Resume Mythbusters: Myth #1 Busted!

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2056398799_5849080c71_oA number of resume “professionals” say not to use formatting such as bolding or underlining because it can prevent Applicant Tracking Systems from identifying formatted keywords in your resume. ATS’s are often used by large organizations to do initial automated resume screenings for job postings, before resumes are seen by a human. My take on this claim: TOTALLY FALSE.

How do I know? Simple—you can test it yourself. Get a free Google Drive account, which includes gigabytes of cloud storage, and upload your PDF (or Word) resume there. Google Drive is known for making available a free version of the same Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology that the fancy ATS systems use. Then do a search on the keywords in your resume that are bolded and underlined. Google will find your document with no problem.

In fact, I did this test with 10 different fonts (including the most common Arial, Times New Roman, and Calibri fonts for resumes). Google found all the PDF resumes that contained the bolded/underlined phrases, no matter what font I used. What are the odds that companies you want to work for are investing countless thousands of dollars in ATS systems yet can’t even get the basic document search capabilities that Google Drive makes available for free? I’d say very slim.

When I do online searches to see where the misinformation is coming from (that ATS’s can’t read bolding and underlining), I find that these claims have no substantiation. Other career/resume coaches who blog, or the reporters who source them, are the ones who seem to make this claim. How do they know? They probably read it from the blog post of another “career professional” who knows as little as they do. I have NEVER seen an authoritative source cited for this information! For example, I can’t find a single post from an ATS company representative who says “we recommend no underlining to ensure your resume will be read correctly.”

I’ve talked with HR professionals, and I ask them – do resumes with underlining get through to you through the ATS? They say “yes”! And my clients who have underlining get their resumes through the job posting screening process without a problem! Perhaps this was a valid issue years ago, but we’re not in 1995. So, some final words about this: Don’t worry about it.

What About PDF vs. Word Format?

Here’s one more myth that needs debunking. Some of the same people who say underlining won’t be read by ATS systems also say don’t submit PDF versions of your resume. Again, FALSE. In fact every application system that I’ve seen offers the option to submit a resume as a PDF document. Why would they do this if there was a danger that these resumes couldn’t be read? Once again, I point to the evidence from my successful Google Drive searches of PDF resumes (referenced above).

In fact, you SHOULD submit your resume as a PDF. Then, you can rest assured that the human who eventually sees your resume sees exactly what you do on your computer. Resumes submitted in Word run the risk of showing margins and page-breaks in different places, depending on their version of Word (I’ve experienced this many times working with clients). Send your resume as a PDF and you can be confident that this won’t be a problem.

Advice to the perpetrators of these myths: if you care about your readers or clients, beware of this circular referencing (novices just referencing each other), as well as simply latching onto the latest shiny object without thinking it through. As a career coach, I embrace ideas and recommendations if they make sense, can be shown to work, and make the best use of a client’s valuable time. Using this criteria, you will be hearing more from me on additional career myths that deserve busting!

So Should You Bold and/or Underline in Resumes?

Bold select phrases in resumes, because it helps your resume become more scannable to the human eye. Employers look at your resume no more than 10-15 seconds (some research says it’s only 6-8 seconds!), so it needs to pop; your “here’s how I can help you” message needs to jump off the page. In your bullets, bold key phrases like “increased revenue by 15%” or “Partnered with Finance.” Don’t bold words like “very” or “the” (to take an extreme example) because they mean nothing when the reader looks at them out of context. Each phrase or word that you bold needs to have a meaning that stands on its own.

As for whether to use underlining, my answer is “it depends.” The downside to using both bolding and underlining together is that many viewers consider the combination esthetically unappealing. The other occasional drawback to underlining is the chance (usually small) that an underlined phrase could be perceived as a hyperlink.

On the other hand, the phrases that are both bolded and underlined will definitely stand out more than if you just choose one or the other. Just compare “increased revenue by 15%” with the same bolded-only phrase two paragraphs above.

With clients in fields where resume appearance is of primary importance, creative directors for example, we never use both bolding and underlining together; we choose one or the other. With other clients, we might use both together sparingly for really strong emphasis.

Regardless of whether you bold, underline, or do both, minimize the amount that is highlighted in a given bullet. Too much and your resume will look terrible. As well, you will destroy the power of the highlighting because no one item stands out. As a general rule, try to keep it to five words or less (with less being better).


If you want to understand the difference between Resumes and LinkedIn profiles, and how to optimize your LinkedIn presence, check out my webinar Your Resume vs. Your LinkedIn Profile.

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