Applicant Tracking Systems: What You Must Know To Get The Interviews You Want

Professional Resume Writing & More

Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) have changed the application and résumé screening process, particularly in mid-size and large companies. The promise of ATS software is an alluring one: Apply the principles of technology to the complicated hiring process, allowing recruiters and hiring managers to profile the candidate they want to hire, post their openings online, query the system, and voilà! The perfect candidate appears. That’s the idea anyway. Applicant tracking systems allow companies to determine which candidates may be a match for a particular position, based on their résumé.

Approximately 26% of all companies use some kind of an Applicant Tracking System. They’re more likely to be used in large companies (75% of companies with more than 100 employees use an ATS) and mid-sized companies (60% of companies with 50-99 employees use an ATS). Almost all Fortune 500 companies use ATS software.

Jobseekers may not even know that their résumé is going into an applicant tracking system. There are two main clues that the résumé may be going into an ATS: If you’re asked to upload your résumé to apply, or if you’re asked to copy-and-paste your résumé into an online application form.

Applicant tracking systems fulfill several purposes. The first is to manage applications for positions (especially where there is a high volume of applicants). Research shows companies receive an average of 250 applications per job posting. Large companies, like Google, receive up to 75,000 applications per week.

resume

The second purpose is to screen out candidates who lack the required skills for the job. With online applications, it’s easy for jobseekers to apply for dozens or even hundreds of jobs, even if their qualifications don’t match up with the position requirements at all. The ATS allows the hiring manager to screen out irrelevant applicants.

Think of an ATS like a “hiring Google” — it reads the résumé content, sorts it into standardized fields, rates it, and helps it be found when a search query is made. Think about when you’re conducting a search on Google. You type in words that will help you find what you’re looking for (your search criteria), and a list of results appears. You begin clicking on results and can tell within a matter of seconds if the item fits what you were looking for. If it does, you’ll read further. If it doesn’t, you’ll click onto the next result. The same is true with the ATS.

The goal of the applicant tracking system is to help hiring managers and recruiters more easily identify candidates with the skills, education, and experience that are most desired of candidates. Just like you want the most relevant search results returned when you type a query into Google, the hiring manager doesn’t want to sift through hundreds or thousands of résumés to find the handful of people he or she really wants to talk to. So if you focus on ensuring you are the best fit for the types of positions you are seeking, the things that will make you findable in applicant tracking systems will already be in your résumé and cover letter — because they are important qualifications for the type of position you are seeking.

The ATS can also assist companies with hiring compliance; specifically, compliance with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidelines. U.S. employment law prevents employers from discriminating in hiring based on age, gender, and ethnicity.

ATS software also provides hiring managers with metrics and data which can improve the hiring process. Some systems collect EEOC data from candidates as part of the job application, streamlining compliance reporting.

Some applicant tracking systems can facilitate internal communication among hiring professionals — allowing those with access to the system to share applicant résumés and notes. Newer systems help manage the hiring process too — for example, notifying applicants when they’re no longer being considered, or scheduling job interviews.

Any time new technology is introduced into the hiring process, there is concern among jobseekers about what it means. It’s important to remember that technology is often used as a means to facilitate one goal: To make the hiring process more effective and efficient for the hiring company (not to make it easier for the jobseeker!).

When there are a large number of applicants for a position, the ATS allows the hiring manager to screen out low-ranking résumés, saving valuable time. In this instance, the applicant tracking system works a bit like your email spam filter. It separates out résumés it doesn’t feel would be relevant for the position being filled. Like a spam filter, it recognizes content that might not be important.

The appeal of an ATS for those doing the hiring is clear. Looking for a candidate with specific skills? Type them into a database and receive a targeted list of candidates with exactly those skills.

Unfortunately, the reality hasn’t quite panned out that way. Although the technology is improving, there are still limitations. One of the biggest challenges is that there is no single standard for applicant tracking system software, so jobseekers aren’t sure how to prepare ATS-friendly résumés that can be reliably and consistently read by the particular software the hiring company is using.

Consequently, applicant tracking systems are limited by the information they acquire from jobseeker résumés. If the résumés aren’t structured in a way that fits the applicant tracking system, they can enter a “black hole.” Success on the hiring side of things depends on querying the system with the right keywords, specifications, and requirements to draw out résumés that are the best fit for the position.

However, even if an applicant can do the job, if the résumé doesn’t work well with the ATS, the recruiter or hiring manager won’t find him or her.

One advantage for jobseekers applying through an applicant tracking system is that some systems automatically notify candidates whose résumés don’t meet the position requirements as identified by the ATS software. Receiving a response to a manual résumé submission is rare due to the volume of applications many employers receive — so notification by the ATS that the application has been rejected allows the candidate to pursue other opportunities to be considered for the role (i.e., using networking contacts), to tweak the résumé, or to simply move on.

How Applicant Tracking Systems Work

Most online applications end up in one of two places: an applicant tracking system, or an email inbox. Neither are particularly easy to get out of.

Although companies can search their database for candidates (much like you would query Google to find what you’re looking for), most companies use their ATS only to manage applications for a specific job. They only look at résumés submitted for that particular job; they don’t query the database for other candidates.

There are more than 300 different applicant tracking systems software programs on the market, and all applicant tracking systems are slightly different. However, they all work in a similar way, by allowing for filtering, management, and analysis of candidates for a particular job opening.

Applicant tracking systems “parse” the information in the résumés submitted, pulling them apart and placing information in specific fields within the ATS database, such as work experience, education, contact data, etc. The system then analyzes the extracted information for criteria relevant to the position being filled — such as number of years of experience or particular skills. Then, it assigns each résumé a score, giving the candidate a ranking compared to other applicants so recruiters and hiring managers can identify candidates who are the “best fit” for the job.

Criteria used by the applicant tracking system to determine a match includes:

  • Appearance of a keyword or phrase — this can be measured by its presence in the document at all — as well as the number of times the keyword or phrase appears.
  • Relevance of the keyword within context. (Does the keyword or phrase appear with other keywords you would expect?) It’s not enough to have the keywords on the page — relevancy is increasingly important too.

The higher the résumé ranking, the more likely the application will end up being reviewed by a human reader. Thus, it’s important to write for both the human reader and the applicant tracking system. Keywords are important to get “found” in the ATS, but ultimately a human reader will review the résumé, and weaving in keywords demonstrates competency for the job.

Success in navigating an applicant tracking system isn’t simply about the volume of keywords and phrases — it’s the right keywords — and, in particular, how unique those keywords are. Most jobseekers include the “obvious” keywords, but many applicant tracking systems put value on related keywords, not those specific terms.

Newer ATS software doesn’t simply identify keywords and apply a score based on how many times that keyword appeared. Context is the new part of this. It’s not enough to have the right keyword in the résumé — nor have it appear more than once (i.e., in a “keyword” or “skills” section). Instead, the system looks for relevance of the keyword to your work history and/or education. Those keywords are analyzed and weighed in the context of the entire résumé. Also considered in context is how recent the desired skill has been used, and the depth of knowledge the candidate possesses of the topic (by assessing whether relevant and related terms are also present in the résumé in relation to the keyword or phrase).

Older systems were subject to manipulation by jobseekers who would simply “keyword stuff” their documents, using white text or a tiny font to include the same keywords over and over again to trick the ATS into assigning a higher ranking to the document based simply on the number of times the keyword appeared.

It’s not about beating the ATS — it’s about understanding it. If you’re a good fit for the job, you want to make sure your résumé matches the requirements so you can make it out of the ATS.  This will give you the chance to interview for the job.

Applicant tracking systems see some keywords and phrases as more “valuable” than others. Many systems also allow the hiring manager or recruiter to “weight” criteria — applying greater significance to certain terms or qualifications. Hiring managers can also apply filters to further refine the candidate pool — for example, geographic or educational criteria. They can also specify keywords as either “desired” or “required,” which affects rankings.

In many cases, however, the system itself determines the most relevant keywords and phrases, as outlined in the job posting.

Companies that create applicant tracking system software continue to refine their processes and algorithms — and the systems are becoming less expensive as more providers enter the market. And jobseekers continue to learn to adapt their career communication documents (especially résumés and cover letters) to meet the needs of both humans and computers.

Résumé effectiveness goes beyond the ATS, however. Once your résumé pops up in the ATS search results, it needs to reflect what the recruiter or hiring manager expects from a candidate with the qualifications they desire. Remember, people still hire people.

For résumés analyzed by an ATS, it is important to include as much relevant information as possible. Inadvertent omission of key data can be the difference between having your résumé appear in a list of candidates meeting search criteria — and not making the cut.

For example, if you are pursuing a degree or certification, it should be included in your résumé (labeling it as “in progress” or “pending completion”), because a hiring manager may search for a specific type of degree or keywords contained in an area of study.

If the missing information is keyword-rich (i.e., a relevant job, educational credential, or certification), that can negatively impact the résumé’s rating — and, therefore, the likelihood of being selected for an interview.

Keywords can be nouns, adjectives, or short phrases — and describe unique skills, abilities, knowledge, education, training, and/or experience. Research shows that most applicant tracking system software cannot match acronyms with the “spelled out” version, so you should include both the acronym and the spelled out phrase. For example, you should list it Certified Public Accountant (CPA) on the résumé.

How can you find the keywords or search terms that are likely going to be used to query the ATS?

  • Review job postings for the type of position you’re seeking — especially when tailoring your résumé for a specific job, analyze that job posting closely.
  • Analyze your current job descriptions and job descriptions of positions similar to the one you have, and the one you want.
  • MyNextMove
  • Occupational Outlook Handbook
  • Dictionary of Occupational Titles
  • O*Net

Hard skills, educational degrees, certifications, and technology qualifications are more likely to be searched than “soft skills” (like “problem solving” or “leadership” or “teamwork”).

Also look for synonyms to the keywords you identify.

If you don’t have the specific qualifications required in the job posting, you can sometimes make it through the ATS by using “matching” words. For example, if the job requires a bachelor’s degree but you have work experience in the field (and no degree), you might write, “Five years’ experience in digital media and broadcasting, equivalent to a bachelor’s degree in journalism.” That may help you meet the requirements of the search query. However, don’t try to “trick” the system by listing skills you don’t have. (Remember, a human will eventually read the résumé, so lying to get through the ATS won’t work!)

Stuck about how to identify relevant keywords and phrases?

  1. Find 6-8 job postings for the type of position you want. Copy the text from the ads into a Microsoft Word document.
  2. Select all the text and copy it to your clipboard.
  3. Go to www.tocloud.com or www.wordle.net to create a tag cloud.
  4. Paste your selected text into the “text” box and generate the word cloud.

The word cloud will reveal keywords and phrases that are relevant for the type of job you’re seeking. The larger the word appears, the more relevant it is for that type of position.

wordcloud

If your résumé has keywords naturally woven throughout it, the process of preparing it for submission to an applicant tracking system is quite simple — simply ensure the resulting document is cleanly formatted for compliance with the ATS.

Creating an ATS-Friendly Résumé

The easiest way to ensure your résumé will be accepted by an ATS is to submit a résumé that is both ATS-friendly and human-reader ready. The two are not mutually exclusive; however, ATS-friendly résumés are formatted much more simply, while human-reader résumés may contain graphic elements that make the document easier to read and more attractive to the reader.

Because the ultimate goal is to have the résumé reviewed by a human, even an ATS-friendly résumé needs to be readable — and attractive — to human eyes. If you are given the choice to copy-and-paste the résumé or upload a file to apply for a position, choose the upload option. This will ensure the human-reader résumé retains the formatting you originally intended.

Some applicant tracking systems can manage graphics (or simply ignore them), but since many systems can’t handle graphics of any type, it is best to omit them if you suspect an applicant tracking system may be used to handle the application.

One way to ensure a match with a posted job is to “mirror” the job posting in the résumé submitted online. Some ATS experts once recommended copying-and-pasting the targeted job posting at the end of the résumé. However, this technique is no longer recommended. A résumé that matches too closely (that is, a 95% or higher match) may actually be flagged by the ATS. Instead, work to incorporate the job posting information into the résumé naturally.

Even if hiring managers aren’t using a formal applicant tracking system, they often file documents on their hard drive. Use your name and a keyword or two in the file name (i.e., JohnJonesSalesManager.doc) instead of the generic “Resume.doc.”

Hiring managers may use Windows Search or Spotlight (on a Macintosh) to help find a document on their hard drive. You can include search terms in the Keyword field in Microsoft Word. Under the “File” menu, choose “Summary Info” and put the information in the keyword file. Separate the keywords and terms with semicolons.

keyword search

The main body of the résumé is critical — some ATS software cannot read header/footer information, so if you include contact information in those sections, it may not be read. (And remember, geographic location can be used as a filter, so consider the address you use carefully. If you’re looking to relocate to a different area and are not seeking reimbursement for your relocation expenses, line up a local address to list on the résumé.)

Does an ATS-friendly résumé have to be boring? Not necessarily — although formatting has to be carefully considered.

Format is extremely important. The employer name must appear before the date.

Work experience — your current and previous jobs — should appear in this format:

Company Name          Date

Position

Description

The date should always appear to the right of the company name or on a separate line for optimum reading by the applicant tracking system. Dates can be included in almost any standard format — for example: November 2012, 11/2012, or Nov. 2012.

Work experience sections should also include the skills used in the role (including naming specific computer software and hardware, if relevant).

One nice thing about applicant tracking systems is that they are not sensitive to the length of the résumé, so two or more pages are fine. (And, in fact, a shorter résumé may actually not be as effective if important information is left out in favor of brevity.)

However, applicant tracking software is sensitive to formatting issues. In general, ATS-friendly résumés do not include charts, graphics, or complex formatting (tabs, columns, and tables). Also avoid colored text, shading, lines, and special symbols. Some ATS software cannot read underline, italics, or bold text.

Formatting a Résumé For ATS Compliance:

  1. Open the file in Microsoft Word. Under the “File” menu, choose “Save As.” Rename the file (recommended format: LastNameJobTitle.txt) and save as “Text Only” (TXT) format.
  2. Close the Microsoft Word file. Open the TXT file in Microsoft Word.
  3. Fix any obvious formatting issues.
  4. List your contact information at the top of the document, with each piece of information on a new line. Name should be alone on the top line — do not include any degrees, certifications, or credentials behind the name. Label the phone number with “Phone:” and the email address with “Email:”. Do not use the “Header and Footer” function in Word — these fields will not be read by the ATS, so if the contact information is in the header, the résumé will be imported into the ATS without a name.
  5. Create section headings (if they did not previously exist in the résumé). These can include “Summary,” “Work Experience,” and “Education.” Use one heading per section (do not combine “Education and Training,” for example), and include an extra return (an extra line) between sections.
  6. If you’re going to be uploading a Word file, highlight the text and choose a more appealing font than Courier. (Suggested fonts are Arial, Georgia, Tahoma, or Verdana.) Fonts generally aren’t that important, unless you’ve used a font for formatting bullets. Those may not come through the ATS.
  7. Use simple bullets (•) or keyboard characters (*, -, |, /. or >). Do not use dingbats or other special characters, as these will not be read properly by the ATS.
  8. If you’re uploading the file as a Word document, re-save the file as a DOC. (Under the “File” menu, chose “Save As.” Make sure you choose “Word Document” under the “Format” option.) If you are copying-and-pasting the content into an online form, keep it as a TXT file. (Note that Text Only files do not keep the font you chose intact, so Step 7 won’t apply.)

Getting Around the ATS

An applicant tracking system can be a real barrier when pursuing a position. Even if you are qualified, if your résumé is not “read” right by the ATS, you won’t be considered unless you can reach the hiring manager directly.

Although applicant tracking systems are being used more and more in the hiring process, ultimately, people hire people. The computer might be used to conduct the initial screening, but the résumé ultimately needs to be written to appeal to human beings. That means you can’t just stuff in keywords (to appeal to the applicant tracking system) and have it make sense to human readers.

Another important factor to consider is that applicant tracking systems — although gaining in popularity — are not yet pervasive. The simple fact is that people, not machines, still read most résumés. So appealing to human readers remains priority number one — especially if you are targeting a company with fewer than 100 employees. When you email your résumé to one of these “small” employers, it’s likely to end up on a computer — but in someone’s email inbox, not in an applicant tracking system.

If you can’t bring your résumé into compliance, you need to find another way to get yourself in front of the hiring manager.

Which leads to the next important point: Instead of spending a lot of time trying to make yourself more attractive to an applicant tracking system, you would be better served by making real-world, in-person connections (i.e., building your network) — or, at least, taking that time to develop a 100% complete LinkedIn profile and making virtual networking connections.

Either of those techniques will yield you a much higher likelihood of job search success than spending an equivalent amount of time cracking the ATS code.

This is also true if you are considering changing careers. Applicant tracking systems are not kind to career changers, as it’s difficult to get a high “match” score when the skills and experience in the previous career don’t align exactly with the requirements of the new position.

However, keep in mind that some companies do not allow hiring managers to accept a résumé unless it is submitted through an applicant tracking system — and that policy applies even if the candidate networks his or her way to the hiring authority or connects through social media. The hiring manager can, however, give you information that can help you tailor your résumé to meet the ATS requirements and query guidelines before you complete the online application, so that’s another reason to network!

Summary

It’s hard to stay on top of the requirements for successfully navigating applicant tracking systems, primarily because there’s no one universal standard being used. The best thing to do is to use “best practices” when applying online — for example, uploading Word documents (not PDFs), stripping out complex formatting and charts and graphics, and including all content in the body of the résumé (not using headers or footers for contact information, for example).

Applicant tracking system technology will continue to grow and evolve, and the ATS may be used in the future to manage even more aspects of the hiring process — automated video interviews, scheduling screening interviews, integration with a company’s HR information systems, and more.