Applicant Tracking Systems
Updated 18 October 2020
If you have applied for a job online in the last few years, there is a good chance that your resume has been through an applicant tracking system (ATS).
These systems are increasingly being used by companies to manage job applications and decide which resumes should go forward to the hiring manager for consideration.
Figures suggest that around 70% of resumes are screened out by an ATS, never making it to the stage where they are read by a human, so it is important to craft a resume that has the best chance of getting through an ATS.
In this article, we will look at how an ATS works and why employers use them. We will also reveal the top tips for beating the ATS, and some common mistakes to avoid.
What Is an ATS?
An ATS is a piece of software used by employers to scan resumes and identify the candidates who are most suited for a particular role. Some may rank the candidates it reviews in order of their suitability.
The systems can also keep track of applicants throughout the hiring process and may store resumes long-term, so candidates who have applied previously can be shortlisted for new vacancies that match their skills and qualifications.
As well as scanning resumes, some organizations may use an ATS to scan candidates’ social media profiles.
There are several applicant tracking systems on the market, and most are customizable so employers can program them to review resumes according to their own specifications.
However, the central feature of all applicant tracking systems is their ability to search resumes for keywords.
Why Do Companies Use an ATS?
Companies use an ATS to streamline their hiring process, making it quicker and more efficient.
Online applications have made it much easier for candidates to submit their resumes for jobs, which is good news for job seekers but means that larger companies can receive hundreds of applications for one vacancy alone. And many of these may turn out to be completely unsuitable.
An ATS can sift out all those which are not a good match with the job description, allowing the hiring manager or human resources professional to focus on reviewing the best candidates for the job.
The systems were initially adopted by large corporations, and a survey by Jobscan suggests that more than 98% of Fortune 500 companies now use some form of ATS.
But increasingly, medium-sized businesses (those with more than 50 employers) are seeing the benefits of an ATS too.
If you are asked to submit an online application for a job, then your resume will be scanned by an ATS. And if you are applying for a job with any medium to large company, it is wise to assume they will be using an ATS too.
How Do Applicant Tracking Systems Work?
An ATS uses a keyword tracker to scan resumes for important words and phrases that match the job description. A recruiter can program an ATS to carry out focused searches based on the keywords required for a particular role.
For example, if an employer is recruiting for an engineering role, they may use an ATS to filter out all resumes that do not include the word ‘engineer’.
Once an ATS has removed all unsuitable candidates, the remaining resumes will be put forward to the employer.
At this stage, a human will read all the highlighted resumes to create their own shortlist.
An ATS will tend to work by converting resumes to a text-only document before scanning them, so formatting your resume correctly is almost as important as making sure it includes the right keywords.
In the next section, we look in more detail at how to optimize your resume for an ATS.
Top Tips for Beating the ATS
In theory, resumes that are clear, well-written and relevant to the job description should get through the ATS. The systems are designed to find the best candidates, so those who try to trick the ATS are likely to get found out (see the common mistakes section below).
However, understanding how an ATS works and what it is looking for will put you at an advantage as you can use this knowledge to improve and refine your resume.
Below we have pulled together our top tips for creating an ATS-friendly resume:
1. Research Your Keywords
Spend time thinking about which keywords the ATS is likely to be looking for.
Those that come near the top or are mentioned more than once are likely to be key so make sure these words are included in your resume.
If the job description is short on detail, you could look at similar job postings or search for the social media profiles of people who work for the company already to see how they describe their role.
2. Use Keywords Wisely
Once you have your list of keywords, do not just start cramming them in anywhere for the sake of getting through the ATS.
Remember, with any luck, your resume will also be read by a human, so keywords should only be used where appropriate and should be linked to your own experience and skills.
Including a skills section in your resume can help you to mention certain keywords that may not fit in elsewhere.
3. Only Apply for Jobs That Match Your Skills
It may seem obvious, but if you have the necessary experience and qualifications for a role, then this will shine through and the ATS should naturally pick up on your aptitude.
It will be much harder to include relevant keywords if the job is not a good fit for you.
4. Use Simple Language and Avoid Uncommon Words or Phrases
It is likely that an ATS might not recognize certain words or phrases if they are not widely used.
This applies to section headings on your resume too – stick to traditional titles such as 'work experience' or 'education' rather than trying to get creative with your descriptions.
5. Write Acronyms Out in Full
When it comes to phrases that are commonly shortened to acronyms (such as BA for Bachelor of Arts), some applicant tracking systems will search for the phrase in full while others will search for the acronym. So it’s safest to include both.
6. Keep the Format of Your Resume Simple
An ATS may struggle to read resumes that have an unusual layout or lots of graphics, which could result in important information being lost. So opt for a traditional, text-based resume set out in a conventional, chronological order.
Stick to a commonly-used font (such as Times New Roman, Arial or Helvetica) in 11pts or more, and with a margin of at least one inch on all sides.
It is also a good idea to check what type of file is required. Usually, you will be asked to submit your resume as a DOCX or PDF. Of the two, most applicant tracking systems find it easier to read DOCX files.
7. Update Your Social Media Profile
Some employers will also use an ATS to scan your online presence, so make sure your bios on LinkedIn, Twitter and so on reflect the skills and experience you have described in your resume.
8. Call on Contacts Within the Company You Are Applying To
If you can, include the name of someone who already works at the organization and has referred you for the role.
Many employers have an employee referral system and the approval of a current employee can fast-track your resume through the ATS.
Common Mistakes to Avoid
An ATS will reject huge numbers of resumes. While many of these will be because the candidates simply weren’t good enough, even the strongest applicants can sometimes fall through the cracks thanks to an error or oversight.
Here are some of the mistakes to watch out for when submitting a resume to an ATS:
Trying to Cheat the System
If you know your resume is going to be scanned by an ATS, it may be tempting to try to cram in as many keywords as possible.
Some candidates have resorted to sneaking them in via ‘invisible’ white text or unnaturally overusing certain words.
This tactic might fool the ATS, but a hiring manager will spot the trick immediately and it could result in you being blacklisted for future roles with that organization.
Getting Too Creative
As mentioned previously, an ATS prefers simple formats and plain language. Don’t use unusual synonyms to describe key attributes, and resist the urge to show off your skills with lots of fancy graphics and visuals.
At best, these will all be lost when the ATS converts your resume into a text-only document, so your time will have been wasted. And at worst, it could result in the ATS overlooking important information qualifying you for the job.
The following types of formatting are all best avoided:
- Tables and columns
- Boxes of text
- Headers and footers
- Hyperlinks on keywords (the ATS may only display the URL, so link from less important words or include the URL in brackets after the keyword)
- Unusual fonts
Taking a Scattergun Approach
Firing off lots of applications for multiple jobs may feel productive, but a generic resume is unlikely to get you very far. As we’ve learned, keywords are crucial when it comes to beating an ATS, so you must read the job description carefully and tailor your resume accordingly.
This is particularly important if you’re applying for more than one role within the same company. Hiring managers can access the ATS and see your entire application history, so submitting your resume for a range of jobs is likely to raise questions about how serious you are.
You’re much better off putting time and effort into one or two carefully selected applications.
An ATS can never replace human judgment when it comes to deciding which candidates are best for a role, but nevertheless, they are a hugely useful tool for employers handling large numbers of job applications.
So, like them or not, these automated systems are here to stay. While they aren’t perfect, and they can mistakenly reject good candidates, it is important to remember that an ATS is essentially looking for the same things as a hiring manager – clearly presented evidence that you have the necessary skills for a job.
If you make sure your resume contains this information in a way the ATS can easily digest, then you should be well on your way to securing an interview.