Don’t send a PDF to anyone in an employer’s organization unless you are certain that person prefers PDF to any other format. Disregard any lists of “acceptable document formats” you may see.

In certain situations in certain industries, such as engineering or IT, PDF is a standard format for résumés. But even in those industries, if you’re sending your résumé to HR, you should send a Word document. You can send a PDF to the non-HR decision-makers if they ask for one.

Don’t EVER send a PDF made by scanning a paper résumé.



Documents produced by many common software programs run into problems when they’re transmitted by e-mail or over the Internet. And any associated files (fonts and images used in a document) have to be transmitted separately along with the document if it is to print or display properly. (Word files are usually okay—as long as they use only the very few standard fonts that are found on most computers. But even most computer fonts are not as universal—or as suitable for résumés—as most people think. For more about this, see “Fonts for Résumés.”)

PDF technology provides a way around those problems—as long as no one is going to do anything with the document but look at it on screen or print it out.

The main problem with PDFs for résumés is that PDFs don’t work well with the applicant-tracking systems (ATSs) used by employers to process résumés. For this reason, Word résumés are preferred by HR people and recruiters. PDF résumés are most likely to be appreciated by other decision-makers in the hiring chain, who don’t have to do anything with the résumés except look at them and print them out, and who will appreciate the convenience and stability of the PDF format. You can e-mail the PDF to them directly, after you’ve gotten past HR.

In some fields, such as IT, engineering, and graphic communications, PDFs are commonly used whenever HR and recruiters aren’t in the loop. But unless you’re sure, don’t send someone a PDF unless they specifically say that they prefer a PDF to all other formats. (Just because PDF appears in a list of acceptable formats doesn’t mean that it won’t cause problems. The people who make up those lists don’t know about the technological problems associated with résumés.)

Another problem with PDFs for résumés is that they can’t be modified. Recruiters working for agencies often need to reformat résumés they receive, and they can’t do this with PDFs. (This is changing: Adobe Acrobat can do much more in the way of editing PDFs than was possible through most of the longish history of Acrobat and PDFs. I’ll be keeping an eye on this. But for now, the practical reality as far as résumés are concerned hasn’t changed.)

WHAT PDFS ARE GOOD FOR. Documents produced by common word-processing and graphics software programs (including Word, InDesign, and others) can be exported as PDF files. A PDF file incorporates all the fonts and images used in the document—elements that normally exist as separate files—into a single file that is immune to the changes that can happen when files move from one digital environment to another. (Even when you’re e-mailing a file from one Windows machine to another, it’s likely to go by way of a Unix server, which is a different environment. That’s not a problem for PDFs.)

A PDF is a sort of high-quality snapshot of the original file. PDF is, in one important sense, the most stable document format: almost anyone can print out a PDF, even if they don’t have a word processor, and it will always look exactly the same no matter what fonts, software, or operating system are used by the person you send it to. PDFs can be read on any computer. PDF has become the standard method of transmitting graphics files (magazine ads, for instance—or whole magazines) from the people who produce the digital files to the people who will print them.

NEVER SCAN A PAPER RÉSUMÉ TO MAKE A PDF. There are two kinds of PDFs, and the difference can cause serious problems in business correspondence. The two types are called “native PDFs” and “scanned PDFs.”

“Native PDFs” are what people normally mean when they say “PDF”. They’re what you get when you create a document in, say, Microsoft Word, and then save (or export) it as a PDF. When you send a native PDF to someone else, they can select text in the PDF, and then copy it to another application. Sometimes it is important to be able to do this. (However, as I’ve noted above, résumé-processing software used by HR departments can’t process PDFs.)

“Scanned PDFs” are what you get when you take a piece of paper with print on it, and then put it through a scanner to be made into a PDF. The resulting file contains no text—just a picture of text. You can’t select the text and copy it. There are ways to optically scan the text (OCR scanning), but someone who was expecting a normal, native PDF isn’t going to bother about this. And an OCR scan of a scanned PDF will have none of the visual formatting that makes it easy to read, may run all the text together, and will probably also have many textual errors.