here’s the right way to submit your resume online

Applying for jobs online isn’t always straightforward — often far from it. Online application systems can be confusing or unwieldy or enraging.

Here are the most common questions I receive about applying for jobs online.

What format should your resume be in – Word, PDF, or something else?

Either one is fine. There are advantages to using a PDF though, since it will preserve your formatting exactly as you want it, where Word documents can display differently from computer to computer. Do stick with one of these two formats though; your recipient may not have the software to open documents in other formats.

If you’re applying by email, should you attach your cover letter in a separate document or put it in the body of the email?

Either one is fine! People do it both ways, and employers aren’t going to penalize you for picking one over the other.

That said, attaching it as a separate document will preserve your formatting and can make it easier for hiring managers to share your materials with colleagues. If you choose to attach it, then you should write something like this in the body of the email: “I’d like to apply for your communications director position. Attached please find my cover letter and resume.” (But don’t get tempted to write more than that, or you’ll end up with a whole second cover letter.)

If an application system asks you to fill out questions that are already answered on your resume, can you just write “see resume”?

Sadly, no. The temptation is understandable, but it will annoy a lot of employers. They’re asking, so they want you to answer.

But to make this easier, a good trick is to keep a plain-text version of your resume that you can easily copy and paste from without having to deal with formatting issues that can result if you’re copying and pasting heavily formatted text.

If online application system wants to know your salary requirements, do you have to answer?

This is an incredibly frustrating element of some online application systems, since your answer may depend on details you don’t currently know about the job responsibilities and the broader benefits package. And yet, many systems won’t allow you to submit your application if you don’t answer this question. Sometimes the system will let you enter a number like $1 – which makes it clear you’re not answering right now, but lets the system move your application forward.

Is it true that your application will be screened by a computer and a human won’t even look at it?

People think this happens far more than it does! It’s true that some employers do some automated screening of resumes at the start of the process. The system may automatically reject you if you don’t have certain requirements, like a particular degree or X number of years of experience in the field. But those searches are programmed by humans, and humans do look at the applications fairly early in the process. Good hiring managers and good recruiters aren’t relying on computers to do the bulk of the screening – it’s an aid in the process, but it’s not the main thing driving the process.

If you have a strong resume that clearly describes your experience and speaks to the requirements outlined in the job posting, a human should see your application.

Plus, many employers don’t use automated screening at all, and simply use their online application systems as a way to keep all the information about candidates in one place that many people involved in the process can access.

With LinkedIn in such wide use now, can you submit a link to your LinkedIn profile in place of a traditional resume?

No, not unless an employer explicitly says you can do that. Most won’t, since when you’re screening hundreds or resumes, it’s much easier if they’re all in a relatively consistent format. Plus, if the employer uses an applicant tracking system, most of thosesystems aren’t set up to take LinkedIn pages. On top of all that, it’s not even necessarily to your advantage to submit your LinkedIn profile instead of a resume, since that would mean you couldn’t customize your resume to the particular job posting you’re applying for. You can of course include a link to your LinkedIn profile on your resume, but it shouldn’t take the place of your resume.


{ 57 comments… read them below }

  1. AnonAndOn*

    When sending resumes via e-mail, I put the cover letter in the body of the text and as an attachment. I feel I’m covering my bases both ways.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Actually, please don’t do that! When people do that, I have to at least glance at both because weirdly, some people attach a different letter than what’s in the body of their email (taking two bites at the apple, I guess). Pick one or the other; otherwise you’re being inefficient with the hiring person’s time.

      1. Anlina*

        I really wish applicants would just include it as an attachment. If it’s only in the body of an email it’s less convenient for keeping track of all the applicant materials that come in. When they’re all attachments, I can just put all the pdfs and docx for a particular position into one folder to stay organized.

    2. Mephyle*

      What if you state in the email that the cover letter below is identical to the attachment? So the recipient knows they can read whichever one is more convenient for them, but they’re not missing something by not checking both.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Sure, you can do that. But really, there’s no need to include both (and doing so looks a little … overly anxious or something). Pick one or the other, which is what most people do and I promise won’t hurt your chances.

        1. AnonAndOn*

          If I send it solely as an attachment, what would I put in the body of the e-mail?

          I am not asking to be thick or stubborn, I’m asking because I’m concerned about someone getting annoyed because I sent it as an attachment and they wanted an e-mail, or because I sent an e-mail and they wanted an attachment. It would be easier if jobs stated how they wanted it sent!

          1. a1*

            She answered that in the article.

            … If you choose to attach it, then before you send it you should write something like this in the body of the email: “I’d like to apply for your communications director position. Attached please find my cover letter and resume.” (But don’t get tempted to write more than that, or you’ll end up with a whole second cover letter.)

            1. AnonAndOn*

              Thanks, a1. I did read the article but for some reason completely forgot it saying that. Having a rough day today. My focus is off.

          2. Amy*

            If I do the CL as an attachment I put in the body of the email: “Dear Person, Please find attached my cl and resume for POSITION. Please let me know if there are any additional materials I can provide to you for my application. Thank you and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

          3. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

            No reasonable person is going to be annoyed by either choice. You can let this worry go!

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Yes! The applications I get are split roughly 50/50 each way. Either is fine! No one will care. (That said, I have a mild preference for an attachment. But it’s just a preference, not anything that’s a big deal.)

              1. Optimistic Prime*

                I use the attachment because my reasoning is it’s easier to print it out and/or store it in cloud locations or something. Occasionally I’ll read cover letters and resumes when I’m in a position to open my email, so if I can save it elsewhere that works for me. Also I do know some people who still print these out!

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          Yeah—my impression is that the advice to copy the cover letter into the email text is outdated. This was definitely what career advisors would tell students when I was an undergrad, but I think that’s because many folks didn’t have access to things that would allow them to .pdf their application, or there were file size limits.

          Now that I review applications, I strongly prefer that candidates do not copy the cover letter text into their email. It’s much easier for me to track/forward/process if they just include it in their attachment.

  2. Not So Little My*

    When I was job hunting in the tech industry this past summer, about 50% of the online applications I encountered would let you log in to LinkedIn and authorize LinkedIn to submit your profile directly into their application system, and then you could modify the items that it pulled in to the application. It saved a lot of time.

    1. The New Wanderer*

      I’m finding that too, except the auto-fill feature really doesn’t work well at all. This has been a problem whether it uses LinkedIn or my resume to auto-populate the fields. I end up having to edit so much it would actually be easier just to start with blank fields, and better too since at the moment I risk missing some weird formatting issue.

      1. The New Wanderer*

        Me too, come to think of it. There’s probably one very specific style of formatting that works and absolutely no room for error.

  3. M is for Mulder*

    Regarding the Word/PDF debate, I always use PDF now. Back when I used Word, I was burned several times by recruiters who doctored the crap out of my resume to fill their quotas, and I looked like a fool and a liar in interviews. Now I send a locked, read-only PDF to make it as difficult to edit as I can.

    1. all aboard the anon train*

      I HATE when recruiters do this. It’s one of the reasons I don’t work with many recruiters anymore. I experienced too many situations where they changed my resume to say I had skills or experience I never had, and I went into the interview looking like a liar. It’s an awful, underhanded move.

    2. Long Time Reader, First Time Poster*

      Yup. I would never send a Word document to anyone, unless they explicitly requested one (and then I’d kind of side eye the request unless we were working collaboratively together).

    3. Ann Furthermore*

      I always bring a hard copy of my resume to interviews. It always seemed like a common-sense thing to do, not rocket science or anything, but it did come in handy once. I was job searching in the late 90’s and a recruiter sent me on an interview. While I was talking with the hiring manager, I could see she had a resume with my name on it, and it was all marked up with a red pen, where she had found typos. But it wasn’t my actual resume because it didn’t have my address. Ack!

      Turns out the recruiter had re-keyed my resume into their internal system. I’m sure this was done so everything was presented in a uniform format, and also to prevent companies from going around them to contact candidates directly and avoid paying the placement fee.

      I came up with some reason to give the hiring manager my original resume, which she liked much more. I ended up getting the job. It was a good thing I had that with me. That manager was a real stickler for spelling, grammar, formatting, and all the rest of it. If I hadn’t been able to give her the prettier version of the resume, I’m sure she wouldn’t have hired me.

    1. Amy*

      In my experience those one click applications were almost always for some kind of door-t0-door or cold calling sales position that was disguised as something else in the job description.

    2. Trout 'Waver*

      The only one I’ve ever clicked on took me to the company’s workday website. Only difference from submitting a resume was that it pulled data from my linkedin account rather than the resume to (incorrectly) autopopulate some fields.

      1. Lily Rowan*

        The one I clicked didn’t do that, and I was never sure what happened to that “application.” I don’t remember if I re-applied the normal way or not (don’t want to look too anxious! but what if they never even got the other one?), but needless to say, I never heard anything back about that job.

    3. hayling*

      I’ve heard that if you are paying for LinkedIn premium, it’s worth it to get your resume to the top of the pile. On the other hand, I applied for a job once via LinkedIn, then followed up with a friend of a friend who worked there and forwarded on my resume. Good thing I was able to do the latter, because they said they didn’t receive my resume the first time!

    4. Berry*

      I had luck from an “easy apply” application once, got an interview for a small family business that was trying to hire someone outside of their personal circle for the first time.

      Otherwise I use it for applying for a job that may feel like a ‘reach’ but throwing my resume into the hat in case it lucks out.

    5. NotADumbQuestion*

      I actually kind of like them. You click apply and can attach a resume, but I can’t recall if there’s a cover letter option.

      I research the company first and make sure it’s a job actually posted on their site. You get an email notification (I think you get one on linkedin as well) when they view your application. I’ve applied for 6 jobs that way, gotten three “viewed” notifications, and two phone interviews.

    6. Doug Judy*

      I have an interview Thursday for an application I sent this way. Legit job and company. My actual resume didn’t go through well so the recruiter emailed me asking me to resend it. She emailed me later that day to set up a phone interview. That went well so I’m interviewing with the hiring manager Thursday.

      However this seems to be the exception to the rule. I’ve been unemployed/doing temp work since February and have sent out a lot of resumes (most just to meet the unemployment quota) and this was the first LinkedIn easy apply that I got a response on.

  4. Mike C.*

    Alison, given how many times you’ve stated your belief/experience that key word filters don’t play that large of a role in the hiring process, how do you feel about this Aug 29th 2017 “Ask the Headhunter” column on ZipRecruiter? Is there a contradiction here, is everyone just speculating or perhaps something else?

    (Link to follow)

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I just skimmed, but I didn’t see anything there that indicated anything to the contrary, other than one company’s very specific business model.

      There was actually a discussion of this broader issue in the comments recently, with a lot of people saying that their experience is the same as I’ve talked about. I’ll try to find it.

      1. Mike C.*

        I don’t think the issue is with a system for managing all the applicants – digital document databases really only make sense. Rather the issue seems to be that the initial thumbs up/down screen doesn’t appear to involve HR reps looking at resumes or cover letters.

        Ad copy:

        “All of the candidates came to my dashboard and it’s easy to compare them. Thumbs up if I liked them, thumbs down if I didn’t. No emails and attachments, printing up docs, phone calls, none of that.”


        Imagine: None of that. No “docs” — no resumes, no application forms. No communications with applicants — “no emails, attachments… phone calls…” Nada. It’s 100 percent keywords. So who needs an HR department?

        ZipRecruiter takes care of everything for your company — including turning job applicants into your own private digital beauty pageant.

        Except really ugly stuff happens in beauty pageants when there’s no regulation. And while some venture-funded firm sucks up the profits, job seekers keep clicking for the next opportunity.

          1. Mike C.*

            My concern is that this (specific business or approach) is becoming an industry standard, given their growth, amount of advertising/name recognition and so on. I really hope I’m wrong but I have to wonder just how common this is.

        1. Recruit-o-rama*

          There are a lot of ways to use ziprecruiter, which used to be an economical tool. We used it to drive candidates to our portal. We didn’t use the ziprecruiter platform at all, I find it really clunky anyway.

          Recently ziprecruiter raised their rates, and I mean they raised them to such a ridiculously high price that I’m not sure they’ll be in business much longer; or at least I can’t imagine companies thinking the hikes are worth it. I felt bad for our account two when she was telling us last week, she sounded embarrassed to be telling us about the new pricing.

          Anyway, I can’t comment on the rest of the article, I’m sure some companies use tools like this, but I can’t imagine why they think it’s a good idea.

  5. hayling*

    As a hiring manager, I encourage you to please be cautious when applying using Indeed…I’m reviewing a lot of resumes right now that came through Indeed and have the same ugly, standardized formatting. I can’t figure out if people uploaded their regular resumes and they got screwed up when parsing through Indeed, or people used the Indeed resume builder, but whatever they’re doing, their resumes look awful. You’re much better off applying on the company’s own website (and uploading a PDF resume!).

    1. Sunshine on a cloudy day*

      Ack – I’ve used Indeed in the hiring process and it was awful! I had the same formatting issues as you did with resumes (granted my experience with it was 5+ years ago). Because of that experience I refuse to use Indeed as a job seeker.

        1. Sunshine on a cloudy day*

          Oh yes – I probably should have been more clear – I’ll use it to search for jobs, but I refuse to apply through Indeed.

    2. Angelinha*

      Yes, and Indeed pastes “Legally authorized to work in the United States” across the top of all of them! Before I realized this was a standard Indeed fluke I thought it was so weird that a candidate had used that line to start their resume

    3. NotADumbQuestion*

      Test it out. Apply for the job yourself using your résumé and you’ll see if it’s indeed’s builder or indeed stripping formatting.

  6. The New Wanderer*

    Timely! I just finished a really painful online application. It started out so well – places to upload both a resume and cover letter! But then came the “fill out everything you just submitted in document form all over again” application. It even had a note specifying NOT to use “See Resume” in the text fields. It also had mandatory fields that were unpleasant (desired salary, but apparently it took my entry of “000” without issue) or unreasonable.

    The unreasonable ones were “If/then” questions but since the answer (Yes or No) was mandatory, I had to select something even if I didn’t meet the “If” part. Example: “If you are a foreign national, then : Yes or No” I’m not a foreign national so that doesn’t apply but the Yes/No answer area was required. Ugh.

    1. Liane*

      A job I just applied to must use the same system. Had the same “If/then but required” format.

      Supposedly, it auto-populated the employment section from the resume, but as usual the system made a mess of it. One of the questions was “Have you ever been convicted/pled guilty to a felony? Yes/No” (question is legal here) and I checked No. Next was “If Yes, in what state?” The ATS auto-populated the answer with Texas (because Current Employer has a Texas address?) even though I checked No! And I could not edit that field!

  7. Sunshine on a cloudy day*

    RE: Word Doc vs. PDF – Maybe it depends a bit on industry or something, but based on my experience I strongly recommend having a Word Doc version and a PDF version. I’ve come across enough postings specifying a Word Doc that it really benefitted me to have both versions ready to go.

    That said – I prefer to send a PDF if Word Doc is not specifically requested as I have had issues with recruiters altering my resume in the past. However, I’ve definitely had companies (or internal recruiters) specify that they would prefer a Word Doc more than a negligiable amount of times.

  8. seejay*

    I recently tried to fill in an application online that auto-filled in some of the areas based on my uploaded resume but the verification was so finicky and horrible, I got stuck on one page for 5 minutes, trying to guess what it wanted and get it correct, I finally gave up and abandoned it. If the auto-verification is that bad that you’re gate-keeping candidates like that, you’re going to lose out horribly on a lot of well-qualified people.

  9. Anlina*

    And please put your name in the filename when you send your resume and cover letter. Having to either rename files as I download them, or have a folder full of variations on resume.pdf are both super annoying. I want to be able to quickly find a resume of a specific applicant without a lot of effort. Reviewing lots of applications is already cumbersome as it is.

  10. beanie beans*

    Savings a text-only file of the resume is brilliant! Why haven’t I thought of that before?! Argh all that reformatting of weirdly copy/pasted info into online applications! Well now I know :)

  11. HR Systems Admin*

    Sadly, I am the person that implements and designs the online application systems. Before you throw anything at me lol I will confirm a few things (well at least with my system)

    1. System doesn’t scan a resume or decide for them. What I can do, is create questions that relate to basic qualifications and auto disqualify based on those answers. We currently do not utilize this even though we ARE trying to get it implemented.

    2. We can set it up also where those same questions or other questions be used by the recruiters to quick scan qualifications.

    3. We have automated a lot of the processes so as a candidate steps through statuses certain things will happen automatically (like emails or completing docs, etc..)

    We really try to eliminate the black hole but we are also fed con so sometimes it is just slow. Any of our positions can have 800+ candidates that have applied and recruiters working up to 20 reqs so that is a lot of candidates to sort through. Plus, I have to make sure they are all in compliance doing it lol

  12. Stishovite*

    Sadly, one of the largest and most-sought out job provider in my area has an HR office that does sort via keywords and only passes on resumes that match specific keywords.
    This is a problem for a highly-technical job seeker like me.
    I know of a specific instance that a job posting was written specifically for a person (not me.) Boss and Job Seeker, who was currently already part of the team but was just moving into a newly-created position, sat down and wrote the job posting to match the seeker’s resume together. *
    The seekers resume did not get forwarded from HR. When the Boss asked HR why, HR said seeker wasn’t qualified.
    “You specified that you needed DNS skills. The seeker doesn’t have that.”
    “Yes, they do. It’s right here: ‘networking. The resume clearly shows that this applicant is a networking expert.”
    “But they don’t have DNS.”

    Now, clearly this is a specific example of an HR person not knowing that Domain Name Services is a fundamental part of computer networking. But how do I, as a technical applicant, get around that? There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of examples of keyword mismatch possibilities in my specific field.
    This is a well-known issue at this particular institution among the actual Bosses, so they submit names they’re looking for to HR to ask for specific resumes to be forwarded to them. Great, if I’m applying to a Boss I know from my previous job,** but this is a huge institution, and I don’t know all of them.
    My current, awful, solution is to provide a standard chronological resume with a page at the end which is essentially a key-word dumping ground. Yelch.

    *even internal hires have to go through an external request. Job title changes = new job, and forces an external search.
    ** I left said institution years ago to start my own business. Business did not succeed, so I’m going back to my old field.

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