ATS 101: What You Should Know About Applicant Tracking Systems

Ever applied for a job online and had to fill out a million forms fields with redundant questions even after you already uploaded your resume? Well, that means that you applied to a job using an applicant tracking system (ATS).

What Is an ATS?

An ATS is a software that allows recruiters to automate parts of the hiring process. Some of the most common ATS are Taleo, Workday, and SuccessFactors. When you see these names on a form or in a URL, you know you’re dealing with an ATS.

ATS is usually the first line of defense for recruiters. Meaning your resume will go through an automated review before it ever reaches a human. If your resume fails the automated review, a recruiter will never see your resume. Even if you’re the most highly qualified candidate.

what to know about applicant tracking systems

Why Do Recruiters Use ATS?

They save time. Not for you. For the recruiters.  They also allow recruiters to make apples-to-apples comparisons between different candidates. They allow your information to be captured as discrete chunks of data (such as where you live, how long you’ve been working, what skills you have, etc.) that recruiters can then search against. So, for example, let’s say 100 people apply for a job. Then, a week after the job’s been posted, the hiring manager decides she’s most interested in people who have experience in theater production. The recruiter can filter applicants by the keywords “theater production” and prioritize her candidate list that way.

ATS is great for recruiters. They make their jobs easier. But they make job seekers groan. Not only because they are laborious to fill out, but because they can inadvertently cause job seekers to miss opportunities. Because these systems rely on keywords and algorithms, your resume could get overlooked on a technicality. Ouch. Let’s talk about some ways to optimize your chances of defeating the ATS and making it all the way to a real, live human.

Use straightforward, No-Frills Formatting

Beautiful resumes are eye-catching to humans, but if you’re dealing with an ATS, submitting a basic resume will work in your favor. (Don’t forget that you can always follow up with the recruiter or hiring manager and attach your pretty resume.)

When submitting your resume to an ATS, avoid using tables, and try to use consistent formatting for your job titles, companies, and dates. A good rule of them is to keep this information on one line, separated by commas. Most ATS will know how to handle comma-delimited data. Save your resume as a .doc. You can always submit a PDF to a real human.

Tailor Your Resume for Every Single Job You Apply To

ATS also help recruiters by ranking resumes. They will scan your resume and inform the recruiter how closely you match the job description. That way, recruiters have the luxury of tossing out applicants that aren’t a close fit. However, while a human probably can recognize that job titles of “Mall Santa Claus” and “Shopping Center Kris Kringle” are probably the same job, an ATS doesn’t know that. They’re not humans, and they aren’t smart. So to match well against a job, you need to tailor your resume to echo the language of the job posting.

So, yes—that means if you apply to twelve jobs seeking holiday Santas, and three call him “Mall Santa”, three calls him, “Shopping Center Kris Kringle” and the rest call him, “Walmart Elf in Chief”, you need at least three different resumes where you use those exact titles.

Focus on Your High-Quality Skills In Your Work Section

Many job seekers make the mistake of trying to detail every little thing they’ve ever done at any job into their resume. This is almost never helpful. Recruiters and hiring managers don’t care how many envelopes you can stuff in an hour unless it’s directly related to the job at hand. So seek out your most pertinent accomplishments and list only those.

Keep in mind that when a human does see your accomplishment, they’ll try to understand how you’re a good match for what the company needs. So as you think about your skills, consider each company and their unique challenges. What can you list on your resume to address those?

Use Job Description Keywords

Use the same language on your resume as the job description. This will help you check all the boxes that the ATS is looking for so that you will match the posting more closely. Put yourself in the hiring manager’s shoes, and scan the job description for key phrases. Then, make sure those phrases appear as-is on your resume. However, don’t go overboard. “Keyword stuffing” can also get your application thrown in the trash.

what you should know about Applicant Tracking Systems

Never Write “See Resume” on Your ATS Form

Even though filling out the same information, again and again, is annoying, you need to do it. Remember, an ATS is basically a dumb robot: it doesn’t understand “See resume”. That’s just a lost opportunity for you to use the correct key phrases the AT is looking for.

Beating the ATS Is the First Step

Now that you know how to beat the ATS, make sure you also know how to nail the interview. And if you’re not making it to the interview round, be sure to check out our eBook, “Why Recruiters Aren’t Calling You.”

Happy hunting!