How to Write a Resume for an Online Job Application

Adapt your resume for corporate applicant tracking systems

Back in the old days, hiring managers would receive resumes by email or “snail mail.” These days are coming to a close. In today’s job marketplace, most companies post their want ads online and receive hundreds or even thousands of responses. In order to sort through so many resumes, many companies use resume scanning software or “applicant tracking systems.” These computerized systems help the employer target the best candidates.

The positive side of online job applications is that you have access to hundreds of job postings. The down side, however, is that there is a great deal of competition. How can you get the resume scanning software to notice your resume? How can you increase your chances of getting your resume seen by a real human being? Here are some tips and strategies to use next time you apply for a job online.

1. Keywords and key phrases
Resume scanning systems need to rely on the algorithms that are programmed into them. Typically, they search resumes for specific keywords and key phrases. The employers choose these keywords because resumes with these words are more likely to be a good fit for the job. So how do you know what keywords are being used?

  • The best strategy is to study the job posting itself. It is likely that many of the keywords and key phrases will appear there. They will be the words that are directly relating to the job’s key responsibilities.
  • Be sure you include the actual job title in your resume (for instance, in the objective line). There’s a good chance that the job title will be one of the key phrases.
  • Next, try to incorporate most of these keywords and phrases into your resume at least once, or sometimes twice. Make sure your wording still sounds natural.
  • You should not “overstuff” your resume with too many keywords—doing that may count against you.

2. Use the usual resume categories
When it comes to trying to impress a computer, it’s best to play it safe. Stick with the categories that a computer will recognize: Objective, Skills, Work Experience, Education. If you try to get creative with different headings, the computer might miss a whole section of your resume.

3. Highlight your relevant skills at the top
Resume strategies have shifted over the years. Resumes used to be a simple listing of your past jobs. Now employers expect to see more concrete skills and measurable results. They want to know how you will bring value to them. For this reason, it’s a good idea to list your job-related skills at the top of the resume. You can do this either as a bulleted list under the Skills section or in a short Summary Statement at the beginning of your resume. Be sure to use relevant keywords when possible.

4. Remove the formatting features
Avoid the temptation of making a stylized resume. Certain formatting features can trip up the scanning system and disqualify your resume. Instead, strip down your resume to the bare basics:

  • No graphics, tables, logos, or art
  • No headers, footers, or page numbers
  • Choose one simple font to use, like Calibri, Times New Roman, Arial, or Verdana
  • Be sure to submit the resume in the file format that the website tells you. If the job site does not specify a format, then a text file is safest. Word files (.doc) are usually safe too.
  • Be sure to name your file with your name to distinguish it from others. For instance: “Resume_Jon_Doe.txt”

5. Submit a cover letter, even if not required
Depending on the application, you may or may not have to include a cover letter. If you have the option of attaching a cover letter, then you should definitely do it. This gives you a chance to further promote your skills and qualifications. It is also an opportunity to use more keywords. Completing the cover letter demonstrates that you are serious about the job application. It separates you from people who send resumes indiscriminately. Try these cover letter tips to help you get started.

Bonus tip:

6. Update your LinkedIn profile
When you are in the market for a new job, it’s important to keep your LinkedIn profile up to date. If your resume is selected for review, the hiring manager will probably search for you on LinkedIn. Make sure your settings allow your information to be viewed. Try these tips for creating a stronger LinkedIn profile.

We hope these tips help you write a more strategic resume for today’s online job application environment. It may take a little extra time to customize each resume for each job application, but it will be worth the effort!


The Branford Hall Career Institute provides job search advice in its weekly blog. Our school offers career-focused training at 12 campuses throughout Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey. Find out more about getting job training at Branford Hall.