An Applicant Tracking System, usually referred to as an ATS, is a platform used by many employers to automate and streamline their hiring process. Throughout your job search, you will likely encounter several applications that use an Applicant Tracking System to screen candidates. These systems are quickly becoming the primary way that large companies recruit candidates online.
Fortunately, Applicant Tracking Systems are automated, which means they can easily be beaten with a bit of optimization.
Job seekers are now no longer creating CVs for human eyes alone. While your CV should still look great to potential employers, it must first pass the initial screening done by the ATS. To do this, you will need the right format, the right keywords, and the right strategy for your CV.
Applicant Tracking Systems are used to provide “an automated way for companies to manage the entire recruiting process, from receiving applications to hiring employees”, says Alison Doyle at The Balance. The information is then “used for screening candidates, applicant testing, scheduling interviews, managing the hiring process, checking references, and completing new-hire paperwork.” An ATS removes the need for any human involvement in the early stages of the hiring process. Candidates provide their CV and cover letter, in some cases answer a questionnaire, and the ATS reads and sorts each application and compares it to the posted job requirements.
After parsing all applications, the ATS selects the applications that best suit the job description. “The parsing system works by matching keywords from the resume to the job position. Applicants are sorted according to how well they align with the requirements […] set for the job”, explains Better Buys. The applications that best match the job description are chosen by the ATS and given to the hiring manager to review. This is when successful applications are finally seen by human eyes, well after most candidates have been rejected. Unless your application is one of the few chosen by the system, your CV will never be seen by a real person.
To applicants, this automated system may seem ruthless, casting away applications without a thought for the candidate behind the CV. For employers, however, the utility of these systems supersedes their inhumanity. As Meridith Levinson at CIO notes, “Applicant tracking systems save recruiters days' worth of time by performing the initial evaluation and by narrowing down the candidate pool to the top 10 candidates whose resumes the system ranks as the most relevant.” An ATS can parse hundreds of applications faster than even a team of humans. When a job opening is going to receive hundreds of applications, it only makes sense to automate the selection process.
The aspect of your CV that the ATS is most interested in is the keywords. The main function of an ATS is to read your CV and compare its content to the relevant job description, looking for the best match. This means that your CV cannot be one-size-fits all; it must be tailored for each position you apply to. Read the job posting carefully and use the same language to describe your skills and experience.
“As long as you legitimately have many of the skills in the job description, customize your resume to contain the “key words” that are in the posting”, advises Trudy Steinfeld at Forbes. She continues, “Don’t try to be fancy and use synonymous words, as only the exact words will allow the recruiter conducting the search to find your resume.” James Hu at Jobscan recommend that you “use the exact same language and punctuation as in the job description.” This includes your job title - different companies will have different names for similar roles, so it is fine to adjust your own job title accordingly (but remember: don’t lie).
This does not mean, however, that you should stuff your CV full of the same keyword over and over, or create hidden keywords in an invisible font. “Let me be clear: If you “keyword stuff” your resume, the ATS will red flag it, sending your resume to the black hole of failure”, says James Hu. The ATS know when you are trying to fool it. Instead, be subtle with your keywords. “Sprinkle them throughout your resume,” advises Big Interview’s Pamela Skillings.
A good place for keywords is a skills section, where you list your core competencies or abilities. Mark Slack and Erik Bowitz at The Muse recommend adding a “qualifications summary—a six-sentence (or bullet pointed) section filled with ATS-friendly keywords. Even better, use those six sentences to concisely present the crème of the crop of your achievements, major skills, and important experiences.” This is an excellent way to make sure you are using all of the right keywords in a way that fits in the CV organically and is easy for an ATS to read.
An ATS application also gives you the opportunity to be less ruthless in editing your resume. Because the ATS is an untiring robot instead of an already-bored hiring manager, your resume can be as long as it needs to be as long as the right keywords are there. As CIO’s Meridith Levinson notes, the ATS “will scan your resume regardless of whether it’s two pages or four.”
Applicant Tracking Systems use headings to navigate your CV so that the information in each section can be correctly parsed and understood. For this reason, take care to use simple headings that the ATS will recognize. “By over-customizing your resume headings (for example, using “About Me” and “Accreditations”), you make it more difficult for Applicant Tracking Systems to parse your resume”, says Jobscan’s Millie Reinhardsen. Make the parser’s job as easy as you can by using the standard set of resume headings. According to Big Interview’s Pamela Skillings, the ATS will sort your content into these four categories:
So be sure to use these titles for the section headings of your CV.
Meridith Levinson puts it simply: “Call your work experience, ‘Work Experience’”.
It is important not to confuse the Applicant Tracking System. The ATS must be able to navigate your CV easily, without getting tripped up on any complex formatting elements. Unfortunately, certain formatting tricks that look great to a human eye will confuse an ATS. According to Mark Slack and Erik Bowitz, “you’ll need to delete any extra touches you’ve added to your resume, like logos, pictures, symbols, and shadings.” This includes header and footers as well, says Jobscan’s Millie Reinhardsen: “Headers and footers are best left empty (leave your contact information out of there!) with standard 1-inch margins.” However much it may hurt to get rid of the graphical details you’ve added to your CV, anything that might create a problem for the parser must go.
Of course, the CV you create for ATS applications doesn’t have to be your only CV. In fact, it shouldn’t be. Any time you know your CV will be seen by a person, not a robot, feel free to send your more stylish resume, with all the graphics and images befitting the company and position you are applying to.
Of course, this advice applies to all CVs, but it bears repeating in the context of an ATS application. A typical employer or hiring manager will be fully prepared to throw out any CV with a spelling mistake, but with an ATS, your CV won’t even get that far. Where a human can at least glean your meaning from a misspelled word, “an ATS will terminate you immediately because it will simply have no idea what you’re talking about”, says Slack and Bowitz. The ATS is looking for matching keywords and relevant headings, so a misspelled word won’t register as a match, even if you are perfect for the job. A little proofreading can be the difference between instant rejection and a successful application.
Your CV must be as easy to understand as possible. This means that you shouldn’t take any chances with any acronyms. An ATS won’t necessarily know the difference between the full title of a company and its acronym form. According to Millie Reinhardsen, “Even if an acronym is well known (for example, BMW or IBM), it may not be recognized or categorized correctly by an ATS.” To be safe, include both the acronym and the full title in your CV. “You have no idea which keyword the robots are scanning for. Using both allows you to be covered either way.” advises Big Interview’s Pamela Skillings. She recommends doing this for “titles, professional organizations, certifications, and other industry lingo”.
The thought of unerring machines reading your CV may cause you to think that your CV must be a 100% match with the job description to apply, but this is not the case. Like with any job application, the ATS is looking for the best match, and the best match is almost never 100%. As Trudy Steinfeld at Forbes says, “When Human Resource or hiring managers write job descriptions they throw in everything they would love to have, but since job functions are changing so rapidly, they are looking for trainable candidates. If you have 60% of the skills they need, they can teach you the rest.” Just because you aren’t the perfect match doesn’t mean you aren’t the best possible match at this particular moment. As long as you are a dedicated and enthusiastic learner you can still be a great employee, even if you don’t have all of the recommended experience.
Don’t let the robots cause you to forget your own humanity. Just because the employer has decided to use automation to streamline their candidate search doesn’t mean you have to act like an automaton yourself. Finding a way to show your enthusiasm and personality can leave a lasting impression. Trudy Steinfeld’s advice is to “Find a way to follow up. If you really think you are qualified and excited about a job, reach out to your network through LinkedIn and other channels and see if anyone works for the company.” Even if you can’t contact the hirer directly, reaching out to someone within the organization could lead to your application getting a second look. Use your network to send a note and make it clear that you are excited about this job. If you succeed in make an impression this way, the employer may make a point of finding your application in the ATS and giving it a look.