Nursing Resume Tips for Applicant Tracking Systems

16 Tips To Prepare Your Nursing Resume For Applicant Tracking Systems

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We’ve spoken to countless nurses and other healthcare professionals who have expressed dismay with the now ubiquitous applicant tracking systems utilized by healthcare organizations for nursing jobs and other healthcare jobs. The most common complaint is that the applicant tracking system is like a black hole. The nurse fills out an online application, uploads their nursing resume, and then never hears a word from the employer.

We always inquire if the nurse made an attempt to optimize their nursing resume for the resume parser and the applicant tracking system. Understandably, most nurses have no idea what this means. In this blog post, we’ll discuss the importance of optimizing your resume for applicant tracking systems and offer some tips for doing so.

First, let’s take a look at what’s not happening. Many nurses that we speak with are under the impression that resumes are reviewed by a human when submitted for a nursing job. This used to be the case, but it’s not anymore. In the past, recruiters, human resource representatives, and hiring managers would personally review nursing resumes as they were received. This process was time-consuming, unorganized, and therefore expensive. And the larger the organization, the more difficult it was to manage.

Applicant Tracking Systems: Why They Exist and How They Work

Enter the applicant tracking system (ATS). An applicant tracking system is a software application designed to handle the recruitment process. By automating and centralizing the recruitment process, the applicant tracking system offers greater efficiency and “trackability” than traditional methods. A unique data file is created in a central database for each applicant. Each applicant’s relevant job data is stored in their unique data file. The ATS allows this data to be conveniently searched and matched to job openings within the system. The ATS may also provide tools for recruiters to track applicants through each step of the hiring process. And the most advanced ATS’s will interface with an enterprise’s entire Human Resources Information System which can include functions like onboarding, payroll and scheduling.

Important Configuration Issues for Healthcare Professionals

Like all highly complex software packages, applicant tracking systems have various features that can be activated or remain inactive. Whether or not such features are activated is up to the software owner, which in this case is the healthcare employer. We point this out because this article is devoted to providing recommendations to help you optimize your resume for an applicant tracking system’s “Resume Parser” feature. And this is a feature that a healthcare employer may or may not be using. However, you’ll really have no way of knowing if they’re using these features, so it’s always best to assume they are.

Resume Parsers

For the purpose of this discussion, the most important components of the ATS are the resume parser and the candidate-matching/ranking feature. Resume parsers are software applications. There are many different resume parsers on the market and they all work in different ways. However, their primary function is to “conceptualize” or “understand” what your uploaded resume is saying, and then apply this understanding to accomplish various tasks within the ATS.

You see, your nursing resume is easy enough for a human to read, but to a computer it’s just a series of letters, numbers and punctuation. In its current form, your resume is an unstructured set of data. By contrast, the ATS is a structured database. Therefore, one of the resume parser’s primary functions is to understand the data in your resume well enough to import the data into the appropriate database fields in the ATS where it can be put to use. Sometimes, the resume parser is capable of parsing an uploaded resume and filling out parts of the on-line job application for the applicant.

This is a difficult task. Everyone’s resume is different. There are sometimes thousands of different ways to say the same thing. Take dates for example. There are tens or even hundreds of different ways to display this seemingly simple piece of information. The parser needs to understand that what it’s reading is a date in order to properly import it to the ATS as a date. And obviously, it gets much more complicated than this. The parser needs to understand that it’s reading your education history versus your work history, and so on, in order to properly import the information in to the ATS.

Candidate Ranking Features

Once the resume data is imported to the ATS, the candidate-matching/ranking feature comes in to play. This feature allows the employer to enter the desired criteria being sought for a job opening and then query the database of applicants to find candidates who meet the criteria. The results are ranked from highest to lowest in terms of how well the candidates’ data match the desired criteria.

It’s important to note that the resume parser is involved in the matching/ranking process. The parser is once again used to “conceptualize” the data. For example, let’s say the employer is looking to hire a nurse with 5+ years of ICU experience. One of the nurses who applies for the job has 10 years of ICU experience that ended 7 years ago and has been working as a Case Manager ever since. Another nurse has 6 years of recent ICU experience. The parser will understand this difference and rank the more recent experience higher despite the fact that there is less experience overall.

Similarly, resume parsing software can also assign different weights to different job requirements. For example, a job might call for a “Licenses Registered Nurse with 5 years experience working with post-heart patients”. The term “Licensed Registered Nurse” can be weighted lower than “5 years experience working with post-heart patients” in order to improve the candidate matching results provided by the ATS.

So, what does all of this mean for you? Below is a list of suggestions and recommendations for nurses and healthcare professionals. Please bear in mind that there are many different ATS’s and resume parsers on the market. They all work differently. So these suggestions and recommendations should be viewed as guidelines or best practices rather than steadfast principles.

BluePipes: Professional Networking and Career Management Tools for Healthcare Professionals

Nursing Resume Suggestions/Recommendations for Applicant Tracking Systems

What file type should you use for your nursing resume?

Many people say that you should use a Microsoft Word resume only, or that using a Word doc is the best way to ensure that your resume is read properly by resume parsers. This is fair enough. However, resume parsing companies are adamant that their software can read many file types with the same accuracy rates.

For example AIRS SourcePoint accepts .doc, .pdf, .txt, and .xls files. Burning Glass accepts 60 file types including all of the aforementioned and many more. Taleo also accepts multiple file types. These are three of the most widely used resume parsers on the market and they are dominant in the healthcare industry. However, there are file types that you shouldn’t ever use. These include JPEG, TIFF, and GIF. These are picture files, and resume parsers can’t read pictures. Also, don’t use zip files and don’t password protect your files. The ATS won’t know what to do with them.

Moreover, you may come across many ATS’s that don’t even allow attachments. Instead, they just provide you with an opportunity to copy and paste your resume and/or cover letter into the fields they provide. In this case, you can obviously use any format that allows you to copy and paste. You can then play around with the formatting once your data is in the system to ensure it’s formatted as good as it can be given the limitations of the system.

How should you format your nursing resume?

KEEP IT SIMPLE!!! Don’t use headers or footers. Don’t add pictures or videos. Don’t use fancy characters or fonts. Don’t use charts or graphs. Don’t use fancy spacing techniques to make your resume look pretty. Remember, this isn’t a glossy sales brochure to catch a human’s attention; it’s just data for a computer to understand. All of this stuff will confuse or crash the system (commonly referred to as “choke” the system). For example, when listing your work history, simply stack the information neatly as follows:

Employer Name

Job Title

Start Date-End Date

Details/Job Duties/Description

Finally, I recommend a traditional reverse chronological resume format versus a functional format. The reverse chronological format is easier for the parser to understand which results in fewer import errors.

How to display your contact information

Again, don’t do anything fancy with your contact information. For example, don’t add spaces between the numbers in your telephone number, or use anything other than a dash to separate the telephone number sequence. Also, be sure to include your physical address. Many candidates leave it off because they’ve heard that the ranking system can possibly be programmed to give a higher ranking to candidates who are closer to the employer. This may be true, but leaving your address off may result in the lowest possible ranking.

Use of keywords and phrases

Use Keywords, Phrases, and Jargon from the job posting in your resume where they are applicable and relevant to your employment history. This is extremely important. The ranking criteria are often based off of the exact verbiage in the job post.  It’s not a bad idea to also search the company’s web site for references to the job’s qualifications, and the company’s generally desired characteristics. Finally, if a job posting is vague, then you can search for other jobs posted by the same company, or even similar jobs posted by other companies, in an effort to identify relevant keywords and phrases.

However, you shouldn’t just list out the Keywords and Phrases. There was a time when resume parsers weren’t smart enough to notice the difference between a random list of keywords/phrases and keywords/phrases used in context. As a result, candidates could just list out the Keywords and Phrases and trick the system into giving them a higher ranking. Now, resume parsers are smart enough to understand the context in which the Keywords and Phrases are being used. Therefore, you should make sure that you use them in the context of explaining job duties.

You should also list as many keywords and phrases as possible where applicable in your most recent job description. This is because the parser will give more weight in the ranking process to recent experience than past experience. From there, be sure to sprinkle the keywords and phrases throughout your resume where applicable.

Finally, you should try to incorporate both acronyms and full names when possible. For example, use “Intensive Care Unit – ICU”, and note the dash with spaces to ensure that the parser reads these as separate words. You never know if the system is set to look for the full terminology, the acronym, or both. And because the healthcare industry uses acronyms more than most industries, it’s best to play it safe.

Consider verbiage authority

When determining which words to use, refer to the hiring employer first, industry standards second, and your current/old employer last. For example, if the hiring employer is calling it “Intensive Care Unit” and your current employer is calling it the “Critical Care Unit” but you can tell from the job description that they mean the same thing, then you should discuss your experience with Intensive Care Unit patients. Additionally, you should never use terminology that is applicable only to your previous employers. For example, don’t use “4West” to describe the unit you worked in. Nobody outside that hospital knows what “4West” means and that includes the resume parser. Finally, if your current/previous employer uses terminology that isn’t standard, then you should use the standard terminology instead of the employer specific terminology, or at least use them both to ensure the resume parser understands the data. For example, if your employer calls it “High Risk Labor”, then we recommend calling it Labor and Delivery because that’s the industry standard. You could then include that the unit took high risk patients in the job description.

Parsers, Grammar, and Spelling

Grammar is important! It’s part of the logic that resume parsers use to understand what they’re reading. So if letters aren’t capitalized or periods are left off, then it could throw the parser out of whack.

Spelling is obvious. The system is programmed to recognize words. If a word is misspelled, then it won’t be recognized. In addition, your resume may be viewed by a live person at some point in the future, so you want to make sure it’s professional.

Use official names of schools and employers

Use the official names of your employers and schools. The systems can be programmed to recognize certain institutions for higher ranking. In addition, these details will make it easier for recruiters to work with your data in the event that you’re selected for review.

Use common resume headings

Use “Work Experience” or “Work History” as the heading for your work experience, not “Career Achievements”…use “Education”, not “Academic Achievements”. The system may not recognize these creative headings and they may throw the system out of whack.

Use a Summary, not an Objective

We’re firm believers that you should include a Summary to introduce your resume. You can review our recommendations for nursing resume summaries. However, we’ve heard that they can cause trouble for the resume parsers. The worst that can happen is that the parser will misunderstand them as work history and import the data to the incorrect field in the ATS. Therefore, if you use a summary, then it’s important to reiterate the key points in context throughout your resume to ensure that they’re adequately accounted for. On a side-note, we recommend against a “Career Objective.” Your objective should be to get the job you’re applying for…otherwise, why are you applying for it?

How long should your nursing resume be?

Don’t worry so much about the length of your resume. It’s most important to ensure that you’ve included everything of relevance to the job posting and the job in general. Length was important when people were required to review thousands of resumes. The ATS doesn’t care.

Rules for Using the Applicant Tracking System

Upload your resume

Always upload your resume as opposed to copying and pasting into the ATS. Copying and pasting from the program that contains your resume to the internet browser can result in formatting issues that aren’t visible. These formatting issues can cause problems for the resume parser.

Thoroughly complete the online application

Fill in the information requested in the online application even if it’s optional and even if it’s already included in your resume. The online application information is sometimes separate from the information that’s imported from your resume. Furthermore, the online application information can possibly be used as the primary filter with the resume upload information as the secondary filter.

Always Enter a referral source

Let the ATS know where you heard about the job opening especially if you were referred by an employee. This information can be used in the ranking algorithm.

Rules for applying to multiple positions with the same employer

It’s fine to apply for multiple positions with the same organization as long as you have the qualifications. You can even submit different resumes tailored to the specific jobs you’re applying for. Just be sure that there are no discrepancies between the resumes. Employers will see all the resumes and pick up on the discrepancies.

While it’s fine to apply to multiple positions, most employers frown upon candidates who submit multiple resumes for the same position.

Stay on top of the communication

Be sure to check your spam folder often when you’re in the process of applying for jobs. Many email services will recognize automatically generated email responses as spam, and ATS’s often send automatic email responses. It’s best to mark these messages as safe. Respond to all requests for communication from potential employers within 24 hours.

What to do when rejected

If you receive a rejection notice, do not reapply using a different email address. Most ATS’s use multiple identifiers and will recognize that it’s the same person applying for the job. Instead, if you think you’re qualified, try to contact someone in the hiring/HR department and ask if it’s possible to upload a new resume or speak with someone about your interest in the job.

With all this in mind, there are many reasons a candidate’s resume can get rejected, many of which are outside the candidate’s control. For example, the employer may fill the position from within, the position maybe closed due to unforeseen circumstances, or the employer may receive more highly qualified candidates among other reasons.

However, being mindful of applicant tracking systems and tailoring your resume accordingly can greatly enhance your chances of moving up in the rankings. Remember though, your information is going to be viewed at some point. Therefore, make sure that your resume is legitimate and cohesive. Also, make sure that your resume includes the details that hiring managers are interested in, but might not be in the job posting. We recommend that healthcare professionals read our blog post “The Top 10 Details to Include on a Nurse Resume” to get an idea of what hiring managers in healthcare are looking for. Despite the title, it’s applicable to all healthcare professionals.

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12 replies
  1. Carolyn says:

    Very helpful article (and comments), thank you. This cleared up a lot of overarching questions I had. I’d appreciate your recommendations on some smaller details.

    > Summary: I typically use a job title that best describes me as the title for this section, instead of putting “Summary.” Would the ATS be able to understand this? Would a hybrid like “Summary – Job Title” work better, or is it best just to stick with “Summary”?

    > Lines: I’ve read that the use of horizontal lines across pages to separate sections can cause ATS to reject or misread a resume. However I’ve also seen ATS resume samples that use these lines. What is the current rule of thumb for this? (To clarify, I am referring to solid lines created by typing a series of hyphens and pressing Enter, not object lines.)

    > Bullet points: Many articles say to replace bullet points with standard keyboard characters like hyphens/asterisks. Does this still hold true, or is it safe to use list bullets (not special character bullets)?

    • Kyle Schmidt says:

      Hey Carolyn,

      Thanks for the inquiry. I believe current resume parsing software can handle all of the use cases you’ve described. That said, I’d recommend using the term Summary. I don’t think you’ll have a problem with lines as described and bullet point are definitely okay to use in your resume. I hope this helps!

      • Carolyn says:

        Hello, Kyle. This information is very helpful, thank you! I was spending a silly amount of time trying to decide the best way to handle relatively trivial items like bullet points and lines.

  2. Angelica Price says:

    This is probably one of the best articles I have read on ATS. Thank you. It would still be really helpful to actually post an example format of a resume that will be read by ATS. In that context I have a few questions:

    1. If I use a summary, should it I left justify the title, then type the summary just below – like this?
    SUMMARY (should I bold Summary and do I use a colon at the end of my title?)
    Nurse Practitioner with 15 years of experience…….

    2. Skills: (should I call them skills?, should I list them or use tabs – I now know not to use a table)
    Critical Care Patient Education or

    Critical Care
    Patient Education

    3. Where does Education go – should it be at the top only if I am still in school and once I graduate go to the bottom of the page?

    4. What about “Additional Information” like interests, awards, do I still include these if they are relevant?

    • Kyle Schmidt says:

      Thanks so much, Angelica. We’re glad to hear the information is useful. Yes, keeping the headings simple is a great way to go. So, left justifying Summary and making it bold is good. You can leave the colon off though.

      Skills can be listed in your summary as: Critical Care, Patient Education, etc. However, you can also frame them within “accomplishment statements”. You can review our article on details to include in your nursing resume.

      I’d recommend against listing them in columns as it takes up too much space.

      Education can go at the bottom as long as you have completed and have applicable work history to display.

      Interests are not really relevant. However, you can include them at the end if you’d like. Awards can be given their own heading, or you can place them under the applicable work history or education entries where they were received.

      We hope this helps!

  3. Pamela says:

    What about tenses? Say a job description says “supervise”, should you include supervise, supervised, or supervising? Do tenses matter for ATS?

    • Kyle Schmidt says:

      It’s always best to use the exact verbiage from the job posting when possible. However, most ATS’s should be able to recognize tenses. They are pretty adept at conceptualizing the content.

  4. Pamela says:

    Should I stake my information like this:
    Employer Name
    Job Title
    Start Date-End Date
    Details/Job Duties/Description

    Currently I have it like this to look nice on a physical paper:

    Employer Name (justified left); Start Date-End Date (justified right)
    Job Title (justified left)
    Details/Job Duties/Description (justified left)

  5. stephyee says:

    If you are putting your resume in PDF format, does formatting and spacing still matter? Will it know you have a header or too many spaces or whatnot if it’s all in PDF?

    • Kyle Schmidt says:

      Thanks for the question, stephyee. Applicant tracking systems are pretty sophisticated these days. They conceptualize the content of your resume regardless of headers or spacing. However, if you’re referring to the system’s ability to transfer your data into an alternative resume format, then yes, sometimes spacing and headings can affect this. However, it shouldn’t affect the system’s ability to properly search and rank your application. We hope this helps.


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