The Truth About Using Tables in Resumes and ATS Compatibility

If you are concerned with the Applicant Tracking System (ATS) compatibility of your resume (and you should be!), you’ve probably done some research on what is ATS compatible and what is not ATS compatible.

If so, you have almost certainly come across this advice: Do not ever use tables in a resume that you intend to be ATS compatible.

But is this accurate advice? The ATS compatibility of tables in a resume is likely one of the most misunderstood issues related to Applicant Tracking Systems and resumes.

What You Must Know Before Using Tables in a Resume

Many resumes use tables to set up at least part of the content, including many of the Distinctive Resume Templates available on this site. Does that mean they are not ATS compatible?

I’m happy to inform you that this is a myth. You can use tables in an ATS-friendly resume under some circumstances.

While tables may have “broken” the ATS compatibility of resumes in very early-generation releases of the software, this was many years ago. Technology advances. Modern applicant tracking systems can handle SIMPLE tables with ease.

BUT…and this is a big but…the keyword in the statement above is SIMPLE. You must use only very simple tables in your ATS-friendly resume, structured in very simple ways.

You should NEVER layout your entire resume or large sections of your resume using a complex table. This means that most, if not all resumes arranged in columns are ATS incompatible.

Some examples of what NOT to do, are these professionally written resumes created by the author of this article many years ago (20+ years ago), before ATS compatibility was a concern.

Examples of some complex tables in resumes that are not ATS compatible

The design and format of these resumes were cutting-edge two decades ago. But the way the entire body of each resume is set up in tables  (tables were used to create the columns and sections) would cause big problems with ATS compatibility today.

Unfortunately, this means that almost every default resume template in Microsoft Word is not ATS compatible either, as almost all of them are created using complex tables.

The default resume templates in MS Word are not ATS compatible

Unsuspecting job seekers who create a resume using these non-ATS-compatible Microsoft Word templates may never get a single call back when applying for a job, and won’t even know why. The trouble is that most people without knowledge of what is ATS compatible or not would believe they are okay to use since they are available right in MS Word as default templates.

When and How It Is Okay to Use Tables in Resumes

So what IS the acceptable way of using tables?

And, why even bother to use tables in a resume at all. Maybe it is better to just avoid using them?

Sure. Not every resume needs tables.

Our Morning Glory, Midnight Vista, and Career Launcher resume templates are examples of very attractive resume formats that use no tables. If you are wondering, the sidebox on the right side of the Midnight Vista template (the template shown in the middle, below), was created using a text box, which an ATS will skip as a graphic. Even though it looks like a table, it is not.

Attractive Resume Formats that Use No Tables

But in many cases, using a simple table really helps present part of the resume content in an attractive and easy-to-read way.

For example, our Amplify Resume Template includes a single two-column table to make the Key Qualifications section easier to read.

Simple ATS Compatible Table in a Resume

Our Phoenix Resume Template uses three separate, but still simple tables. A simple two-column table is used for the name and contact info. Another simple two-column table is used to showcase key qualifications within the summary section. Finally, while it may not look like it, the Selected Highlights are set up in a three-column table.

Multiple Simple ATS Compatible Tables in a Resume

These are all ATS-friendly ways of using tables in a resume.

Here are three more examples of simple tables from three separate resumes that are ATS compatible. I’ve left the gridlines on so you can see how they are constructed.

Example Resume Simple Tables that are ATS Compatible

For more information about using tables in resumes that need to be ATS compatible, I encourage you to watch this video. I go into even more depth than in this article and show many other examples.

While this is a complex topic and you need to know what is acceptable and what isn’t, I hope I’ve dispelled the myth that tables can never be used in ATS-friendly resumes.

The bottom line is that as long as you use very simple tables and give some thought to which order the cells will be read, you can feel confident that those tables will not negatively impact the ATS compatibility of the resume.

But even better: When you use Distinctive Resume Templates, you can be confident that the resumes you create are ATS friendly (there are a few exceptions, but I always explain these so you can choose a different template if you wish). All the hard work has been done for you.

All of our resume templates are available individually, but if you are a professional resume writer or another professional who helps job seekers prepare resumes, I encourage you to check out our Distinctive Resume Templates Insider program.