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

Views: 91080

Comment by Chris Hood on February 2, 2010 at 1:41pm
Thanks for the insight. As evidenced above, this is something that goes way beyond a surface level impresion, and can have an impact on one's ability to gain consideration for a job.

The .PDF conundrum often finds me duplicating efforts by reformatting, or requesting a Word copy so that I can parse properly in to my ATS.

While my question was more slanted to one's intent, you provided some great information regarding strategy and logic.

Comment by Sandra McCartt on February 2, 2010 at 11:28pm
Very concise overview.
Comment by Tammy Duran on February 5, 2010 at 11:23am
Love this post, you have said exactly what I've been thinking about resumes for so long. It drives me crazy having to reform a candidates resume so that it's easier to read or will allow our ATS (antiquated as it is) to read it and be able to search our database.

Thanks for the insightful post.
Comment by Brian Peddle on February 5, 2010 at 12:05pm
Parsing resumes is complicated task. I have been developing software for ATS systems for a long time now and still get surprised at some of the stuff I see.

Most job seekers don't realize the resume is read by a machine and parsed up into HRXML or other formats.

Things I have seen lately. Graphic Design people are designing their header with name, address etc and inserting that image above the copy of the resume. Guess what, most of the parsers don't do OCR.

Lately I have seen lots of people just using a single first or last name, I don't know why but if you aren't Madonna or Seal stick with the whole name.

I am sure Oracle Certified Professionals and Microsoft Certified Professionals are proud but that big logo you jam in the header isn't helping.

Don't make your resume "Read Only".

Make sure your resume isn't "Locked" with a password. -- I will never get this one.

Don't embed crazy Active X controls or reference a web server for images.

Scanning your resume in to make a PDF then trying to attach it doesn't work. Again no OCR. (this also includes faxing yourself a resume)

Your resume isn't going to stand out because you use a script font 20 pixels and colors of the rainbow. (not sure this matter to the machine but boy does it look horrible)

Don't get too creative with a text file and write your name like this:
This isn't a name, its a bunch of letters with spaces.

I have more but I think this is a good start.

Oh I also came across a 10 page biography, I mean resume the other day. 10 Pages! Really?
Comment by Amy Gardner on February 5, 2010 at 1:37pm
Great post, and I totally agree. I have mentioned it before to job seekers on my blog, and am so glad to see I'm not the only recruiter with .pdf fatigue. It is true that I often don't have the time to convert pdf files to .doc files--they end up as "oh yeah, I need to check my .pdf files just in case the best candidate isn't in my database." Thanks for making it helpful for us recruiters and those job seekers!
Comment by Ralph Leon on February 5, 2010 at 1:44pm
Well put! I really enjoyed reading the part about adding SEO into the resume. I never really thought of that and it's a brilliant idea. The formatting friendly point is something I've not only seen, but also something I agree with. It can really ruin a resume fast if the format isn't compatible with a different computer, especially a recruiters. Too much risk for something that won't always guarantee your resume will stand out. Great post!
Comment by Sandra McCartt on February 5, 2010 at 3:11pm
Please, please include.
1. When you save your resume on your computer, save it with your name. ie; JohnDoe not "my resume", or" John's resume". No telling how many times i have to rename a word doc so i can find it.

2. Email address for job hunting and sending resumes. Full name please ie; not
jdbigdog or other cute things you thought up. Search is easier and you don't look like an idiot when you put it on a resume. The email address might just be used for job search then cancelled after it's over.
Comment by Brian Peddle on February 5, 2010 at 6:23pm
@Sandra -- what's wrong with the email ...
Comment by Donato Diorio on February 6, 2010 at 12:36am
Interesting post. There are 2 concepts here. What is easier for a recruiter (yes, I would prefer WORD 97-03) and what is best for the candidate in terms of SEO. I would like to see the metrics of how well the same resume in DOC, PDF, TXT, and HTML would rank in SEO. It seems like you are just guessing. HTML is the format of the web and I think it would fare better than DOC. (yes, I am guessing now). If you used HTML, you could maintain a simple title like manager in the text body with XML in the hyperlink. The hyperlink could include tags like "Engineering Manager", "Engineering Director" and "Sigma six Engineering...".

Someone should create a resume permation tagging program. It could create multiple permuations of each key word as hyperlinks. The document would remain readible, but the SEO value would skyrocket. Sell it to candidates. hmmmm, nope not my market.

PDF's are not an issue if you have a good resume parser like Sovren. Sourcing tools like Broadlook Diver can translate any format of resume so you don't have to deal with PDF's.
Comment by Marie Journey on February 7, 2010 at 7:55pm
Fisher ~ Well done. Looking foward to your post we can all send out to our candidates, friends, and family to spread the word.

Sandra ~ Spot on & hope Fisher takes note on the tip for saving the resume.

Donato ~ Heard great things about Broadlook products and will be testing them out next week. :) As a SME on several ATS/CRMs for recruiting I'm not guessing when I say the very best format is MS Word saved 97-2003. For both recruiters & candidates key words are critical per OFCCP as well as popping on search strings and a resume must reflect accordingly. Every recruiter and sourcer slams into the wall of over formatted, lacking in discriptive word resumes. There are programs that scan docs for keywords out there, but most candidates that post resumes via web usually tag them well. More and more are also laying resumes HTML style directly into blogs & posts as new tech makes it easier and easier.


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