You’ve found the perfect job opening for you. You’ve written and tailored your resume so that it shows exactly why you’re the best person for this job. But when you go to actually submit it, you hit a dilemma: What file format is best? Should you upload your resume as a PDF or as a Word document?
Unfortunately, there isn’t a universally correct answer. Some job search experts recommend PDFs while others swear by Word. But the best answer would probably be that it depends on where and how you’re sending your resume. And there are a few rules you can follow to make the right choice for your specific job application situation.
Rule 1: Follow Any Application Directions
“You always want to follow instructions,” says Muse career coach Emily Liou, founder of CultiVitae and former in-house recruiter for Fortune 500 companies and headhunter for staffing agencies. If a company asks for a certain file type for your resume, listen to them. They are the authority on what they’re looking for, so if they ask for a PDF, give them a PDF, and if they ask for a Word doc (a.k.a., DOCX), upload a Word doc. By ignoring what the company is asking for, you risk them not being able to (or choosing not to) read your resume. You’re also giving the impression that you wouldn’t pay attention to details or follow directions as an employee.
Liou points out that if you’re working with a third-party recruiter, you should follow their directions as well. “They typically require you to send a Word document because they want to redact your personal contact information when submitting your resume to their client,” she says. If you send a PDF in this case, the recruiter might not be able to edit it the way they need to.
Rule 2: Submit Your Resume as Either a PDF or Word Doc—Nothing Else
While there’s no definitive answer when it comes to the PDF vs Word doc debate, there is a consensus about all other file formats: Stay away. Once you depart from these two common file types, there’s no guarantee that the person on the other end has the software necessary to open your resume, and if they can’t open it, they’re just going to move on to the next candidate.
Also important: Companies use applicant tracking systems (ATSs) to scan your resume for keywords and other important information to decide if you’re qualified for the job, and the software doesn’t scan other file types nearly as well. For example, if you submit a JPEG or another image file, the system might not recognize any words in the file at all.
So if you made your resume in InDesign, Photoshop, Pages, or any other program with its own file format, you should always convert it to either a PDF or Word doc before submitting. If needed, Google Docs is a (completely free) way to turn any text file into either a Word document or a PDF.
The only exception to Rule 2 is when it violates Rule 1. If a company asks for a TXT file or some other format, give it to them.
Rule 3: Consider How You’re Applying
Not all resumes make it to recruiters and hiring managers in the same way. And the way your resume is being transmitted could help you decide which file format is the best choice.
Are you emailing your resume directly to a hiring manager, recruiter, or someone in your network? Unless it violates Rule 1, consider sending your resume as a PDF so that it looks like you intend it to. “Word documents get formatted differently depending on the version of Word a company is running,” Liou says. For example, “When opening up a resume, the margins and alignment can be off, which can make it difficult to read.” But PDFs always maintain their appearance no matter what computer or software is opening them, says Liou, who preferred PDF resumes as a recruiter and currently recommends them to clients for this reason.
However, if you’re submitting your resume through a company website, LinkedIn, or other online portal, it’s likely going to go through an ATS, and you want to make sure your resume is easily searchable by this software. “If you want to ensure maximum readability and ATS compatibility, use a DOCX file,” says Jon Shields, marketing manager for Jobscan, a company that specializes in helping job seekers get through ATSs. “DOCX files are much easier for applicant tracking software to parse into a digital applicant profile.” There’s simply more that can go wrong when an ATS scans a PDF, Shields says, though there’s not as much of a gap between the two file types as there once was.
Keep in mind that the best thing you can do as a job seeker in today’s market—whether you’re ultimately submitting a PDF or a Word doc—is to make sure you’re using ATS-friendly resume formatting.
Rule 4: Take Advantage of (Seemingly) Repetitive Online Applications
If you’ve been job searching for a while, you’ve likely grown weary of systems where you have to upload your resume file only to have to fill in or correct the information from the resume you just submitted in an online application form. It can be exhausting, but it can also be an opportunity.
If you see that you’ll be able to tweak anything that got scanned incorrectly, Liou suggests submitting your resume as a PDF and then making those fixes where needed. “Time consuming and frustrating? Yes,” Liou says. But it’s worthwhile since “these fields are what will allow you to still be searchable in the ATS when companies are searching specific keywords or titles.”
This means that you can submit a PDF so your resume will definitely look good if a recruiter downloads it, but you can also ensure your information is correct for the ATS. In other words, you get the best of both worlds!
Rule 5: Research the Company’s ATS (Optional!)
If you want to really go above and beyond, you can research the specific ATS a company uses, Shields says. For example, Jobscan has writeups on the top ATSs like Lever, Greenhouse, and Taleo, that include which major companies use them and what their limitations are so you can make an informed decision when choosing a file type for your resume. For smaller companies, you might be able to see right on the application page (or the URL) which specific ATS the company is using.
This is definitely a time-consuming extra, and won’t necessarily give you a huge advantage—so when in doubt, stick to the four rules above. You’ll be well on your way to job search success!