Why your PDF resume might be killing you

by Rich DeMatteo on August 18, 2011 · 62 comments

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My allergies are absolutely killing me.  The battle of my body versus my environment has now reached an annoying three weeks.  What’s worse is that this is the first year I’ve ever experienced an allergic catastrophe like I’m dealing with now.  Seriously, it just came out of no where.  But enough about me, time to talk about what might be killing you!

 

For several years, I’ve been thinking of writing about the horror that a PDF resume can bring to job seekers.  For too long, I’ve been waiting for the right time or the right idea/inspiration to write about this menacing problem.  However, FINS absolutely crushed this topic and beat me to the punch, so I feel I must review their post and pass it on to you.

I was recently quoted in FINS in a Cover Letter story, and while there, I noticed their very strong PDF v. Word post.  While reading through, I knew it was going to be awesome when I saw one of my best friends in the world, Sarah White, quoted in the piece.  She’s brilliant and shows off her HR technology brain in the article.  You can read the full post by clicking here, and I invite you to check out my review of the post below.

Important Point #1

If you weren’t aware already, most companies these days use an Applicant Tracking System (ATS) to receive, organize, review, and search the resume that you (and everyone) send in for the job.  Ever apply to a job and receive an almost instant email back?  Yep, that’s the ATS saying “howdy” to your face.  As Sarah White mentions in the article, about 61% of North American companies have an ATS now, and job seekers will find that more and more companies will start using them.

Important Point #2

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 can not 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.

Time For An Awesome Sarah White Quote:

I think you’re always safer using a Word document than a PDF, as well as sticking to .doc instead of .docx extensions.  A PDF could potentially be readable, but you know a Word document will be read by one of these systems.

Important Point #3

Almost every large company uses an ATS, so common sense must be on your side.  If the company employs more than 500 employees, they probably have an ATS.  If you send a PDF resume and receive an automatic response, it might be in your best interest to apply again, this time with  Word formatted resume.

Final Thoughts

I know that the PDF resumes can look fun and make you seem techy and innovative, so use them when the company is also techy and innovative.  Perfect example would be for a startup.  Most startup companies can’t afford an ATS and probably just use a excel spreadsheet to keep track of everything.  Feel free to send them your wacky and wild or pretty and fun PDF resume.  Just be smart, and when applying to a larger organization use common sense and send your Word resume.

Need help with your resume?  Click here to check out my resume and cover letter writing service…

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30 comments
AbdulAziz1
AbdulAziz1

I have sent over 1000 resumes under pdf not one response

only in america lol

inivux
inivux

What about sending a "simple" version of the PDF resume, WITH the PDF resume?

 

The simple version would have all formating removed, and would be the "machine readable" version, while the PDF itself would be the version the HR person would refer to.

inivux
inivux

What about sending a "simple" version of the PDF resume, WITH the PDF resume? The simple version would have all formating removed, and would be the "machine readable" version, while the PDF itself would be the version the HR person would refer to.

davebarbarian
davebarbarian

Seriously? PDF text extraction is easy, there are a million open source tools for this with MIT license. Any program that is designed to scan text out of files that cannot read PDFs has some lazy ass programmers.

catherinalucy
catherinalucy

We should not prepare the resumes format in the PDF's style.The recruiters won't allow this type of format.

evan_CD
evan_CD

How to transfer car loan to my name?

Nick Leigh-Morgan
Nick Leigh-Morgan

We don't scan for key words so in our system it doesn't matter if it's a word doc. or pdf resume you upload. www.ikrut.com = recruitment just got free.

Larry
Larry

Regarding PDF files. Disclosure: I have NEVER seen the recruiter side of an ATS tool. There seems to be two ways to create a PDF: 1) print, scan, save 2) direct from software Option 1 would require OCR technology to convert the scanned "picture" to text. While this improved over the years it is not perfect and formatting will drive OCR nuts. Option 2 usually embeds the raw text as well. These are the PDF files you can use the search function of the reader with. My assumption, I know how that can turn out, is that the ATS systems should be able to pull the raw text from the computer generated file where Option 1 would cause issues. Regardless, why buck the system? Use the .doc or .txt format when applying and avoid the issue. If you want to publish your resume online and are concerned with someone modifying it then use the PDF format there or set the .doc file to read only. Just a thought...

CJ
CJ

Rich, First, I really enjoy your site and your posts ... eh, most of which I agree with. :-) Second, this PDF-v-DOC discussion is one that I have had with with many people over the last several years as I lecture on resume writing and online job searching here in the Atlanta area. I wrote a entry for my blog (http://wp.me/puGHZ-c8) about a year ago and discussed this very issue. But, like in my post, let me extend your warning comments to include the .ODT format as well as the .PDF format. Both are a challenge to current-day ATS platforms. For those of you not familiar with .ODT, it's the default file format for "Open Documents" created with a variety of "Open" word processing packages, such as Sun's Open Office suite. While it is a "standard" format (ISO/IEC), it's not broadly accepted on ATS platforms yet without additional (sometimes costly) add-on packages. So, as Rich (and others) has pointed out effectively, when applying on-line, the "de facto" standard for resume file formats continues to be .DOC (.DOCX is almost on-par with .DOC .. give it another year) -- stick with it for now. Keep the great posts coming along!

MMF
MMF

Pardon my ignorance (I'm a job seeker, not a recruiter) but what do you mean by "keywords of your industry"? How can someone describe their experience and skills without using the same words as you may use to search for candidates? Are seekers and recruiters using such different language? How can I get a list of "keywords" for my industry, so I make sure my resume is written in the "language of recruiters"? Many thanks.

Elaine
Elaine

Rich, Great column! Just one question regarding, "My allergies are absolutely killing me." Couldn't be allergic to corn, could you?!

Michael Crouse
Michael Crouse

AMEN! It is one of my biggest pet peeves, is havinbg PDF resumes. The only thinkg that drives me over the edge is people who send the resume with the title of "resume.doc". These people do not think anyone else use that defualt title. I used to rename them to be a nice recruiter, but when i have volumes of resumes coming in, in is easier to reject it since my ATS will not process it since there is ALWAYS one already in the database!

rbcintexas
rbcintexas

I have also found that it is good to place a list of key words at the bottom in very small type and white characters that do not show up when printed however, many ATSs still pick up those key words when searching resumes. Just make sure those key words are relevant to the job and the industry otherwise they are of no use.

Corey Witt
Corey Witt

Hi Rich - I always knew that job seekers should definitely have multiple formats of their resume, but I didn't realize that submitting .PDFs could be such a problem. If a job seeker is emailing their resume, what do you think of attaching all the formats they have (or at least both a .Doc and .PDF)? Whenever there's an online system, the .Doc submission always works better, even if .PDF can be submitted. In those instances, it seems like the .Doc just translates better into the system. Thanks for the tips! - Corey Career Blogger at Urban Interns

Lee Silverstein
Lee Silverstein

Rich, Great tip on .docx vs. .doc. It's something I suspected, but wasn't entirely sure. Thanks for the heads up. Lee

BTRIPP
BTRIPP

Geez ... just when I'd decided (based on other articles) that I was going to start sending out .pdf versions of my resume, I read this! Frankly, I have a "jam-packed" resume, reflecting 30+ years of experience in four or five (depending how one wants to slice-and-dice it) areas of the Communications field, and it has a nasty habit of trying very hard to push the last few items off the second page when left to the variables of how different systems display a .doc file. Obviously, having a .pdf version keeps all the info where it's supposed to be ... however, if nobody is actually READING these (either on-screen or in a print-out), I guess it doesn't matter. Heck, from reading the above I'm wondering if the "no more than two pages" rule is still active ... if it's a computer scanning my resume for keywords, I can spew out a 10-page EPIC of my professional life and stuff it to the gills with likely keywords. Eh ... anyway ... you've convinced me to keep attaching the .doc version for the time being! - B.T.

Steven Rothberg CollegeRecruiter.com
Steven Rothberg CollegeRecruiter.com

Excellent advice, Rich. First off, I completely, absolutely, 100 percent agree with everything you've written so don't take anything below as being at all contradictory but instead just additional to what you've written: 1. Erin's comment from a few minutes ago is one that we hear a lot. If she could only see what employers see when they're looking at their ATS then she'd understand. Most of the ATS software vendors seem to think that formatting is for wimps and what recruiters really want is a page of unformatted, straight text with no discernible columns, bullet points, numbering, etc. So all that nice formatting like putting your dates of employment in one column and your job title and description in another so employers can read at a glance where you've been and what you've done? Forget about it. It all mashes together. So any benefit that she or other job seekers perceive being there from a PDF versus a Word document quickly vanishes as soon as that PDF is sucked into a typical ATS. 2. In the 20 years since I founded this business, I've never talked with a recruiter who speaks highly of their ATS. Never. 3. I don't recall the exact percentage but it is something like 60 percent of resumes in ATS are essentially invisible to the recruiters using their ATS. The percentage was given to me by the folks at Preptel, which have created a system which will convert the resume you post at a job board or other web site into a format that is compatible with each of the major ATS and then posts your resume for you. Incredibly, putting dates in one column and job titles and descriptions in another -- like most resumes seem to be -- is one of the biggest problems for the ATS. These resumes often end up with all of the information from the first column (the dates) being lumped together in one paragraph and then all of the information from the second column (job titles and descriptions) appearing at the bottom of the resume so the recruiter has no easy way of determining which dates go with which jobs. These ATS have only been around for 15 years. You'd think they'd care more about the candidates and their clients. If they did, you'd never see a problem like this. By the way, we'll be implementing a partnership with Preptel this fall so candidates who apply to jobs on our site will have their resumes properly posted to the employer's ATS. 4. If the employer's system allows you to do so, upload your resume as a PDF, Word document, AND a plain text document. Look long and hard at that last one. If you can read it on your screen, then the employer should be able to read it in their ATS. Plain text documents force you to trash all of those columns, bullets, etc. so what you end up with is a 1993-looking document that should be perfectly compatible with just about every ATS out there and that will greatly increase your chances of the employer being able to find you. 5. Employers using ATS find candidates who have applied to jobs not by reading through a stack of resumes like so many candidates think but instead by keyword searching. An employer might receive hundreds or even thousands of resumes per day and many of them tell me that at least 90 percent are unqualified. Rather than wasting time reading through the 90 percent, the employers try to find the 10 percent by running keyword searches just like we all do when we go to Google, Bing, or Yahoo. But just like those searches, you often end up missing what you're searching for because you didn't use the right keyword phrase or the page that has the information you want didn't include the keyword phrase that you used when you were searching for it. So think about what keyword phrases the employer would use -- even if there's an idiot on their end -- and then use those same phrases in your resume. Keep up the good work, Rich!

Erin
Erin

I understand the the rules of the job hunt are not determined by me. I must humbly conform to the needs of HR representatives, and I do. That being said, I can still "grumble grumble" a little at this. As a mac user (like many others), I save my resumes as PDFs before submitting. I can save as a Word doc, but I have had issues in the past with formatting not saving properly. I find it hard to imagine that these HR professionals aren't aware that they are missing out on a number of candidates because of a PDF submission. Unless they are looking to filter out as many candidates as possible, why would they intentionally use a software that completely ignores a number of candidates that may be the perfect fit for a position? Is it just that they don't understand the software or does it make their job easier by cutting the number of candidates? Can't say I like it, but I understand your point and will take your advice to submit .doc's going forward.

Larry
Larry

Use a word cloud tool like wordle.net or tagcloud.com to build a visual of the job descriptions. 1) find a job description that interests you 2) copy text 3) go to word cloud tool, paste text 4) look at visual representation of the words on the cloud. The "keywords" should be in a larger font Just a thought.

Rich DeMatteo
Rich DeMatteo

Hi Michael - Thanks for the comment and stopping by! YES, I hate generally titled resumes as well. I may need to write a post simply on that. Thanks!

ResuMAYDAY.com
ResuMAYDAY.com

@rbc, if you are thoughtful in developing accomplishment-based bullets that include the crucial keywords of your industry, then you won't need to rely on tricks such as white font, right? Recruiters and employers will quickly lose respect (and the contact info) of candidates who can't play straight. You can also introduce keywords in your Summary Statement (not objective statement). Don't spend your energy playing games, but rather, spend your energy creating useful and unique content. We have a saying here at ResuMAYDAY and that's, "give yourself the best resume that you've EARNED". Nothing more, nothing less. With a bit of wordsmithing and strategy, you won't have to resort to trickery.

Rich DeMatteo
Rich DeMatteo

Hey RBC - thanks for commenting. Excellent point about keywords. Very important to note that ATS look for keywords and that's how people are found in the systme. Thanks.

Rich DeMatteo
Rich DeMatteo

Hey Corey - thanks for the comment. Attaching all of the formats may work if it's just through email. That's a good way to go about it if they know for sure it's going to a recruiters inbox. The .doc is always best for online submissions and online systems. These systems are the ATS which basically shred up the PDF format. Thanks again!

Rich DeMatteo
Rich DeMatteo

Hey Lee - thanks for the comment. I'll give Sarah White the nod for that tip! That was from her brain! Thanks!

Rich DeMatteo
Rich DeMatteo

Hey BTRIPP - I'm sorry to have made you start over on this! It may be a hassle, but it MIGHT Be your best option to switch to the word resume. KEEP both formats, but only send the PDF to smaller companies. Good luck!

Bryant Turnage
Bryant Turnage

Seriously, WTF? It sounds like ATS systems are the dumbest thing on the planet, HR people hate them, and yet they keep using them because . . . why? Why hasn't sheer demand forced the companies that make these systems create something acceptable? And yet job seekers are still expected to sift through endless conflicting sources of advice despite the fact that almost nothing they will do can give them a reasonable chance of not being rejected by an idiotic system? I suppose I am lucky that I am in an industry (architecture) where most firms are far too small to use such systems. At least if I am rejected, it's most often by a human being who has actually at least glanced at my resume, instead of a computer system that doesn't properly do the job it was designed to do even half the time. Sheesh.

Rich DeMatteo
Rich DeMatteo

Hey Steven - Anything you say I listen to. Disagreeing with me or not. Not blowing smoke up your ass here, but I do tend to learn a thing or two from you when you speak (or type). I agree with you on your points. Specifically, ATS programs need to get better. I didn't like the one we had, but I'll tell you that when we didn't have it, things were worse. It didn't complete solve the problem, but it helped me reach more people. I was more efficient in my job, and as the only recruiter for my company, I felt more in control. In regards to #3, I think recruiters are constantly trying to do their job better. In our field, what slows us down is what we usually think about. If something slows us down, we are to blame. For that reason, the ATS is critical. When it fails (which does happen), it hurts us. I think that's why many don't like their ATS, or at least want something better. Great points in #4. Regards to #5, completely forgot to mention keywords in the post. Excellent! I shouldn't have wrote it at 3am! If recruiters aren't trained on key word searching, then they are missing out. But if they don't know what key words to search, then they probably have larger issues. Thanks again for the kind words and your thoughts!

Rich DeMatteo
Rich DeMatteo

Hi Erin - thanks for your comment! Perfectly understand your grumbling, and you aren't alone. It's not something that I love about the system. It's just how it is. But I'll say this... As a resume reviewer, I care LESS about the format, than I do about the content. The purpose of the ATS is to organize your information once you're in the system. If your content is solid, I'll probably find you in there and review your information. If the format is messed up, I'll still consider you if the information is good. Format is less important than content and grammar. That's key to understand. But...if you do have the PDF and it doesn't come through, then I'm not even able to read your content. Why do people use it? A large company may receive 500 resumes per day. They simply can not open each one in an email. It would clog their email and they'd miss many people. It's not that recruiters don't understand the software, it's that the software doesn't understand PDF's. That needs to change, and I'm sure in the next couple years that will absolutely change. Thanks again for your thoughts!

Rich DeMatteo
Rich DeMatteo

Great comment, ResuMAYDAY! Trickery is certainly not ideal. Thanks for stopping by!

AbdulAziz1
AbdulAziz1

What is the best thing to do if i have pdf resume?

im not getting any response

Ceceilia
Ceceilia

Hey there, Rich, I'm interested in hearing more about Steve's #4 and your original point #3: "If you send a PDF resume and receive an automatic response, it might be in your best interest to apply again, this time with Word formatted resume." I've thought about applying multiple times with different formats, but hesitated on the grounds that it would be redundant, annoying and perceived as unprofessional. You've changed my mind! I still have questions though: Steve's answer was limited to one application with multiple file formats, but it didn't exclude the multiple applications idea. What do you think of this idea, Steve? Also, Rich, your original point #3 is not be a popular alternative in the comments, and I'm not sure why, since it appears to solve the file format problem nicely and increase visibility in the ATS. Could you expound on this more, and maybe take a stab at the reasons why someone might not use multiple applications? Also, do you have any resources about the various ATS systems in use? Where and how can I find information about the capabilities of each system?

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