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Best Resume Format: The Ultimate Guide to PDF vs Word

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Read Time: 12 min
This post is part of a series called How to Create a Great Resume (Ultimate Guide).
How to Make Your Resume the Perfect Length (+To the Point)
Top 18 Resume Mistakes (With Good vs Bad Resume Examples)

Getting your resume ready can be confusing. There are many options and lots of conflicting advice. What is the best format for your resume? Many job seekers wonder.

Whether you’re purchasing resume services or creating your own resume using a template, it’s important to keep up with resume trends. Using the best resume format can mean the difference between your resume getting the attention that leads to an interview or your resume getting ignored. It's critical to use the right resume format to get results.

In this article we provide the ultimate guide to PDF vs Word resume formats. We compare the pros and cons of the two formats. We also discuss other common questions you might have about organizing your resume. For example, we’ll look at what resume structure to use or whether to use a template. We’ll also touch upon the tools that are commonly used to create resumes.

PDF vs Word Which is the best resume formatPDF vs Word Which is the best resume formatPDF vs Word Which is the best resume format
PDF versus Word: What is the best resume format?

Are you ready? Let’s get started.

What Recruiters Look for in a Resume

To understand what recruiters look for in a resume, it’s important to first look at what usually happens to your resume after you submit it. While you may imagine a dedicated human resources professional carefully reviewing your resume and application as soon as you submit them, the reality is often quite different.

In most medium to large companies, the first review of your resume is usually done by Applicant Tracking System (ATS) software. ATS software scans your resume for keywords and experience the company is looking for. Resumes that don’t meet the defined criteria are rejected and don’t go any further in the application process. Resumes that match the criteria are ranked according to how closely they match. The higher the ranking, the more likely it is that your resume will be sent on to human HR professionals.

So, your resume needs to do two things. It needs to:

  • pass through ATS software
  • leave a good impression for human readers

As you can see, ATS software plays an important role in the recruiting process. Can you bypass a company’s ATS software and get your resume looked at by a human professional? The answer is...maybe.

If you’re applying to a job listing online or through the company’s website, odds are that your resume will pass through their ATS software. However, if you know someone in the company through networking, you may be able to bypass the ATS software. If your contact is willing to vouch for you and send your resume directly to the hiring manager, you can often get your resume in front of a human without going through the ATS process.

To learn more about how to make your resume attractive to a human recruiter, review this tutorial:

In most cases, though, the ATS software plays an important role in whether your resume is considered for a position. It’s important to use the best resume format to pass through an ATS software screening.

PDF Resume Format vs Word Resume Format

You may wonder what resume format to use when applying for a position online. The number one rule is to read the job listing carefully and to follow any instructions in the listing.

If the listing says to attach a resume in .docx format, use a Word resume format. If the listing asks applicants to attach a PDF file, use a PDF resume format. If the job listing asks you to cut and paste resume text into the body of an email (I’ve seen listings that request this), do it. Following instructions is important.

But what if you have a choice? What if the online application form accepts resumes in various formats? Is one format better than the other?

Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of the PDF resume format versus the Word resume format. Here’s a handy table to help you compare the advantages of the two formats:

Word Resume Format - Pros PDF Resume Format - Pros
One of the most widely accepted word processing tools. Many organizations use it. File can be opened easily regardless of platform by using a free reader.
Even other word processing tools can import this format. Looks the same regardless of the system it is seen on.
Preferred by headhunting agencies because it allows them to improve or brand the resume. Keeps resume from being changed accidentally or on purpose.
ATS scanning software can easily find keywords and criteria matches. Newer ATS software can accommodate most PDF files (but not PDF image files).
Many HR departments prefer .docx files. Resume PDF files do not usually have software viruses.

Also, let's look at the disadvantages as well:

Word Resume Format - Cons PDF Resume Format - Cons
Information could be changed in a misleading way or accidentally deleted. Older ATS software may not find keywords in PDF files.
Could contain a software virus. Some ATS systems may miss parts of resumes formatted in PDF.
Appearance may change if opened in another tool or on a different platform than the one it was created on. While quite commonly used, not everyone has a PDF reader or want's to download one.

As you can see, there are advantages and disadvantages to both Word format resumes and PDF format resumes. It’s a good idea to keep an up to date version of your resume in each format so that you can provide whatever a job opening requires.

Other Formats

You may be wondering about other resume formats. Here are some resume formats that are sometimes used:

  • HTML - Some job-seekers design an HTML resume to show that they are web-savvy. They may even publish it on their own site. An advantage to this format is that employers can access it any time they want and the link can be shared during networking.
  • RTF - To get around compatibility issues, some job applicants prepare their resumes in rich text format (RTF). While RTF is compatible with most platforms and ATS systems, it may leave you with limited formatting options.
  • Graphic Image - Another tactic to draw attention to your resume is to create a graphic image. It may be an infographic or other graphic design. This is especially common for creative professionals. However, ATS systems may have difficulty recognizing the text in an image.

A non-traditional resume works best when it is presented directly to a human who can review it. If you're planning on submitting a non-traditional resume format, it’s a good idea to also include a more traditional format as well.

To learn more about creative resumes, study this tutorial:

More ATS Format Considerations

When looking for the best resume doc format that works with an ATS, keep in mind that ATS software may not read text inside images. While some ATS systems will use optical character recognition (OCR) software to extract text from images, it isn't reliable. So, if you are submitting a resume into an online system, it's best to avoid using logos, photos, or other graphic images.

You should also be careful when creating a PDF format resume. Some PDF format resumes are created by using a document scanner to create an image of a paper resume. ATS software won't reliably scan this type of resume doc. 

If you decide to use a PDF format resume, the best way to create it is through Word, InDesign, or another word processor using the export feature. 

While ATS software continues to improve with optical recognition, it's better to use actual text in your resume doc and to stick with easy to read, common fonts like Arial, Helvetica, Verdana, or Times New Roman.

Headers and footers in a document can also confuse the ATS. It’s best to avoid using them if you can. 

While resume format is important, so is how you organize your resume. This article would not be complete without an overview of the various ways that you can organize your resume.

How Should You Organize Your Resume?

There are basically four ways that you can organize your resume. The four types of resume organization are:

  1. Chronological Resume - This resume format lists your current and past jobs in the order that you had them. The most recent job is listed first and the oldest job is listed last.
  2. Functional Resume - Instead of listing your past jobs in the order that you had them, a functional resume lists your job skills.
  3. Combination Resume - A combination resume combines some of the features of a chronological and functional resume.
  4. Creative Resume - A creative resume is an unconventional resume structure which is designed to capture an employer’s attention. It could be a graphic, a chart, or even a website or video.

Each type of resume organization is discussed in detail in these tutorials:

When you suspect an ATS will be scanning your resume, does it matter how it’s organized?

It could. Many career experts believe that using a non-traditional resume structure (such as a functional resume or a combination resume) could make it difficult for the software to find your employment information. If you don’t want your resume to be rejected by ATS software, it’s best to save these resume structures for interviews and networking.

On the other hand, a non-traditional resume format and organizational structure could give you an advantage at a small company or a startup where resumes are still being screened by humans.

Here is a list of some other resume mistakes that could cause your resume to be rejected even after it has passed ATS screening:

We’ve talked a lot about the best resume format and how to organize your resume. Let’s discuss what tools you can use to create your resume.

What is the Best Resume Creation Tool?

If you’re creating a Word format resume, clearly Word is a good choice. You may also be able to create your resume in another word processor and export it to a .docx format. If you decide to do this, review the exported resume carefully to make sure that your formatting remains consistent. 

Learn how to make a resume in Word: 

If you are creating a PDF format resume, you have other options including:

  • Illustrator
  • Photoshop
  • InDesign

One of the advantages of using these tools to create your resume is that you have more graphic formatting options and greater flexibility. An Illustrator resume, a Photoshop resume, or an InDesign resume is more likely to impress human reviewers.

Graphic artists and other creatives, in particular, need to pay special attention to how their resume looks. Employers who hire creatives often expect a more eye-catching creative resume format. Making a visually impactful resume, can also make you stand out from a crowd of applicants, when a person is reviewing resumes.

Where to Find Resume Templates

If you don’t have time to design a professional-looking resume yourself, a resume template could be the answer. The right template can save you hours of design time. Most templates can be customized to your needs.

You can find professional resume templates at Envato Market (GraphicRiver) that allow you to save the resume in your choice of resume format: Word, PDF, and more.

Here is a selection of some of our best creative resume templates:

There are great for when you're emailing a contact for a new job at a startup, networking in person, or want to make a creative impression when applying.

What is the Best Resume Format for You?

Choosing the best resume format and deciding how to organize your resume can be confusing. There are several options available. It’s important to keep in mind who you are sending the resume to. With a little preparation, you can choose the right resume format for your needs.

Use this article as a guide to answer your questions about the best resume format for your needs. Here are some key points:

  • Make You Resume Scannable - As you are creating your resume, remember that if you're applying to an online job listing it will likely be scanned by a machine using ATS software for keywords before it is reviewed by a human. Ensuring that your resume is in a format that is machine scannable can keep it from being rejected.
  • Keep it Organized - The way that your information is organized on your resume is also important. Organize your information in a way that makes sense for you, keeping in mind ATS software.
  • Use the Right Tools - Using the right tool and template to create your resume can also help your resume to have a more professional appearance. A template can also save you hours of design time if you don’t have well-developed design skills.
  • Have Multiple Resume Versions Ready - Many job-seekers create two versions of their professional resume. Consider creating one resume for online job applications and another for situations when you know that a human will review your resume.
  • Follow Application Instructions - When applying to an online job listing, always follow the instructions for which resume format to use. Employers know which format they prefer and not following directions could cause your resume to be rejected.

You’re now ready to choose the best resume format for your needs. Whether you choose a PDF format resume or a Word format resume depends on you. Regardless of your choice, best wishes on your job hunt!

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