Applicant tracking system guide

Resume and ink pen on a clipboard.

Ever sent in a job application feeling confident, only to hear back “no” the next day? Odds are, it has to do with an applicant tracking system. 

Applicant tracking systems are quite a controversial topic when it comes to careers. Employers often thank them, career coaches often mourn them, and candidates often fear them — and, in some cases, they ignore them too.

Mixed opinions aside, one fact that holds true is this: applicant tracking systems aren’t going away anytime soon. 

This guide will help you to understand the value applicant tracking systems offer employers, the challenges they present for candidates facing them, and how you can adjust your resume to work with the system rather than against it. 

This guide is a complete and in-depth look into automated hiring. Read straight through, or use the agenda below to jump between topics. 

What is an applicant tracking system?

Applicant tracking systems (ATSs) are software applications that companies employ to receive and filter the electronic data received from potential job applicants. Due to their primary functions, these software applications are typically used by Human Resource (HR) departments and recruiting firms.

ATSs have gained traction as a tool due to the sheer volume of job applications and materials submitted online. These systems collect their data in two ways: 

Front-end This includes job applications and materials submitted through the company’s website or portal. 

Back-end This includes information extracted from online job board databases.

Pro tip:
The ATS is generally a blank shell. Once a company begins to use it, they have to tailor it to their needs. HR departments load the ATS with job descriptions, keywords, and filtering desires. The software application is ever-changing.

Interested to see what an HR department might be seeing on the backend? Check out our article Make it past the resume reader: How applicant tracking systems work diving into the various components making up an ATS and demonstrating what candidates can do to stand out.

Why should I care about applicant tracking systems?

Aside from the obvious shared desire to have a successful, fulfilling career, there are many reasons why you should care about applicant tracking systems — especially as an active job seeker. We’ve outlined a few below: 

  • Job applications take way too much effort for you to have your chances immediately squashed by an automated system.
  • Your application will likely be up against an ATS multiple times throughout your career. In fact, “Over 98.8% of Fortune 500 and 66% of other large companies use an ATS,” according to 2019 Jobscan research
  • It’s here to stay (for now). The 2015 Capterra Recruiting Software Impact Report suggests that “94% of HR professionals who use recruiting and applicant tracking software said it has improved their hiring process.”
  • Everything counts. An ATS scans and processes not only your uploaded resume, but also the information that you enter into fields in the application — which is why being thorough is essential when applying online.
  • Your talents, skills, and experiences matter. The reality is: when up against an ATS, aligning with the terms and requirements listed in job descriptions will get you further than who you are as a person. And, in most cases, if you want to get in touch with the human that is hiring, you’ll need to score well with a computerized system first. 
  • And last but not least. Networking is the only loophole. Although it’s very rare for a candidate to make it past an ATS without matching up with keywords, preferences, and criteria for the specific job in question, the only way we see it happen is through connections. 

Why do employers use applicant tracking systems?

While an automated system might not always feel fair on the candidate’s side of things, the value that it brings to hiring departments and companies might be enough to guarantee its worth in the long term. 

Expert advice

“ATSs are doing a fantastic job of weeding out 60% of candidates…”

Matthew R., career expert at edX

So many companies are working with their talent acquisition systems, applicant training systems, whatever you want to call them. ATS is what we always love to say. And those are doing a fantastic job of weeding out over 60% of the candidates. So, it’s the fact that there’s a lot of seekers that are still just relying on finding job boards to see that there’s an open position, making an application for it, and submitting it. And if they’re not in the know, if they’re not resourceful and if they’re not curious to find out what those best practices are, to just submit the same resume over and over and over again. It’s really tough to be picked up by those ATS programs.

As Matthew points out, the “quick apply” tendency seems to be one of the many reasons employers are turning towards automation when it comes to hiring. We’ve outlined a few of the other benefits below: 

  • The tech environment is ever-evolving, and employers must keep up with the times. By utilizing an ATS for hiring, employers are taking some of the more menial and displeasing tasks off their hiring team’s plate.
  • Keeping track of the hiring process holistically — from communicating with candidates to sending offer letters — allows for a smoother and more streamlined process, and many applicant tracking systems are set up to do that.
  • With online applications being the norm, candidates often apply for roles in troves. By adopting an automated process, employers can keep their hiring timelines intact while sifting through high volumes of candidates. 
  • In the modern workforce, it’s often difficult to get lots of folks in the same room at the same time. By utilizing an ATS for hiring, companies can improve the virtual hiring process and sometimes even allow for greater collaboration when making hiring decisions.
  • Organization is one of the biggest benefits of using an automated system. Hiring departments can often use an ATS to keep track of current and past candidates, thus creating a talent pool for future opportunities. 

For companies and hiring departments, the advantages of an automated hiring system often outweigh the disadvantages — though we can’t speak for everyone. 

Career team insight:
While we support efficiency in the hiring process, we would be remiss to go without mentioning one unfortunate side effect of ATSs. Especially in times of economic hardship, automation in hiring can be directly correlated with reductions in HR department staff.

How do I set myself up for success? 

Although the idea gets thrown around a lot, beating the ATS is more of a myth than a reality.  

Even if you can’t beat it, what you can do is make your resume ATS-compatible — in just a few simple steps. However, before you begin formatting, your resume content must highlight experiences and skills that align with the employer’s requirements.  If not, you could spend many hours applying online with no success.  

Expert advice

“The most common mistake I see on resumes is the lack of accomplishments in job descriptions. Be sure to showcase what you’ve accomplished, use quantifiable values to catch the employer’s eye, and avoid simply listing your job duties. Employers want to know what made you exceptional in your role.”

– Mariam Nash, career expert at edX

The following guidelines will help optimize your resume for online applications:

  • Avoid artistically designed resumes or save them for email attachments and in-person events: ATSs do not read images, lines, or design elements. If the software application comes across an image it cannot process, it may stop scanning and discard your resume altogether. 
  • The key to success is a resume with simple formatting and strong content: Focus on standard margins; black text; one (standard) font; body text that is at least 10 pt with headings that are a point or two larger; no content in the header or footer; no tables, spelled out acronyms. Note: Standard bullet points for lists are acceptable and often encouraged. 
  • Before you apply online, check the website for guidance on what type of document to upload for your resume: If none is available, upload a Word (.doc or .docx) or Text (.txt) file. 
  • If you fill out information online during the application process, ensure it exactly matches the resume you upload. 
  • Proofread: ATSs will not understand or register misspelled words. Check for proper capitalization, punctuation, and grammar — especially when your materials make it to the desk of the hiring manager or recruiter.
  • Go the extra mile with links, acronyms (like ATS), and abbreviations: A human will understand to click an embedded link, but a computerized system will likely process it as text. Write websites, words, and titles out fully to ensure that none of your information gets passed over.

Pro tip:
Select five similar positions you would like to apply to and identify all the keywords within the job descriptions. Now, ensure you have all the words identified used within your resume. Using those keywords multiple times will help your resume stand out from the competition. 


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