An Applicant Tracking System usually referred to as an ATS, is a technology used by many employers to automate and streamline their hiring process. Throughout your job search, you will likely encounter several applications that use an Applicant Tracking System to screen candidates based on the keywords they use.
These systems are quickly becoming the primary way that large companies find qualified candidates online.
This means that job seekers are no longer creating CVs for human eyes alone. Before your CV is seen by any hiring managers it must first pass the initial ATS screening.
Fortunately, you can easily beat applicant tracking systems with a bit of simple optimization. To do this, you will need the right format, the right keywords, and the right strategy for your CV. But before we get there, we're going to take you through the basics.
Applicant tracking systems are software that automate the hiring process. They screen resumes and candidates automatically, making the assessment of new candidates faster and more efficient.
That means scanning resumes for important keywords and qualifications. The general goal is to narrow the applicant pool so that hiring managers can meet the "best" applicants based on a predetermined set of criteria.
ATS software removes the need for any human involvement in the early stages of the hiring process. Candidates provide their CV and cover letter, in some cases answer a questionnaire, and the ATS reads and sorts each application and compares it to the posted job requirements.
After parsing all applications, the ATS selects the applications that best suit the job description. The applications that best match the job description are chosen by the ATS and given to the hiring manager to review. This is when successful applications are finally seen by human eyes, well after most candidates have been rejected. Unless your application is one of the few chosen by the system, your CV will never be seen by a real person.
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To applicants, this automated system may seem ruthless, casting away applications without a thought for the candidate behind the CV. For employers, however, the utility of these systems supersedes their inhumanity.
An ATS can parse hundreds of applications faster than even a team of humans. When a job opening is going to receive hundreds of applications, it only makes sense to automate the selection process. However, there are ways to get past it.
The aspect of your CV that the ATS is most interested in is the keywords. The main function of an ATS is to read your CV and compare its content to the relevant job description, looking for the best match. This means that your CV cannot be one-size-fits all; it must be tailored for each position you apply to. Read the job posting carefully and use the same language to describe your skills and experience.
This includes your job title - different companies will have different names for similar roles, so it is fine to adjust your own job title accordingly (but remember: don’t lie).
This does not mean, however, that you should stuff your CV full of the same keyword over and over, or create hidden keywords in an invisible font. The ATS knows when you are trying to fool it. Instead, be subtle with your resume keywords. “Sprinkle them throughout your resume,” advises Big Interview’s Pamela Skillings.
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A good place for keywords is a skills section, where you list your core competencies or abilities. Using the main phrases in bullet points is an excellent way to make sure you are using all of the right keywords in a way that fits in the CV organically and is easy for ATS software to read.
An ATS application also gives you the opportunity to be less ruthless in editing your resume. Because the ATS is an untiring robot instead of an already-bored hiring manager, your resume can be as long as it needs to be as long as the right keywords are there.
Applicant Tracking Systems use headings to navigate your CV so that the information in each section can be correctly parsed and understood. For this reason, take care to use simple headings that the ATS will recognize.
Make the parser’s job as easy as you can by using the standard set of resume headings. According to Skillings, the ATS will sort your content into these four categories:
So be sure to use these titles for the section headings of your CV. Don't get too crazy - just call your work experience "work experience" and you education "education".
Keep it simple
It is important not to confuse the Applicant Tracking System. The ATS must be able to navigate your CV easily, without getting tripped up on any complex formatting elements. Unfortunately, certain formatting tricks that look great to a human eye will confuse an ATS.
However much it may hurt to get rid of the graphical details you’ve added to your CV, anything that might create a problem for the parser must go, even perhaps, headers and footers.
Of course, the CV you create for ATS applications doesn’t have to be your only CV. In fact, it shouldn’t be. Any time you know your CV will be seen by a person, not a robot, feel free to send your more stylish resume, with all the graphics and images befitting the company and position you are applying to.
Of course, this advice applies to all CVs, but it bears repeating in the context of an ATS application. A typical employer or hiring manager will be fully prepared to throw out any CV with a spelling mistake, but with an ATS, your CV won’t even get that far. Where a human can at least glean your meaning from a misspelled word, an ATS won't know what you're talking about.
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The ATS is looking for matching keywords and relevant headings, so a misspelled word won’t register as a match, even if you are perfect for the job. A little proofreading can be the difference between instant rejection and a successful application.
Your ATS-friendly resume must be as easy to understand as possible. This means that you shouldn’t take any chances with acronyms. An ATS won’t necessarily know the difference between the full title of a company and its acronym form.
To be safe, include both the acronym and the full title in your CV. This includes everything from titles and companies to industry lingo.
The thought of unerring machines reading your CV may cause you to think that your CV must be a 100% match with the job description to apply, but this is not the case. Like with any job application, the ATS is looking for the best match, and the best match is almost never 100%.
Just because you aren’t the perfect match doesn’t mean you aren’t the best possible match at this particular moment. As long as you are a dedicated and enthusiastic learner you can still be a great employee, even if you don’t have all of the recommended professional experience.
Don’t let the robots cause you to forget your own humanity. Just because the employer has decided to use automation to streamline their candidate search doesn’t mean you have to act like an automaton yourself. Finding a way to show your enthusiasm and personality can leave a lasting impression.
Even if you can’t contact the hirer directly, reaching out to someone within the organization could lead to your application getting a second look. Use your network to send a note and make it clear that you are excited about this job. If you succeed in make an impression this way, the employer may make a point of finding your application in the ATS and giving it a look.
Does job searching sometimes feel like you’re flinging resumes and cover letters into a black hole? You may be wondering if your applications are being read at all.
Perhaps you’ve heard that computerized resume scanners reject applications before they even make it into human hands. And yes—at many companies that receive a high volume of applications, that’s true.
The internet has completely transformed the job searching landscape. Long gone are the days when you’d “pound the pavement” or “go in and ask to speak to a manager” for all but the smallest local businesses. Instead, you apply online—which is a double-edged sword for everyone involved. Because you don’t have to physically fill out and deliver an application or send out resumes and cover letters via snail mail anymore, you can apply to a lot more jobs. But so can everybody. This means that an open position can easily get far more applications than companies have the resources to read.
Just ask Muse Career Coach Yolanda M. Owens, Founder of CareerSensei Consulting, who has more than 20 years of recruiting experience in a range of industries, including healthcare, tech, and financial services. When she was a corporate recruiter, she would post a job opening and get back, she says, “over 300 applications for an entry-level position within a week.” She was generally recruiting for between 15 and 20 roles at a time, meaning that she might have 6,000 applicants to track at once!
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So hiring managers and recruiters like Owens frequently use an applicant tracking system (ATS)—software that helps them organize job applications and ensure none fall through the cracks. If you’ve applied to a job any time since 2008, your application has probably passed through an ATS. Over 98% of Fortune 500 companies use an ATS of some kind, according to research conducted by Jobscan. Any time you apply for a job through an online form or portal, your application is almost certainly going into an ATS.
But an ATS does more than just track applications—it can also act as a filter, parsing every resume submitted and forwarding only the most relevant, qualified job seekers to a hiring manager or recruiter. That’s the resume-scanning technology you’ve probably heard about.
Luckily, getting past the ATS is a lot easier than you might think. Follow these dos and don’ts to create an ATS-friendly resume that’ll sail right through—and impress the hiring manager, too.
ATSs get a bad rap as the “robots” standing between you and your new job, and when you hear that Owens read only 25% of the applications she received for most postings, it might reinforce that impression.
But the reason she looked at such a small percentage of applications? Most candidates were not qualified for the job she was filling. And some were completely irrelevant. “If I’m looking at an entry-level [accounting] position and seeing someone who is a dentist or a VP,” Owens says, it’s totally fair for the ATS to discard those.
So first and foremost, make sure you’re truly qualified for the roles you’re applying to. This doesn’t mean you have to hit every single job qualification or apply to a job only if you have the traditio
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