Why you Should Stop Submitting Your Resume and Cover Letter via PDF

April 22, 2015

Tired of applying (and reapplying) to jobs and never hearing back?

Does it feel like you’re on an endless circle of resume and cover letter writing and filing hours-long applications online?

There’s a chance it actually might not be you… it may be a simple formatting issue. If you’re submitting your resume and cover letters as PDFs – they may not be “readable” by the ATS you’re applying through.

What is an ATS?

Applicant Tracking Systems, or ATSes, is software that compiles data about people – but designed for recruitment tracking purposes. In a nutshell, most large companies (especially national or global corporations) use ATSes to manage their information about applicants and streamline their interactions. The ATS allows them to store applications, cover letters, and resumes into a database that can parse based on keywords, experience, skills and other features.

And you may be surprised to learn in the US there’s only 55 of them and, of those, Taleo dominates the market.


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If you click “apply” on a job ad and are brought to a page that invites you to “Login” or “Register,” or has a series of fillable forms – that’s an ATS. They’re almost universal.

Unfortunately for applicants, even though many ATSes invite you to submit your resume and cover letter via PDF, the system for reading them is buggy at best.

4 Reasons Not to Submit Your Resume via PDF

ATSes cant read PDFs
It may be tempting to include images or graphs that demonstrate your skills – or to protect the document – by submitting your resume and cover letter via PDF. Here’s why you should avoid that temptation:

  1. “Ed Struzik, an IBM expert on the systems, puts the proportion of large companies using them in the ‘high 90%’ range, and says it would ‘be very rare to find a Fortune 500 company without one.'” [source]
  2. The ATS will digitally import your resume into a candidate relationship database and then be used to analyze you against the job description. Put another way – software will parse your resume long before a human ever has a chance to. And what’s easier for software? Microsoft Word.
  3. There’s a chance, even in 2015, that the ATS you’re submitting to has no ability to read PDFs.

    There are roughly 55 different ATS vendors on the market.  Of those 55, only a few are able to translate the information from your PDF resume into their system.  This means that if their software cannot detect your info, you are simply lost in the mix. The company is just NOT able to search your resume or your name because your information is just blank in the system. [source]

  4. If your resume does translate, but poorly – or with large blanks, you’ll probably be placed in the round bin. Anything that makes it more difficult for a recruiter or hiring manager to identify you’re the right candidate for the job will result in them moving on to the next most-qualified candidate.

Depending on the ATS, a hiring manager may not even see your resume, just the ATS version of it. And that version scores you against how you matched the job description through its native algorithm. Submitting your cover letter and resume as a Word doc makes it much easier for your information to be parsed cleanly, accurately and completely.

If you absolutely must, for whatever reason, submit your application via PDF – do yourself a favor and conduct a quick QA check first. Open your PDF, select all, copy, and paste it into Notepad. Assume that anything that doesn’t propagate or paste cleanly won’t be translated by an ATS either.

TL;DR Word Docs are Your Best Bet.

We’re not saying this is going to magically make every employer you submit an application to give you the courtesy of a reply. But what we are saying is that you’ll stand a much better shot of having your application, cover letter, and personal details actually be programmatically scanned and accurately entered into the employer’s ATS if you submit it via Word.

Which – given how much time you put into that resume, personalized cover letter, and application – is a vast improvement over the alternative.