ATS 101: Demystifying Applicant Tracking Systems

Dear, Anita,

I’ve heard that hiring managers don’t even look at your résumé anymore if it doesn’t go through a computer program first. How can computers decide if you would be a good fit for a job or not? I’m so tired of submitting résumés into a “black hole” and never hearing back.

Source: “2001: A Space Odyssey”

Source: “2001: A Space Odyssey”

Dear, Anti-HAL,

An Applicant Tracking System (ATS) is software that automates the recruiting process by sorting, filtering, ranking, and yes, tracking, job applicants and new hires. Many mid-size companies and the majority of all large corporations utilize candidate management systems. Every time you submit a résumé online, there’s a good chance it will go through ATS software.

From a sheer logistics standpoint, it saves HR professionals time. Put yourself in their shoes, particularly in the tight job market we’ve experienced in recent years. For every one job advertised, hiring managers could be deluged with hundreds of applications and résumés. Many applicants are simply unqualified for the given position. To narrow down this paper pile to find the top candidates with the skills, education, and experience necessary for this one open job is a daunting task. If you are hiring for numerous job openings in a large organization, this quickly becomes unmanageable.

One legal reason companies use ATS is to prevent discrimination. If an unbiased computer is sorting the résumés, companies can easily show they are complying with federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) laws.

How an ATS Works

Applicant Tracking Systems extrapolate information from résumés to put into common database fields, such as work experience, education, and contact information. When you apply for a particular job, it searches, just like Google, for keywords pertaining to the position’s criteria. It will sort through all résumés and assign each a score, ranking you compared to other applicants to a particular opening. Recruiters and hiring managers use this ranked list to find the candidates who will be the best fit – in theory – for the job. If your résumé is not one of the highest ranking, you won’t get an interview (and often not even an acknowledge­ment, as you have discovered).

To increase your chances of a better score, take the time to carefully sift through the job description and note keywords.  See how you can incorporate them into your résumé. Of course, you want to be honest and not add keywords for which you don’t have the qualifications. But sometimes it’s just a matter of apples to oranges. If your current title is marketing director, and you want to apply for a marketing manager position, keep your current title, but include the word “manage” into the description of your duties.

Be sure to fill out all the fields, so that the Applicant Tracking System won’t filter you out for that reason alone. If you have to import your résumé, take a few extra minutes to review before submitting. You don’t want odd formatting errors to hurt your chances.

So, while frustrating and more time consuming, you have to use keywords to jump though the HR hoop and get your résumé in front of human eyes. Since ATS programs have many automated features, it would be nice if companies would at least send a “we-got-your-résumé-don’t-call-us-we’ll-call-you” email. HAL, do you hear me?

Readers: How often do you tailor your résumé with keywords relevant to the position you are applying for?

My friends at The Select Family of Staffing Companies can save you the trouble of tailoring a résumé for each potential job. Once you’re in their database, the Personnel Supervisors will match you up with requests from temp and temp-to-hire employers.

10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. job application tracking
    Feb 11, 2016 @ 22:27:57

    Well this is great post artilce it useful and interesting one, and job seekers and employees should know about this applicant tracking system here get best information on jobs and more its helps us


  2. job application tracking
    Feb 03, 2016 @ 22:16:31

    It’s useful article and great idea thanks for sharing this, and all job seekers and employers can follow this applicant tracking system for useful information


  3. C
    Jun 20, 2015 @ 22:39:28

    When you say – “fill out all the fields” – do you mean all the ones that are not required? What if you don’t know the answer to those questions?


    • anitaclew
      Jun 22, 2015 @ 08:48:59

      If something is not applicable, enter N/A so that the field does not appear to be overlooked. To what question about your past experience would you not know the answer?


      • C
        Jun 23, 2015 @ 13:37:52

        As I state in another thread, I have an ongoing Freelance job, these are usually very short unrelated gigs – a day or two at a time, depending on whether I am fixing someone’s computer or running A/V for a wedding or other event. My employer will vary as well as the compensation. So who do I list as the Manager/Employer and contact? And the why did you leave this position – the gig is over… and what do I do with the unrelated other odd jobs as far as the ATS is concerned? One of which is no longer in business?


        • anitaclew
          Jun 23, 2015 @ 13:55:23

          C, you may just want to consider yourself “Self-Employed” for the purpose of résumés and job applications, or list the unrelated gigs under “Freelance,” offering the variety of jobs as you did in your comment.


  4. katiebygrace
    Jul 05, 2014 @ 14:41:04

    ahhh…Taleo…Brassring……a hellish waste of my unemployed time


  5. Richard
    May 05, 2014 @ 17:37:03

    I get plenty of interviews with my resume. Most large companies have software that sorts through resumes. I know this is true since I have received calls from corporations that offer positions that I did not apply for. However, from my experience, it seems that the hiring manager does not even look at your resume until the point of your interview.


  6. Brad Crompton
    May 02, 2014 @ 20:23:58

    I rely on word clouds and it works


  7. linda
    Apr 29, 2014 @ 13:23:34

    dear anita, I find it frustrating to fill out job apps on line and get no response at all you would think that they would at least tell you that they’re not interested at all in you. I find this dismissal very frustrating when there is no response given either way to your application.


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Anita Clew's blog posts are intended for general guidance and should never be taken as legal advice. In all instances where harassment, inequity, or unfair treatment is believed to be present, please consult your HR Department or legal representation.
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