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Applicant Tracking Systems: A Guide for Job Seekers

If you’re applying for jobs online, you will encounter an applicant tracking system (ATS), the HR software that processes job applications. Learn how ATS impacts your job search and how to create an ATS-friendly resume that will land you a job interview.

Optimize Your Resume for ATS
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What is an Applicant Tracking System?

An applicant tracking system (ATS) is a human resources software that acts as a database for job applicants. ATS are used by companies of all sizes to organize, search, and communicate with large groups of applicants. Ninety-nine percent of Fortune 500 companies use an ATS as part of their recruiting strategy.

The main goal of an ATS is to make life easier for recruiters and hiring managers. Companies often hire for multiple positions at once and receive hundreds if not thousands of applicants for each job opening. When a recruiter or hiring manager receives that many resumes, it’s not feasible for them to carefully read each one.

ATS makes searching easier—or even automated—saving time while avoiding human error.

As an applicant, you should optimize and tailor your resume to the job for which you’re applying. To learn more about resume optimization check out Jobscan’s homepage and resume optimization tool.

How do Applicant Tracking Systems Work?

Regardless of each ATS’s strengths and weaknesses, they all follow the same basic process.

When you apply through an ATS, you will most likely be asked to answer what are called “knockout questions.” Knockout questions can be in the style of check boxes or short answer questions. Their purpose is to narrow the pool of applicants.

If an applicant answers any of the knockout questions unsatisfactorily, the resume will either be flagged or auto-rejected by the ATS. If you answer the knockout questions correctly, your resume will make it through to the next stage.

All applicant tracking systems parse and store resume information in ways that make candidates easy to filter and search by keyword.

applicant-tracking-systems

Recruiters and hiring managers can then search the resumes stored in the ATS by using a few different functionalities.

Viewing applications: Many recruiters will glance at each resume that comes through their applicant tracking system. It will likely be a brief glance, so applicants should always be careful to make their top skills and qualifications easily visible.

Automatic rankings: Some applicant tracking systems will compare your resume to the job description and rank applicants based on how well their resume matches the job description. Recruiters can focus on top-ranked candidates instead of reading through each resume.

Keyword Searches: Recruiters and hiring managers can search resumes stored in the ATS by using keywords. These resume keywords are commonly the keywords used in the job posting. They could be based on skills, experiences, location, former employers, or work experience. The image below shows a candidate search window from the perspective of the hiring manager/recruiter.

applicant-tracking-systemsScreenshot of Bullhorn ATS keyword search

Recruiters and hiring managers can also make notes or star-rate each candidate. As mentioned above, ATS store resumes, so it’s possible that a candidate will be contacted for another position with the same company later on.

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Applicant Tracking System Features

Each ATS is different, but most of the top ATS have the same general features. These features include:

Resume ParsingThe ATS will extract and organize the parts of each resume into structured information.
Resume StorageOnce entered into the ATS, resumes remain in the system as possible candidates for future positions.
Keyword SearchRecruiters and hiring managers can search by any keyword, often with the Boolean search. Boolean search connects keywords using AND, OR, NOT, and NEAR.
FiltersFilters can include the job seeker’s location, the source of your application, how long ago you applied to the company, and whether or not you are a referral.
Automated Email CustomizationCompanies can customize rejection letters and other emails to ensure that applicants get a response to their application.

It’s good to note that there are hundreds of applicant tracking systems, each featuring unique specialties. They don’t all parse, rank, or filter your resume in the same way.

This means that optimizing your formatting or keyword density for one ATS may not be ideal for another. For this reason, Jobscan now offers ATS-specific advice. Just add the URL in your Jobscan match report and the tool will return unique tips based on the company’s applicant tracking system.

Social Media and ATS

Your social media profile can help your job search, since some ATS use social media to search for potential employees. How does it work? Certain ATS softwares have the ability to search through social channels for keywords. So, update your profiles with common keywords for the job industry you are interested in, as well as your work experience, and you might just be contacted about a great job.

How to Beat an Applicant Tracking System

Optimizing your resume for ATS is an important part of the modern job searching process. Without paying attention to keywords, formatting, other ATS-friendly elements, qualified candidates can slip through the cracks.

Here are some quick tips on how to beat applicant tracking systems:

1. Tailor Your Resume to the Job Description.

One-size-fits-all resumes do not work well for modern job searches. Customizing your resume for each job gives you the best chance of being identified as a great candidate. Tailor your resume headline to match the role and prioritize your most relevant skills and experience.

Read: How To Tailor Your Resume To the Job Description

2. Match Your Resume Keywords to Skills Found in the Job Description.

Optimize for ATS search and ranking algorithms by paying close attention to the keywords you include on your resume. Keywords are most commonly the hard skills requirements listed in the job description. Include as many relevant skills and keywords as possible on your resume.

Read: Top 500 Resume Keywords: Examples for Your Job

3. Use Long-Form and Acronym Versions of Keywords.

Recruiters and hiring managers may search by keywords when looking for candidates. Some ATS will only return exact keyword match results, which means that if you included the term “Search Engine Optimization” without its acronym counterpart, your profile may not appear in a recruiter’s search for the term “SEO.”

4. Use Chronological or Hybrid Resume Format.

Formats that deemphasize work history, like the functional resume format, don’t work well for applicant tracking systems that count on more traditional reverse chronological formatting to understand an applicant’s experience. Recruiters are also most familiar with chronological and hybrid resume formats.

Read: Don’t Make These ATS Formatting Mistakes

5. Don’t Use Tables or Columns.

Even though tables and columns can improve readability for human readers, they may cause parsing errors in the ATS.

Read: What Happens to Resume Tables and Columns in an ATS? See For Yourself.

6. Use a Screen-Friendly, Traditional Font.

For readability, it’s best to use a traditional serif or sans serif font. Some ATS will automatically change unfamiliar fonts which can alter the design of your resume.

Read: The Best Fonts for Your Resume

7. Don’t Use Headers or Footers.

The information in headers and footers may get lost or cause parsing errors inside and ATS.

8. Use Standard Resume Section Headings.

Section headers like “Where I’ve Been” in place of “Work Experience” may confuse applicant tracking systems, causing them to organize information incorrectly.

Read: Resume Sections: What You Need and Where You Need Them

9. Save Your File as a .docx if Possible

A docx file is most compatible with ATS.

Does your resume pass the test?

Tailor your resume and optimize for applicant tracking systems with Jobscan.

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How to Test Your Resume for Applicant Tracking Systems

Job seekers should learn everything they can about applicant tracking systems and construct their resumes based on the job posting for which they are applying.

lightbulbTip: Mention top keywords more than once.

Some ATS rank candidates higher if a search keyword is mentioned more than once. For example, a resume that lists “Java” two or three times will rank higher on the list than one who only mentions it once. It can benefit you to list top keywords more than once for this reason.

lightbulbTip: Be careful to avoid keyword stuffing.

An example of keyword stuffing is if you were to add in your resume “accounting accounting accounting accounting accounting accounting” and change the text to white to hide it. Sure, the ATS will recognize it as a keyword match for “accounting,” but it will also highlight the keywords in context and the recruiter could see it as cheating or lazy.

lightbulbTip: Create a “Skills” section.

A “Skills” section on your resume is a great way to include relevant keywords in a natural way. Keywords that hiring managers and recruiters will search for are generally hard skills, job titles, location, and work experience.

When including skills, think hard skills versus soft skills. Hard skills are concrete, such as “Spanish fluency,” “financial analysis,” and “Python.” Soft skills are important to the employer too, but they are better proved in person than on your resume. Soft skills include “hard working,” “team player,” and interpersonal skills.

lightbulbTip: Look for keywords in the job description.

Read the job posting carefully and notice which keywords are relevant to the position and how often they repeat, since these are the keywords that will likely be searched by the recruiter. If you have skills or experience that match those keywords, include them in your resume. Jobscan can help automate this process.

Popular Applicant Tracking Systems

The market size of applicant tracking system companies is reportedly in the 350 range, though many of them have only a few hundred clients. The potential for market growth is huge since the need for organization of employee information is becoming a necessity for companies big and small since the Internet Applicant Rule was set in place. This is a list of the top applicant tracking systems.

Workday
Founded in 2005 and is geared toward attracting the customers of top ATS Taleo and SAP. It has a healthy combination of mid-size companies and Fortune 500 businesses.

Taleo Recruiting
Started in 1996, and acquired by Oracle Companies in 2012. One of the leading ATS Softwares with over 20 million users. Taleo focuses on talent acquisition.

Read: Taleo: 4 Ways the Most Popular ATS Ranks Your Job Application

iCIMS Talent Platform
Founded in 2000 with a focus on creating a cloud-based recruiting software. iCIMS is one of the leaders in ATS and has over 3,000 clients.

Read: An Inside Look at iCIMS ATS Job Applications SAP

Jobvite
Jobvite began in 2006, so it is fairly new for having so much success. This software boasts 1,600 clients and a database of 43 million job seekers all over the world.

Greenhouse
Greenhouse was founded in 2012 and has grown very quickly. A few of its major clients include Airbnb, Buzzfeed, Disqus and DigitalOcean.

Read: Greenhouse ATS: What Job Seekers Need to Know

Bullhorn
Founded by Art Papas as a marketplace for business applications. They are located in Boston, Massachusetts and currently have over 10,000 clients and 300,000 users.

LinkedIn Recruiter
Born from its namesake cult networking resource, Linkedin Recruiter gives access to its pool of 400 million professionals. Plus, it features 20+ filter options.

Lever
Founded in 2012, Lever has an advisory board with some pretty impressive names, including Marissa Mayer of Yahoo! and Jeremy Stoppelman of Yelp. Lever has over 700 clients including Netflix, Yelp, Lyft and Quora.

Recruiterbox
More than 1500 small and mid-size companies use Recruiterbox to perform their basic ATS needs. It was founded in 2010.

Read: Here’s What Job Seekers Should Know About Recruiterbox ATS

Why Are Applicant Tracking Systems Important?

Applicant tracking systems help ease the workload of recruiters and hiring managers, especially now that the internet makes it faster and easier than ever for job seekers to apply for jobs. In fact, job board sites like Indeed and LinkedIn allow job seekers to apply using a saved resume and only one click.

As long as applying is this easy, job postings are going to receive many more applications than hiring teams can realistically read. While applicant tracking systems are not perfect, they are a good way for recruiters to efficiently home in on top candidates.

Many ATS go beyond simple applicant tracking to offer communication, interview scheduling, and onboarding functionality. ATS also save resumes for later. If an applicant isn’t the right fit, recruiters and hiring managers can search the system later to uncover resumes that match new positions. If you’ve ever been contacted months later by a company you applied to, ATS was probably behind it.

applicant-tracking-systemsScreenshot of the internal dashboard of iCIMS Applicant Tracking System

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