Formatting Your Resume, Cover Letter and Selection Criteria

In my previous blog on photos, I mentioned Application Tracking Systems (ATS). Until I trained to be a resume writer, I had no idea that an ATS can reject your documents if you do not use the correct formatting. My experience now shows me that my clients have also been unaware of this, so I wanted to give you some tips on how to format your resume, cover letter or selection criteria, if you decide to go it alone.

What is an Application Tracking System?

An Application Tracking System (ATS) is the software used by recruitment agencies and HR departments to sift through and filter resumes, cover letters and selection criteria. Often this software is integrated with other HR functions within an organisation.

In terms of recruitment, the software is essentially designed to sort through applications on a hierarchical basis, based on keywords (related to the job advertisement, position description and selection criteria), which are entered into the system. The more keywords that you use in your application, the more likely your application will be selected by the system to move to the next stage—the person responsible for recruitment.

Please watch out for my next blog, which will explain how to incorporate keywords into your application.

To give you an idea—more than 80 per cent of companies in Australia now use Application Tracking Systems (ATS). One reason for this is that sending online applications is now so easy, literally hundreds (even thousands) of applications are sent for each position available, and it is far easier and cost efficient to sort through these with an ATS.

Formatting your Resume, Cover Letter or Selection Criteria

Formatting of your resume, cover letter and selection criteria is very important for all job applications that are sent electronically. This means online applications as well as those sent via email. The reason for this is that the ATS software is generally programmed to only read the more basic fonts and document formats, and if there are any issues, the ATS may reject your application as unreadable. You may have been lucky with a previous application, but as it is difficult to know who is using an ATS, or which version of the software you will be sending your application to, the best policy for formatting your documents is to stick to the more basic rules, which I have outlined below.

Do not use the following:

Text Boxes and Tables

Avoid these altogether. You may have been lucky in the past, but not all ATS can read what is inside a text box or table and it may reject your application.

Resume/CV Templates

Avoid using resume/CV templates altogether. Most of them have text boxes, tables and graphics that may not be able to be read by an ATS.


Same as Text Boxes and Tables—avoid these altogether.

Headers & Footers

Some ATS cannot read the text inside Headers and Footers. To be safe, it is better to move your margins to include your contact details, rather than writing them in the Header or Footer. You will, however, need to add extra lines at the top of subsequent pages, so that the text doesn't start too close to the top margin. Follow this rule even if you save your Microsoft Word Document as a PDF, as it could still have an affect on its readability.

Fonts you can use

It is best to stick to the basic fonts that can be read by all computers. These include Arial, Calibri, Cambria, Georgia, Impact, Lucinda, Tahoma or Trebuchet. Stick to font sizes 10, 11 or 12.

Uploading documents: Microsoft Word versus PDF

Firstly, it’s worth mentioning that Microsoft Word is the preferred word processing software for all Application Tracking Systems.

Secondly, if you are given the option of uploading a document, always choose this over completing your application within the text boxes provided, as your documents will appear far more professional once they are read by a human (see next section, if online forms are the only option available).

Thirdly, stick to the software version that has been requested, and check the ending options that have been listed, i.e. Microsoft Word documents end in .doc or .docx. If your document is a .docx and you can only submit .doc, go back and resave your document to the correct version (Use: Save As, and then open the Format box to find the correct ending).

You might also be given the choice between uploading a Microsoft Word document or a PDF document. There are two schools of thought on this. One school suggests that Microsoft Word documents are the safest to send and you should only ever send a Microsoft Word document. Another school suggests that if you are given the option, you should upload the PDF version, as PDFs retain their formatting, and Microsoft Word documents can completely alter their formatting when opened on someone else’s computer. I tend to go with the second school of thought, particularly if the option of downloading a PDF has been given. I do however make sure that I follow the other suggestions that I have given in this document, so that the formatting doesn’t impede the documents being read by an ATS.

Completing online forms – typing into Text Boxes

It is important to know that it is essential that you produce an error free document if you wish to be considered for a job.

If you are only given the option of completing your application within the given text boxes, do not type straight into the box as there is no autocorrect or spellcheck within online forms and it is too easy to make and miss mistakes.

To make sure that it is error free, firstly, type your document into a Microsoft Word document. Once typed, spell and grammar check it. Then, when you have the document the way you want it, copy and paste it into the online text box.

Once you have pasted your document into the online text box, check through it to make sure that the formatting looks OK, and that there are no words floating around in the wrong place. For a more professional look, you may find that you might want to add a space between bullet points to make them clearer, or lines/dashes to section off different headings.


I hope this information has been helpful. If you still feel that you would like someone to write a professional resume, cover letter or selection criteria for you, please contact me at or visit my website at

Angela Connell

Certified Advanced Resume Writer



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