it understands that a CV is about "advertising sales executive" even if it doesn’t contain the actual keyword phrase but related concepts such as "advertising", "closing sales", "media sales" or "new business".

On the other hand, upon finding words like "ad operations", "audience data" or "campaign ROI" being used, it stands clear that in that context, the candidate has more of an operational background than Sales.

Then the ATS will look at some fields such as years of work experience, and education to determine if there is a match. So in this case, our candidates Jane and George would have most certainly been shortlisted for the Advertising Sales Executive position, even though their CVs don’t contain an exact keyword match, but strong related keywords to the role.

CVScan Keyword Map

In summary, the right usage of keywords helps ATS assign the right match score. When you make ATS’s job easier by including related keywords, then you’ll see your rankings go up too!

Try our FREE CVScan optimisation tool to get your personalised list of keywords based on your CV and the job description.

If relevant, it’s also a good idea to combine the skills you are missing when compared to the job description with the most in-demand skills for a specific industry and job title - see for example the most popular skills for an Advertising Sales Executive.