An applicant tracking system, or ATS, is a software application used by recruiters and hiring managers to store, sort, and search through resumes. There are numerous applicant tracking systems on the market, and they all function a bit differently. This post offers an in-depth look at one specific ATS: SmartRecruiters. SmartRecruiters, headquartered in San Francisco, was founded by Jerome Ternynck in 2010. It’s used by more than 70,000 companies, including General Mills,, OfficeMax, 1-800-FLOWERS, PRG, Goodwill, and even The Onion.

I used 10 sample resumes to run through the recruiting process for one job and discovered several things that job seekers should do, plus a few things to avoid. To start: Avoid using periods in place of dashes when formatting numerical information. The system didn’t recognize phone numbers written as 555.555.5555, or employment dates written as 9.27.2014.

For more details and advice, read on:

Parsed information

SmartRecruiters supports numerous file types, including some that cannot be read by other applicant tracking systems: DOC, RTF, PPT, ODT, TXT, PDF, PDF with image inside, and TIFF.

An ATS scans a resume in the format in which it was submitted, then takes the relevant information and plugs it into the right categories in its database (that is, it puts the applicant’s contact information in the system’s spot for contact information, the applicant’s education details in the system’s slot for education, and so on). At least, that’s the idea. In practice, this doesn’t happen perfectly.

This is how the header of a candidate profile appears in the SmartRecruiters applicant tracking system (identifying information removed).
This is how the header of a candidate profile appears in SmartRecruiters (identifying information removed).

There seemed to be two main things that threw off SmartRecruiters’ ability to recognize relevant information and assign it to the right space in the system. One was the terms used for section headers, and one was the order of information within each section.

Section headers include things such as Work Experience and Education. But many of the resumes submitted used non-standard section headers, including:

  • Further Training
  • Skills & Expertise
  • Technology Summary
  • Technology Snapshot
  • IT Experience
  • Presentations
  • Projects
  • Unique Skills and Interests

While these section headers might be intuitive to a human reader, they are unlikely to be recognized by an ATS. As a result, SmartRecruiters lumped the information in these sections into the Work Experience and Education sections, seemingly at random. Some of the candidates who used the above section headers wound up having crucial information from their resumes completely omitted from their profiles in the ATS.

Using a quirky section header can throw off an ATS and result in
Using a quirky section header can throw off an ATS and result in a muddled or incomplete candidate profile.

One candidate included a brief company description after the name of the company he worked at, with his job title and details of his role following the company description. The ATS showed the company name in the right place, but instead of prominently displaying the job title next to the company name—as the system is supposed to do—the job title was lumped in with the company description and details of the role. Company descriptions can be quite useful, both as an opportunity to use relevant resume keywords and to give recruiters a sense of the settings a candidate has worked in (for example, an employer might want candidates with previous start-up or non-profit experience). Just remember to include them after listing the company name, your job title, and your employment dates. Use Jobscan for an analysis of how well your resume uses targeted keywords.

The second role here is missing the job title header because the candidate listed it after a company description.
The second role here is missing the job title header because the candidate listed it after a company description.

SmartRecruiters was not able to recognize any phone numbers written with periods in place of parentheses or dashes—that is, the ATS could identify (555) 555-5555 and 555-555-5555 as phone numbers, but not 555.555.5555. Similarly, it did not recognize dates when written as 1.1.2014. Writing out numerical information using periods is common in Europe, and others do so for aesthetic purposes. But because contact information and employment dates are are two of the most important pieces of information on a resume, it’s crucial to format them in a way the ATS will recognize.

Search function and filters

The search tool is as simple as any other search tool online, though the results are not always predictable. The search tool is what allows the employer to look for candidates whose resumes contain particular keywords. “Bachelor’s” and “BS” returned different batches of candidates. “BBA” returned no results, even though one candidate abbreviated his degree in that format on his resume. “Project manager” and “project management” returned different batches of candidates. “Customer” and “client” returned different batches of candidates. “Product” and “products” returned different batches of candidates. On the other hand, “develop,” “developer” and “development” all returned the same candidates.

The results of a search for "project management" (identifying information removed).
The results of a search for “project management” (identifying information removed).

Punctuation didn’t seem to matter; “masters” and “master’s” returned the same results. (Keep in mind that it’s not safe to assume that recruiters will type in the correct form of every term.)

In addition to entering search terms, the system also has several filters. Applicants can be sorted by location, by rating, by status, and by tags. The rating is a simple one-star to five-star scale, with ratings for each candidate manually entered by a SmartRecruiters user. There are no concrete guidelines for choosing a rating, though presumably each recruiter comes up with their own rubric for rating candidates. Once a candidate is rated, others involved in hiring for that job can weigh in by agreeing or disagreeing with the rating. With each rating, there is space for a note of explanation. Status simply refers to how far along in the hiring pipeline a given candidate is. SmartRecruiters divides it into eight categories: lead, new, in-review, interview, offered, hired, rejected, and withdrawn. Tags are optional; recruiters can create any tags they want, and apply them to the candidate of their choice. These tags can be used as custom filters, allowing recruiters to group candidates together by skill, status, or other criteria.

Recruiters can choose between “friendly” and “formal” templates when sending rejection emails.

If a candidate applies to more than one position within a company, SmartRecruiters only considers them for one job at a time. They are added to the candidate pool for the first job they apply to, and the system alerts the recruiter when they apply to other positions at the company. The recruiter must manually re-assign the candidate to another job. So if you are considering more than one role at a company, the safest bet is to apply first to the role that interests you most.

For recruiters

From SmartRecruiters, recruiters can choose which job boards to post to; there is list of dozens. Most will post jobs for 30, 45, or 60 days. The cost ranges from free (for the first time a recruiters posts on a particular site) up to $495. Some also offer the option to create a featured or sponsored job. The job boards listed range from the big ones everyone knows (Craigslist, LinkedIn, Monster, and CareerBuilder) to niche boards (, FlexJobs, and iCrunchData, among others).

The various job boards are ranked according to the number of candidates received per posting, and by ratings from other recruiters. One job board that charges among the highest fees per job posting—Dice, at $495 for one 30-day post—has a one-star rating (on a scale of one to five stars, one being low and five being high). In contrast, Indeed is one of the most highly-rated job boards (“Expect a lot of volume. Good reach,” according to one review), while only charging $150 for a sponsored job listing.


After trying SmartRecruiters, these are the main takeaways I discovered for job seekers:

  • Use straightforward formatting. Arrange information based on function, not stylistic choices or emphasis. In order for an ATS to correctly parse the information in your resume, it needs to be able to find key information—such as job titles and contact information—in the expected places.
  • Choose standard or traditional section headers. If you don’t, your profile within the ATS is likely to be full of blanks, or to have crucial information lumped in with other things. That could lead to the system or the recruiter passing over your resume.
  • Use synonyms throughout your resume. Uniformity is a virtue in many instances, especially when it comes to resumes, but not when dealing with applicant tracking systems. Including similar or synonymous terms such as “Registered Nurse” and “RN” will increase your chances of getting noticed.
  • Plan carefully when applying to more than one position within a company. SmartRecruiters only allows applicants to be considered for one job at a time, and automatically enters applicants into the candidate pool for the first job they apply for. To be considered for another position, the employer must manually move you to the candidate pool for another job. 

Finally, you can boost your chances of landing an interview by testing your resume with Jobscan before you apply. Jobscan will analyze your resume and the job description side by side and rate how well your resume is tailored for the job, and suggest improvements you can make.

See also:

8 Things You Need to Know About Applicant Tracking Systems

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