Over the years, we’ve seen a great many questions posed by job candidates about Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS). Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions and erroneous beliefs as to how ATS actually work, how they review and qualify candidates, and what benefits they provide to both the candidate and the employer.

Let’s take a look at some basics every job applicant should understand and then clear up some assumptions and misinformation about this very important component to the job application process.

What is an ATS?

Simply put, an ATS is an online software application that accepts and stores information that job candidates input. It’s designed specifically for recruitment tracking purposes. Once collected, the data provided by candidates for each position may be easily reviewed by the employer’s recruiter(s) and others involved in the hiring process. The ATS can sift through the applications and help hiring companies determine which candidates may be the most qualified for a given position based on criteria set by the employer.

Why do businesses use them?

A properly-configured ATS may help employers of every size more efficiently and accurately identify qualified candidates, saving them time and money. Once an applicant inputs data into an ATS, it is readily available to all the employer’s individuals who are involved in the hiring process.

An ATS also delivers a highly-organized accumulation of all data, so recruiters, hiring managers and others can review the same information, communicate with each other, coordinate and schedule interviews, and keep the process flowing.

How does an ATS work?

Applicants may enter their data into the ATS front-end located on the hiring company’s website, or it may be extracted from applicants’ information he or she has uploaded to job boards. Popular job boards have also created abbreviated application systems including Monster’s “Apply with Monster” and LinkedIn’s “Quick Apply.”

Once a candidate has completed inputting his or her information into an ATS, the data is stored within a database. A recruiter may then search all the applications for germane keywords for a particular job opening, including job skills, former employers, years of experience and schools attended. An ATS may also be configured to automatically perform this process.

Fact vs. Fiction

Here are some common beliefs concerning ATS and the reality.

True or False:  ATS searches for keywords, dates and job titles in your resume.

This may be true, depending on how a company configures its ATS. A company may also program the ATS to use knock-out questions (“Do you have at least three years’ experience as a marketing manager?”) and pre-qualifiers to weed out applications that don’t meet minimum criteria. Candidates who do not meet these criteria may be eliminated or their data placed into a “knock-out pile” for future consideration.

True or False: ATS can read resumes in any format.

ATS can misread resumes that are not optimized for ATS. Graphics (including bullets), incorrect headings, formatting, characters, and wording may not be properly read by an ATS. Even then, information from a resume may appear to the recruiter as a solid, unformatted paragraph. Some ATS now are trying to use neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) techniques to overcome the lack of keywords in qualified candidate resumes, LinkedIn profiles, or other social media profiles.

True or False: It’s better to use a PDF when submitting your resume to an ATS.

Word or PDF format are most easily read by most ATS. And most recruiters will review the actual resume you’ve attached to your application rather than depend solely on the resume you’ve input into the ATS. Since many ATS cannot read tables or graphics, and have difficulty with italicized or special characters such and ampersands and accent marks, it’s best to avoid using them. An ATS may not be able to read graphics including bullets, condensing your resume into a single paragraph.

True or False: If the keywords are not found, you’ll be immediately rejected.

This is dependent on the hiring company’s configuring of the ATS. Companies may program their ATS to score applications and place applications that don’t meet a minimum into a separate “holding database” for possible later consideration.

True or False: All ATS work the same.

ATSs differ. They offer different functionality and complexity. An ATS from one company may be customized with different options so it operates differently from another ATS from the same company. Different Applicant Tracking Systems also provide different reporting functions.

True or False: Every ATS scores resumes; if you don’t get a minimum number of points, you’ll be disqualified.

Fact: There is no such thing as a score. Most ATS can score applications only if the hiring company activated a point scoring feature, say whenever a keyword matches. Recruiters can also manually make the ATS weigh applications based on relevant terms the recruiter specifies and then review the results.

True or False: ATS can figure out where to organize all the data on the resume and can use all the information.

Many ATS need guidance, using headings, to determine where to put data. So good information gets misfiled and ignored. Many ATS use only information that matches their formatting rules.

True or False: An ATS may reject a resume longer than two pages.

Length does not matter. But if the ATS has been programmed to search for specific terms, resumes that contain more of those keywords – which may be longer – may actually score higher.

True or False: Companies are using ATS because they do not care about people.

Companies may be overwhelmed by the volume of applications, and the ATS is both effective and efficient in identifying unqualified candidates. It keeps applicant data organized and retains applications for future evaluation when other openings occur. Moreover, the U.S. government requires companies to report EEO statistics, to which the ATS can compile automatically. ATS also provides reporting functionality i.e. how many interviews, candidates. In addition, ATS also posts jobs publicly enabling job aggregators such as Glassdoor, Indeed and Linkup to pull from.

True or False: I have a resume on LinkedIn, so I don’t need to put my resume into the ATS.

If you are on LinkedIn, you can apply for a job using the website’s “Quick Apply” function which forwards a candidate’s LinkedIn profile and resume to the hiring company. Other sites including Indeed, CareerBuilder, and Monster offer similar shortened means to apply for jobs. Applicants may also opt for a longer and more complete job submission from job sites which actually takes them directly to the front-end of the hiring company’s ATS.

What we at GetSetResumes say:

Obviously, software is essential in modern recruiting. Candidates can potentially come from anywhere in the world, with wildly different backgrounds, resume styles, and platforms from which they are applying. Somehow, you need to compile, review, and fairly assess them all in order to find the best possible new hire.  Your systems are supposed to help with this task, but they’re not always as useful as you’d hope.

From recruiters to hiring managers, your job application has to pass through many levels in order to land you a job interview. But perhaps none is as feared as the applicant tracking system. The ATS, as it’s commonly referred to, is a software program that automates recruitment tracking by handling job applications and resume data electronically.

A majority of companies use applicant tracking systems due to the sheer volume of interest they have in each and every position open in their organization. Here’s what you need to know about applicant tracking systems (the good, the bad, and the ugly)—and how to beat them!

The Good

It can get you hired faster.

Larger organizations are especially fond of using applicant tracking systems since it makes the hiring process faster. After all, when a company is vetting candidates for multiple positions simultaneously, the manpower and budget might not simply be available to process applications quickly. When a company uses an ATS, you may have a better chance of hearing back quickly since it’s not just one poor hiring manager who has to weed through endless applications.

The Bad

It’s keyword-sensitive.

While applicant tracking systems are a huge benefit for businesses in terms of streamlining the interviewing process, there are some unfortunate drawbacks to using the system for job seekers. For example, if your resume and cover letter don’t have the necessary keywords that the ATS is searching for, your application could be rejected—even if you are qualified.

The Ugly

It doesn’t allow your personality to shine through.

Beyond the basic information that your resume and cover letter must contain, it’s important to let employers get a glimpse of who you really are, both as a potential new hire and as a person. Problem is, the ATS is solely scanning to see if you’re a match for the job, not if you’re witty or if you have a good sense of humor. Since it doesn’t focus on personality, your application could be passed over.

So how can you get your application through an ATS? While there is no magic formula for “beating the system,” there are steps to take that can help get your application through the applicant tracking system and into the hands of HR personnel.

Here are five ways to help pass through applicant tracking systems:

1. Read job descriptions thoroughly.

When you read a job description, don’t just scan it and submit your application. Pick apart every single aspect of the job listing. Look for keywords, basic job titles, and required experience. Why? These words are the keywords that the applicant tracking system will be scanning submissions for. So be sure to sprinkle them in various parts of your job application so that the ATS will pick them up—and pass you through to the next round.

2. Customize your cover letter and resume.

When submitting to an applicant tracking system, make sure to personalize your cover letter and resume for every job you apply to. Edit your documents in a way that will professionally use the keywords found in the job description. Having those keywords in your cover letter and resume will allow the applicant tracking system to rank you higher and qualify you for a job interview.

3. Complete all fields.

If you thought that you could pick and choose which parts of an online application to answer, think again. Every single field of the online application should be filled out with correct and error-free information. Leaving gaps in your application could cause it to be rejected, which is the last thing you want, especially if you’ve spent a lot of time customizing your resume and cover letter. So review your application to ensure that it’s complete and as perfect as possible.

4. Don’t use PDF files, tables, or graphics.

While you might be tempted to fill your application with fancy schmancy charts and tables, it’s best to stick to the basics. Remember, the easier it is to scan, the better your chances that the online application will make it further into the processPDF files are not always recognizable and the system cannot read tables or graphics since they analyse the information differently than humans. When it comes to applicant tracking systems, it’s better to submit your keyword-rich resume and cover letter as a Word doc.

5. Use basic HR wording.

The applicant tracking system isn’t a fan of flowery language. When penning your application, keep it basic and to the point. Use words and phrases such as “work experience,” “education,” “skills,” and “certifications.” While it may seem like you’re submitting a boring application, it’s better to submit a straightforward application that the applicant tracking system approves of rather than rejects outright.

What some of the renowned global experts in the field say:

First, avoid the ATS

Many many career experts chimed in with the same advice- avoid the ATS!

You are 10 times more likely to win the job by avoiding the ATS. by Donna Svei, Executive Resume Writer  

The Bottom Line

Keyword-match the job posting! Absolutely & unequivocally the biggest factor. If your resume is a bunch of carefully-curated words illustrating your unique value proposition for the role in question, does it not make sense that prospective employers will then take those words and attempt to match them up to what they said they wanted?  And in turn, is it not sensible that whoever provides more of the words in the desired priority should be considered a better match? That’s what an ATS does when it gets your resume. In addition to that keyword-matching, your resume forms the record in the amazingly specialized CRM function an ATS also provides its users so make sure your email & mobile phone are in it–and if receiving SMS is acceptable for you, *say so*. Many employers are starting to understand that, particularly for employed job seekers, a text is a better way to communicate. by Ed Han


Keep Formatting and Style Easy To Read (on phones)

No headers, no footers, no tables or templates. (Yeah I know that’s going to piss people off.) Simplify in a common font using simple bullets and spacing. I can’t believe how much crap opens weirdly, and my folks are techies! Send as pdf when you can but don’t use that as an excuse to over-format. MAKE IT EASY TO READ ON A PHONE. by Linda Tuerk


Consider Plurals, Abbreviations, etc.

It’s also important to be extra mindful of: Plurals, Abbreviations, Numbers, Hyphens, Acronyms and Synonyms. For example: CPA or Certified Public Accountant, CRM or Salesforce, 10 Yrs. Experience or Ten Years’ Experience, Non-profit or Non-profit, 2019 or ’19, etc. Be sure to tailor the content of your resume to the exact keywords or phrasing that is included in the job description. Otherwise, the system may have difficulty matching you with those skills.by Emily Brown, PHR, SHRM-CP, CPBA


But Don’t Make Your Resume Too Pretty

Be cautious of those “fancy” resume designs that don’t follow a traditional format or encourage you to embed images that contain valuable information. While these may look nice to the human eye, resumes with embedded images and unusual layouts often become a garbled mess, or get completely omitted from your application, after it passes through the applicant tracking system. I wrote an article with all my tips and an infographic on beating the dreaded hiring bots hereby Amanda Augustine


What Are Keywords/Buzzwords?

The unfortunate reality is that recruiters in all fields are drawn to very specific buzzwords.

Silly example: if a job requirement is looking for experience with “aqua blue” but your resume shows experience with “Teal”, your resume/profile might not get noticed.  An ATS is only going to pick up what a recruiter tells it to. Aqua Blue and Teal are pretty much the same, but the system doesn’t know that.

SO…as a candidate, if you know this, then make sure to pick up on the specific keywords used in the job description, and change your resume to show Aqua Blue instead of Teal so that you stand out.



Titles Are Keywords

I echo what Ed Han said and would add a couple things: – Make sure the actual position title is in a prominent position on your resume. Normally this means at the very top of your resume.

– Use the exact keywords from the job posting as Ed already said. I would add to that to use complementary keywords. If there are other related keywords that are relevant to the position but not necessarily included in the posting make sure you use those throughout your resume too.

– You may not always know all the right keywords. Do research! Google the skills needed/expected for the position, industry and prospective employer. You could also use sites like Glassdoor or Indeed. But don’t be afraid of using a keyword research tool like Moz or SemRush to figure out what other words might be relevant. It might be a little bit of research required on the front end but it will pay off in the long run with a shorter job search. by Jessica Hernandez


Match The Company

I agree with all the above. When we have a client that is focused on one role or company, we (together) research the heck out of the company, that particular role, even look at other roles they have open to see if there are certain common keywords we may have missed. ATS is looking for keywords the company has programmed it for so those words will be in the job description. Read it carefully and be sure to sprinkle those words throughout your resume (and cover letter even) and weave them into your story. by Erin Kennedy MCD, CMRW, CERW, CPRW, CEMC


But Don’t Overdo It

I’ll add that it’s important to remember that after your resume gets screened by an ATS, a human also reviews it. It still needs to be visually appealing. I reviewed a resume recently with FIFTY “core competencies” bulleted out at the top. That’s overkill.by Sarah Johnston, Job Search Expert


It’s Not A Buffet

…it is just really important for job seekers to move away from the “buffet style” style and treat every application by savoring every moment you have to customize every resume so it stands out as opposed to fitting in. I agree with Ed Han and Jessica Hernandez..key words are very important and in line with what is being looked for. And, transfer that confidence-be compelling in terms of your accomplishment statements and share what will add to your career story…. not what is already “intuitively” recognized by employers / recruiters and often over-used with no real. by Shelly Elsliger


Prepare An ATS Version

Have a separate resume for ATS submission versus .pdf submission or handing someone a resume in person. Keep the format simple. No tables, lines, graphs, charts. A complex resume format can keep the system from reading your resume. by Donna Schilder, MCC


PDF or Word?

My research says that if the company says a PDF is ok, then it is. Unfortunately, you don’t know how old a company’s system is and whether it accepts PDF’s. Hedge your bets, and upload a word doc. In answer to your second question – yes it could exclude you. Also, try to mirror the job descriptions wording to match better. by Sarah Holtzclaw


If You Must Apply, Know This

If you absolutely can’t avoid the system then write your resume with the system top of mind. Identify meaningful keywords (both short and long-tail) and then think: repeatable and relevant when adding them to the file. Next, demonstrate proficiency by sharing keywords in context and with a rich assortment of metrics. It is one thing to include a keyword and another thing entirely to provide proof of ability.

Finally, if you include content in the Header. Footer, Charts or Graphs – translate details into the body of the file so the system can find them. It is ok to house details in these areas/graphics but to be safe they should also appear in the body of the file. bAdrienne Tom, Executive Resumes


Use Formatting To Your Advantage

And, when you do apply online…Follow up in any way you can. Find the recruiter on LinkedIn, or, best case scenario, get someone you know there to fill out the referral paperwork. Be more than keywords. Yes, you need them to get through, but everyone else who gets through will have them, too. Highlight your accomplishments and the experiences and qualifications that make you unique while adding value to the reader. ATS like keywords in context, so don’t waste space with long lists (great advice Sarah). Stand out and increase readability. Don’t let ATS myths prevent you from creating a resume that uses formatting research shows increases consumption. Use it to highlight your differentiation. A human chooses who to interview! by Marie Zimenoff


Sure, People Still Get Hired Through ATS

I agree that referrals are much more effective, however you might not know someone at every company you wish to apply for. For example, I’ve gotten all of my positions (with the exception of my first job) by applying online via ATS. And I think it’s bad advice to tell people essentially that if they don’t know someone who can refer them, they should just not apply. by Tamara Devine


This post first appeared on the getsetResumes.com Blog

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