This is an abridged version of a page I wrote in 2007*. Back then the term “scannable resumés”, though obsolete, was still being used. I kept this page in the site as an example of the confusion that could be caused by technology hype in the resumé business. It’s still relevant for that reason: the buzzword “scannable resumés” was replaced by “keyword resumés” and keyword-related hype, and now that LinkedIn is making people’s profiles available to search engines, hype about “SEO resumés” is being piled on top of the keyword hype. For a discussion of today’s confusions about keywords and SEO, see SEO, Keywords, Search-Engine Optimization: Hype & Misconceptions, on the Resumé Myths page.

*Grammatical tenses have been updated, except in the sections meant for time travelers.


More About Scannable Resumés





OCR-scannable resumés (commonly called “scannable resumés”) fell out of use in the first few years after the turn of the century. Such resumes were not meant to be printed out and read by humans. If an employer was sorting through a stack of Word resumés (on paper or on-screen), and came upon your resumé formatted like an OCR-scannable resumé, your resumé would have been thrown out. Period. It happened.

Even in the late 90s, you were very unlikely to need an OCR-scannable resumé, unless you were unable to apply for jobs by e-mail or on-line.

To see how an OCR-scannable resumé looked, click here. This sample is for historical purposes only.

Unfortunately, it took a while for some resumé experts to realize that the scannable resumé was no more. And then, for a while, the term “scannable resumé” was also used to refer to a couple of other things that were (and are) still very much in use, and are also known by other, more specific names. This caused much confusion

“Scannable resumé” was sometimes used to refer to any resumé that was written to include keywords that would be searched for by the employer’s resumé-processing software. Back when only OCR-scannable resumés could be searched for keywords, some resumé experts thought that only OCR-scannable resumés had to be written with keywords. But now, almost all job inquiries will include a resumé in an electronic format that can be searched for keywords, and in any case, all resumés should always be written with keywords. So using “scannable resumé” to refer to a keyword resumé was unclear—an unnecessary confusion between a writing feature (keywords) that should be included in all resumé formats and a particular resumé format with a very limited application.

“Scannable resumé” was also sometimes used to refer to a plain old plain-text resumé. This is probably because the place of the old OCR-scannable resumé was taken by the plain-text resumés that were submitted via e-mail or Web forms, and were searched and ranked by the same resumé processing software that had been used on the digital files produced from scanned paper resumés.



WHY DO I NOT NEED ONE? (I once had to tell people this)

The OCR-scannable resumé format is obsolete. However, if you are shopping for resumés, you may want to read about it even if you don’t need one, because the term “scannable” is sometimes used to refer to plain-text resumés, or to any resumé that is written to include keywords. So there is a lot of confusion about what “scannable resumé” means. Explaining the various confusions requires going into some technical and historical detail.

Once upon a time, before e-mail and the Web came to dominate the hiring procedure, many companies used optical scanning to convert the paper resumés they received into digital text that could be added to a computerized resumé database. (Cover letters were sometimes scanned, too.) This technology is called “OCR” (Optical Character Recognition). The OCR scanner would “read” the paper with light and lenses, rather as the human eye does. A picture of each written character was recorded. A computer matched each shape with a character (usually the right one) from its (rather limited) list of possibilities, and recorded that character digitally, as a character in a computer document. In other words, OCR is an automated version of what happens when a human reads a paper document and types it into a computer document. In fact, the end product is the same—a plain-text file.

This digital document was used for the rest of the company’s computerized resumé processing. Special computer programs were used to search the resumés in an employer’s resumé database for keywords that were taken to be indicators of an applicant’s suitability for the job. The documents were scored on the basis of the keyword count, and ranked by their scores. At some point, humans intervened and responded to the applicants on the basis of the computer rankings. These databases and computerized keyword searches are still widely used by employers today, but OCR is no longer used as an input method.

OCR scanning systems do not read as easily or as accurately as humans. Their only advantage is that they are much faster and cheaper than having a human re-type the resumé into a computer file. OCR scanning systems are, in fact, very sloppy and easily confused. Therefore, for best results, a document that is to be optically scanned must be presented in a way that is most easily read by the machine. A distinct type of resumé format, the “scannable resumé,” was developed to meet the needs of optical scanning. (We prefer to call it “OCR-scannable,” to avoid confusion with other uses of the term “scannable resumé.”) The scannable resumé format implements a longish list of formatting guidelines that produce optimally machine-readable resumés.

Documents in this format are difficult for humans to read, and when an HR person is handed one to read, they react very negatively. (We’ve tried it, as an experiment.) An OCR-scannable resume is good for absolutely nothing but OCR scanning.

In recent years e-mail and the Web have come to dominate communications between job-seekers and employers. Job-seekers now typically e-mail their resumés or submit them via forms on company Web sites. Paper may not be printed out until the final stage, when the applicants have been narrowed down to those who are likely to be interviewed. (When you go for an interview, a printout of your resumé is still likely to be on the interviewer’s desk.)

Resumés that have been e-mailed or submitted via Web sites are already in the form of digital text. So there is no need for a scanning process to convert paper resumés to digital text. The e-mailed or uploaded resumés are fed directly into the database, where computer software can search them for keywords. Paper resumés are once again used only for reading by humans.

Some employers, especially very large organizations, may still list OCR scanning as an option for resumé submission, but they strongly prefer e-mail or on-line applications. OCR scanning means extra work for them, and delays the processing of the resumé for as much as several weeks (or aborts it entirely). By this time, if they still have their old OCR resumé-processing system around, they are probably keeping it purely out of bureaucratic inertia. Or they may have document management systems that use OCR input for other purposes, and can theoretically use it for resumés as well. But these systems are not likely to be well integrated with their resumé-processing systems and hiring functions—because they are rarely or never used for that purpose.

You may still see OCR-scannable resumés in the product lists of some resumé services. If you’re traveling back in time to apply for a job, a printout of our plain-text version of your resumé will work fine for OCR scanning.



If, by some really bizarre chance, you actually need an OCR-scannable resumé, you can just print out the plain-text version of your resumé, which we supply with all resumés we do. It meets all the requirements for an OCR-scannable resumé. OCR-scannable resumés are meant specifically for optical scanning by machines. OCR scanning machines do not understand what they’re “reading.” All they do is pick out each successive isolated shape and match it with a letter or punctuation mark. So they don’t need to see the visual formatting that helps make the information structure clear to a human reader. And in fact, that visual formatting is likely to cause the machines to make mistakes, so formatting for human readability goes out the window.

For this reason, resumés formatted for maximum readability by OCR scanners are good for absolutely nothing else. They’re difficult for a human to interpret, and humans who review resumés react very negatively when they are given a resumé in this format.

So don’t take a chance on sending an OCR-scannable resumé when your prospective employer may want something else.

At this point in time, you will probably not have to consider sending an OCR-scannable resumé unless you cannot apply for the job by e-mail or on-line. Even then, you should not assume that an OCR-scannable resumé will be desirable or acceptable. Many employers have no need of them, because they don’t put resumés in a database. That’s done mainly by large organizations and employment agencies, and it’s probably only the largest that have OCR scanning machinery available. In most cases, if you can’t apply by e-mail or on-line, your best bet is to send them your regular (attractive, human-readable) paper resumé—unless the employer specifies that a “scannable resumé” (that’s the term they’ll probably use) is their preferred alternative to applying via e-mail or on-line.

In these cases, it is likely to be the only acceptable alternative, and they will usually be very clear about what they mean by “scannable resumé”: they will often give instructions for how the resumé should be prepared.

So you’re unlikely to need one, and if you do need one, there will probably be no doubt about it. Unless you’re still in doubt, you can skip the rest of this section, and go to the special instructions for mailing your OCR-scannable resumé, at the bottom of this page.

If they accept both OCR-scannable and human-readable resumés, or if you’re not sure which they want but are sure they want something on paper, it will probably be simplest and best to send both. If you do this, mention in your cover letter that you’re sending your resumé in two formats: a regular resumé and a resumé specially formatted for machine scanning in case that’s needed. If you need to find out which they want, try asking whether they want a fully-formatted resumé or one for machine scanning that has no formatting and a plain, uniform look.

The following possibilities are even less likely. But since we’ve worked them out to the bitter end, we’ll include them in case it saves someone else the trouble.

It may happen that someone will ask you for a “scannable” resumé, and it won’t be clear whether that person wants a specially formatted resumé for optical scanning, or a plain-text resumé, or a resumé in some other format that contains keywords. In that case, you need to find out which is wanted—or to decide what to do if you can’t find out. Ask questions, but do it carefully: they may not be clear in their own minds about what they want, and if you’re talking to someone who’s screening you for a job, it can be dangerous to catch them out on a technical point.

All versions of your resumé should have keywords. As for the other possibilities, it should at least be clear (or safe to ask) whether they want you to send your resumé as paper mail, in an e-mail, or in a Web form on the company’s site. If they want paper mail, or if you can’t send them e-mail or use a Web form, you’re back to the alternatives described above.

If they want your “scannable resumé” submitted via a Web form, use your plain-text resumé. (See “Plain Text” in our Resumé Glossary for information on plain-text resumés.) If they want you to e-mail your “scannable resumé,” and you can do so, you can bet that they want you to e-mail them your regular resumé, not one that is formatted for OCR scanning. So you just need to find out what format they want. This will usually be plain-text or Word, or possibly RTF. If you can’t find out which, the safest choice is to send your plain-text resumé in the body of the e-mail.

In theory, at least, there is one other possibility: e-mailing an OCR-scannable resumé in Word, RTF, or PDF format, which will be printed out by the employer and the printouts then fed into an OCR scanner. But this is unlikely in the extreme. If there is an organization anywhere in the world that can receive an electronic version of your resumé by e-mail, but needs OCR scanning to get your resumé into their database, they probably get their paper mail delivered on the back of a camel or donkey. Or perhaps the only bridge connecting them to the rest of the world has been washed out.

If your prospective employer actually says that the reason they don’t want you to mail a paper resumé is that the camels (or donkeys) are too slow, or that the bridge has been washed out, but insist that they want a resumé formatted for OCR scanning, you have to consider the possibility that they want a Word, RTF, or PDF version of a resumé specially formatted for OCR scanning. In this case, the safest thing is to send both your regular resumé and an OCR-scannable resumé in the desired format, and mention in your cover letter that you are sending both.

But remember: it’s very unlikely that anyone will want an OCR-scannable resumé unless you can’t apply for a job by e-mail or on-line.


If you do mail someone a OCR-scannable paper resumé, print it on plain white paper only—that’s the best for optical scanning. Use 24-pound paper if it’s conveniently available—it’s a little heavier than the 20-pound letter paper you usually see, feeds through the scanner better, and is less likely to wrinkle. (But don’t go heavier than 24-pound.) Don’t fold or staple it. Send it flat, in a stiff cardboard mailer. If you can’t get a suitable mailer, send it flat in an envelope (9" x 12" or thereabouts), sandwiched between letter-size (or slightly larger) sheets of cardboard.


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The man who sees two or three generations is like someone who sits in a conjurer’s booth at a fair
and sees the tricks two or three times. They are meant to be seen only once.
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