The Best Format for Your Resume (Hint: It's Not .PDF)

So you want your resume to look pretty. Naturally. But is your pretty format preventing your resume from functioning as well as it should?

Did you know that many corporate and staffing agency ATS's (Applicant Tracking Systems) strip your resume of formatting when the information is imported into your profile? Or that when you forward your resume to a recruiter, they often have to copy and paste it into a new format that follows their protocol before they forward it on to the hiring manager?

Crush the Competition with a Knockout Resume

Resumes that are heavily formatted with tables and graphics don't translate very well when they are pasted into a new document. Your best bet is to use the 97-2003 version MS Word (not my favorite either), minimizing tables and graphics. A Rich Text Format version works well too. Here is a test. Take your resume, select all, copy, and paste it into a blank Word doc. How does it do?

Some ATS systems will translate fancy formatting seamlessly. But many companies, unfortunately, have systems that don't. And your resume is most likely going to be viewed in a browser or system window of some kind, versus on a printed page, or as an attachment (which many companies see as being vulnerable to viruses). Also consider the preview or cached version of your resume, which many recruiters and hiring managers will view to save time or to keep from having to open an application to view your document. Fancy formatting doesn't translate in this instance either.

The information in the resume is far more important than a flashy style. If the info is presented in a professional, straight forward way, you are ultimately better off and will have a portable resume that can be effective in multiple instances.

One of main considerations for your resume should be SEO. That's right, search engine optimization. Each company you apply to, be it corporate or staffing agency, will store your resume in a database of some kind. And the way your resume is retrieved, when someone is searching this database for viable candidates, is by keyword search. So make sure your document contains the proper keywords, that are specific to your skill set, throughout your resume. Also make sure that your name and contact info are not embedded in a header (this also doesn't translate well in some systems).

Think of the world wide web as one big collection of databases. Job seekers should have their resume stored somewhere on the Internet so that it can be found outside of a company's internal database. Again, keywords are the method by which it will be retrieved. And be specific. Not "Manager", but "Six Sigma Program Manager". Use the words that will set you apart in a keyword specific search. And repeat these keywords where they apply in each job description so that the reader will have some context as to where and when you used these skills.

Many resume writing services encourage fancy formatting to "set you apart". Using color in a resume is a popular trend. This is all fine. There is nothing wrong with having a pretty version of your resume. But if you are going to pay a resume service to help you, you might consider asking them for an html version that looks just as nice. This can be the one you keep on your web site or blog.

Also ask for a version that is in Rich Text Format, or MS Word without so much table formatting. These can be the docs that are easily translated in corporate ATS systems and online job boards. Put a link on there to the "pretty" version online if you like. But also put the functional version online somewhere if you want it to be easily found and read.

A note on .PDF formats. Many systems still don't translate .PDF resumes well or at all. Some systems will but require a costly add-on. And if a recruiter is tasked with converting your resume to a different format to comply with company guidelines or branding, yours may very well go to the back of the line if the busy recruiter is in a time crunch (which is often the case).

Some candidates will complain that they don't want their resume altered in any way. All I can say to that is that these candidates also don't want a job very badly.

Here are some additional articles you may find helpful.

Resume SEO: Get Your Resume to the Top

Top 10 Things to Leave OFF of Your Resume

Best Modern Resumes

About the Author

craigbeavercreek Craig Fisher is Co-Founder and Principal of A-List Solutions, an Information Technology Staffing, Executive Search, and Social Recruiting Strategy firm in Southlake TX. His fifteen years in recruiting also include positions as an award-winning Account Manager and Sales Director with Stark Technical Group, and as a top-performing Senior Recruiter with MATRIX Resources. Craig started his nineteen year sales career as a pharma and medsurge rep with Glaxo and Smiths Medical.

Craig is also a speaker and trainer for Social Job Search, Social Recruiting, and Social Branding strategies. He hosts the TalentNet Live social recruiting forum on Twitter, featuring big names in recruiting and social media on the last Wed. of each month from 9-11PM Eastern at #TNL. See for details. Craig blogs at and tweets at

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Comment by Linda Ferrante on January 4, 2011 at 10:16am

Whenever I receive resumes in a format other than a 'standard MS Word document' I ask the candidate to resubmit as such.  Just a couple of weeks ago, I had a candidate send her resume in some weird format (one I couldn't actually identify) and in response to my asking her to resubmit, she sent exactly the same thing.  I responded again with Word document please.  She responded with this is it, take it or leave it.  I said I would not be able to accept it in that format, simply due to the nature of computers, viruses, etc., and that we only accept Word documents.  She told me she had never heard of a 'standard MS Word document'.  I wasn't sure what to do at that point, so I left it alone.  I should add this was for an Office Coordinator where MS products would be used....hmmm...

Comment by Elise Reynolds on February 16, 2012 at 10:43am

I recruit a lot of people from the engineering field and PDF tends to rule for document creation in that industry.  I am always being sent PDF files and they are so hard to work with.  I am always requesting the resume to be resent to me in a WORD doc. 


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