How to Beat an Applicant Tracking System (ATS) with a 100% Pass Rate
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An Applicant Tracking System, usually referred to as an ATS, is a technology 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 based on the keywords they use.

These systems are quickly becoming the primary way that large companies find qualified candidates online.

Browse our gallery of resume examples here.

This means that job seekers are no longer creating CVs for human eyes alone. Before your CV is seen by any hiring managers it must first pass the initial ATS screening.

Fortunately, you can easily beat applicant tracking systems with a bit of simple optimization. To do this, you will need the right format, the right keywords, and the right strategy for your CV. But before we get there, we're going to take you through the basics.

What is an Applicant Tracking System?

Applicant tracking systems are software that automate the hiring process. They screen resumes and candidates automatically, making the assessment of new candidates faster and more efficient.

That means scanning resumes for important keywords and qualifications. The general goal is to narrow the applicant pool so that hiring managers can meet the "best" applicants based on a predetermined set of criteria.

ATS software 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.

Browse our gallery of ATS friendly resume templates here.

After parsing all applications, the ATS selects the applications that best suit the job description. 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.

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. However, there are ways to get past it.

Use keywords customized for the job

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.

ATS Keywords: Education, Certifications, Skills
Use keywords

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. The ATS knows when you are trying to fool it. Instead, be subtle with your resume 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. Using the main phrases in bullet points 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 ATS software 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.

Use standard section headings

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.

Make the parser’s job as easy as you can by using the standard set of resume headings. According to Skillings, the ATS will sort your content into these four categories:

  • Education
  • Contact Information
  • Skills
  • Work Experience

So be sure to use these titles for the section headings of your CV. Don't get too crazy - just call your work experience "work experience" and you education "education".

Don’t let your CV get too fancy

Keep it simple

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.

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, even perhaps, headers and footers.

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.

Check your spelling and grammar

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 won't know what you're talking about.

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.

Use full acronyms and titles

Your ATS-friendly resume must be as easy to understand as possible. This means that you shouldn’t take any chances with acronyms. An ATS won’t necessarily know the difference between the full title of a company and its acronym form.

To be safe, include both the acronym and the full title in your CV. This includes everything from titles and companies to industry lingo.

Apply, even if you might not be qualified

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%.

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 professional experience.

Follow up with the employer

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.

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.

James Clift

Written By

James Clift

Co-Founder & Director

James is an entrepreneur and the Co-Founder of VisualCV. He has spent the last 10 years building businesses, from window cleaning to software. His passion is helping individuals create the careers they want.

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