Effective Technical Writing in the Information Age

Computer Scanning of Resumes


One of comic Steven Wright’s jokes provides a nice little lesson in irony: "I used to work in a fire hydrant factory. You couldn’t park anywhere near the place." Similarly, our work lives are rich in irony: Just as technology has enabled any one of us to build a resume that is stunning in appearance, blaring bells and whistles, the irony is that technology now also sometimes requires us to create resumes virtually stripped of form and dazzle. Companies, especially large ones, occasionally require job candidates to submit a "scannable resume"—that is, a resume written so that a scanner, using optical character recognition software, can code your resume into a database. Once in the database, the resume can be selected for the later viewing by human eyes (yes, irony emerges again) based on the number of "hits."

Presumably, if a company is scanning your resume it will typically announce that fact and give you guidelines for writing and submitting it. If there is any doubt, you could always phone, e-mail, or visit a company’s website to determine if the company scans resumes. Frankly, computer scanning of resumes was much more popular in the 1990s and has waned in the years that followed, so you may never need to be concerned about the issue. However, if you do need to prepare a scannable resume, you must school yourself in matters of format, content, and method of delivery.

Matters of Form

  • To curb potential problems of pattern recognition, avoid horizontal and vertical lines, bullets, boldface, italics, and underscoring.
  • Use common publishable-quality fonts such as Times, Helvetica, and Century.
  • Use a minimum of indentations, perhaps simply formatting all new lines at the left margin. Use the paragraph form to list information rather than the table form.
  • Keep the font size conventional—between 10 and 12.

Content of the Scannable Resume

  • Under your name and address, provide a paragraph of "Skill Keywords" designed to earn "hits" from the scanner. Build this paragraph from your background and the job ad.
  • Aside from the keywords section, provide the same material you would in a print resume.
  • Use jargon and keywords throughout freely, but avoid abbreviations and acronyms—they may be too specialized to be recognized.
  • To maximize "hits," favor nouns over verbs—"operator" rather than "operated."

Delivering the Scannable Resume

  • Avoid delivering a scannable resume by e-mail or fax unless specifically requested to do so; mail an original, unfolded.
  • When applying to a large company, consider sending both a print version and a scannable version of your resume along with a cover letter, which identifies them as such.


Here are two highly recommended sites on writing a computer scannable resume:

"How to Write an ATS Resume" from novoresume.com

"Scannable Resumes Presentation" from the Purdue Online Writing Lab