What Job Seekers Should Know About Applicant Tracking Systems


Job seekers often lament over the lengthy application processes they must endure to apply for only one job. They go through applications several pages long, cover letter writing, and document formatting to get materials submitted. Why do companies make this process so lengthy and cumbersome?

Three words: applicant tracking systems.

Otherwise known as ATS software, applicant tracking systems are used by companies to manage the large volume of resumes and applicants they receive for each open position. In fact, each open position garners an average of 118 applicants. This is a large number of applications for any one person to sift through, not to mention if there are several positions open at a company. Thus, ATS software has become the norm.

Because this software is meant to pre-screen job applicants, weeding out job seekers who don’t meet the lengthy job requirements, it’s easy for job seekers to fall victim to the ATS. But if you understand how ATS software works, you can use it your advantage.

ATS software thrives on keywords and phrases.

While you should never overload your resume with job-specific keywords, being cognizant of these keywords and phrases can help ATS software flag your resume. The best way to do this is to customize your resume to every job description, making your resume more relevant. Whether you’re a marketing specialist, web developer, or software engineer, there are skills and titles relevant to your industry that will commonly show up in searches. Hone in on these keywords.

Follow all of the directions in the application, large and small.

I know, these applications can get pretty lengthy. But think of this as one of the ways the ATS is trying to weed out job candidates. With that in mind, be sure to fill out everything in the job application, whether it’s “required” or not, so the ATS has more ammo to flag your application as a match. Didn’t attach a cover letter? Well, for all you know, a cover letter was an unofficial job requirement (meaning, they didn’t list it in the description but are using the lack of a cover letter as a way to weed out applicants) and not attaching one automatically puts you in the “no” pile, regardless of how well you fit the position.

Simplify your resume.

Make sure you’re submitting materials in the appropriate, requested format. For example, you may have an awesome PDF version of your resume, but make sure you have a simplified Word version available, too. Many ATS’s allow you to upload your resume and automatically pull information into the appropriate application fields. But if your resume is laced with fancy layouts, images, and fonts, it often botches that upload and makes it difficult for the ATS to read your resume details.

Don’t fall victim to ATS software ignorance. If you’re truly a good fit for a position and you use the ATS intelligently, you can get your resume to the top of the pile. But if you’re worried your resume isn’t getting seen, find the hiring manager’s email or mailing address and send a copy of your resume with note stating it’s your second submission.

Good luck!

About the Author: Heather R. Huhman is a career expert, experienced hiring manager, and founder & president of Come Recommended, a content marketing and digital PR consultancy for job search and human resources technologies. She is also the instructor of Find Me A Job: How To Score A Job Before Your Friends, author of Lies, Damned Lies & Internships (2011) and #ENTRYLEVELtweet: Taking Your Career from Classroom to Cubicle (2010), and writes career and recruiting advice for numerous outlets.


  1. gk says

    There are ways to make the ATS smarter. We need to work with what is available first. A person with good experience can fit into many job descriptions and can do many jobs well. He / She may be interested in the best job offer. ATS must be able to smartly identify for which job position/s the candidate is eligible and automatically process the applications for those positions and then ask whether the candidate is interested in applying for those options.Make it a Win-Win Situation. Goal must be to make an employee after the hire a successful and loyal hire.

  2. Aretha Wright says

    My biggest complaint is finding the job that is right for me and my background. What are company responses afterwards?

  3. Real says

    There can be no defense of ATSs. They are hopelessly broken and are not needed by the average company. I had my résumé professionally prepared by the acknowledged best writer in the city. She’s been doing this for years and knows all about ATS. My résumé is short and to the point. It very accurately summarizes my skills, experience and accomplishments. It is formatted specifically to be ATS-friendly. She advised me to scan job descritions for key words and phrases and add bullet points that use these within context. I have done this and so far, after submitting over 100 applications, my résumé has made it through various ATSs exactly twice. That’s right, twice, and i only apply for jobs that I know I am qualified for.

    The two main problems with ATS is that their parsing engines (they all use the same one) rather primitive. When this is combined with the second problem – that the job descriptions are written by people who know very little about the actual job – it is easy to see why job applicants have only a one percent chance of getting a job at a company that uses them.

    My company doesn’t us an ATS. We may receive over 100 applications for an entry level position, but for mid and senior level jobs, it’s more like a couple of dozen. When I hire, I want HR to send me all resumes received. My first scan of them takes about a minute each. Most of these are from candidates or recruiters who summit a résumé for any job, without regard to qualifications. Those that don’t get placed into my pile to read thoroughly. This takes another couple of minutes of my time. Since resumes trickle in over the course of several days, I only need to invest about 15 to 20 minutes each day to this task. Is that so hard? I select the top three to five candidates to interview (and no, I don’t need three to five interviews to make a decision). The runners up go into my virtual bench file for later consideration. I insist on this because an a recruiter probably doesn’t have the experience needed to accurately evaluate a candidate’s experience. And no ATS can evaluate the nuances of soft skills – and yes, these are just important (or more so) that technical skills.

    These ATSs have been thoroughly and independently evaluated and none of them work well. Hiring managers know this. So why do HR departments depend on them as the first step in what is supposed to be one of the company’s most critical functions? If a corporate recruiter is depending on an ATS, he or she is a recruiter in name only. Good recruiters use both active and passive search methods. They read the resumes and don’t rely on a piece of software to do their jobs. If the first step in recruitment is an ATS scan, one doesn’t need a recruiter at all. And this is exactly the situation at too many companies: the recruiters are actually just HR generalists with the title of recruiter and they let the ATS do the most important part of their jobs. These are the companies that bemoan not being able to find qualified candidates when their are so many candidates on the market.

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