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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the ATS

Applicant tracking systems or ATS is a term used nearly synonymously with career coaching and resume writing. Consider common blog and social media posts with titles like ATS optimized resume, ATS resume, bot-beating resume, how to beat the ATS, etc. Some of which I have used in my marketing and professional materials.

But what is an ATS? Simply, it is software that enables the handling of recruitment and hiring needs. But what does this mean for job searchers? It means that there is often a technological tool acting as a bridge between you and the recruiter. In fact, according to research by JobScan, 99% of Fortune 500 companies use an ATS.[i]

In addition, according to the Harvard Business School Study Hidden Workers: Untapped Talent, two-thirds of all employers surveyed (63%) reported that they use an [ATS]. For larger enterprises, with more than 1,000 workers, the percentage of employers using an [ATS] rose to 69%. In the U.S., the usage was most prevalent, with 75% of employers using these technologies. The survey also noted that, “more than 90% of employers used their [ATS] to initially filter or rank potential middle-skills (94%) and high-skills (92%) candidates.” [ii]

However, there is a lot of misconception about what this means, how much it affects the job search, and how jobseekers should navigate these systems. This blog post will attempt to provide some clarity on this nebulous topic.

Applicant Tracking Systems

Before we jump into the nitty-gritty, I do not love ATSs. While I can appreciate the benefits these software’s can provide for the recruitment process, they can make my job more challenging. Which is not something I’m happy about. However, I no longer worry about these tools because of my extensive experience, hands-on and researched-based knowledge, and my unflappable disposition.

That said, let’s get clear on some things. Contrary to popular belief, the sole function of an ATS is not to screen and scan applicants. An ATS simplifies the recruitment process; this can be in the shape of creating a workflow, posting jobs, standardized job descriptions, organizing, screening, and searching for applicants, scheduling interviews, extending offers, and managing candidates.

Cumulatively, these elements represent the modern hiring process in the age of the internet.

How do they work? It’s simple. All you need is three A batteries and a flip of a switch. Just like that, you’re a recruiting wizard. I wish this were the case. My 800-page Peoplesoft user guide attests to how complicated ATSs can be. For the sake of simplicity, the blog post will focus almost primarily on how ATSs impact jobseekers.

Note: It would be extremely challenging to write a post that addresses EVERY ATS, so the vast majority of the content in this blog post reflects elements that extend across many ATSs. In addition, many of the key points are regarding Taleo, Peoplesoft, iCIMS, and BrassRing.

Attention Job Seekers

Most ATSs have these core functions you should know:

  1. Candidate Prescreening

  2. Candidate Information Storage

  3. Resume Storage and Parsing

  4. Candidate Search Filters & Keyword Search Tools

  5. Automatic Rankings (Less Common)

In a nutshell, for all you job seekers, ATSs are used to identify, sort, manage, and often rank candidates based on specified criteria for a position.

They can “weed out many credible candidates who the system judges as marginally less qualified than the candidates who advance in the process. [The] ATS deliver exactly the outcomes they were engineered for: to minimize the time and costs recruiters spend in finding job candidates. They are not designed to widen the aperture for hiring; their purpose is to maximize the efficiency of the process.”[iii]

The above paragraph is how most people understand ATSs, but it is inaccurate. Many don’t understand that this process is rarely automatic and is often started by a recruiter. There are no robots shredding resumes, applicants are not automatically removed from the hiring process (in fact, most systems store all the applicants) by AI, and the resume “black hole” catchphrase is misleading as it suggests your resume disappears.

So, let’s discuss these features and identify what impact they have on your job search.

Candidate Prescreening

How does the ATS prescreen? Is it psychic? Is the AI so advanced that it knows I’m going to apply for a job before I do?

No. Prescreening is almost always in the form of disqualification or knockout questions, competencies, and application questions used to find the top candidates for a position.

A disqualification question is typically a single-answer question that contains the minimum requirements for a candidate to be eligible for a job. Occasionally, there is room to explain your answer, but often this is not the case, as the idea is to streamline the process.

An example of a disqualification question is, “Do you have 2 years’ experience in Python programming?” There will only be a yes or no option. The ATS can instantly exit a candidate that doesn’t provide the required response depending on the programmed criteria.

Another prescreening tool is competencies, proficiencies, or skills. These are used to gather proficiency level and years of experience of a candidate. For example, the application may ask you how many years of experience you have with MS Word with options like none, less than 1 year, 1 to 3 years, 3 to 5 years, +5 years.

These are not as black and white as a disqualification question and often have multiple options. However, it is key to note that these can also disqualify candidates as the ATS programming could stipulate that any applicant with less than one year will be exited.

Finally, they are prescreening questions that require more nuance than the ones listed above. These can span from asking your highest level of education to a written answer or explanation.

Example 1: Please indicate your highest level of education.

Example 2: Provide an example of when you have used Adobe Lightroom on a client project.

Recruiters can dictate whether these questions or proficiencies are required and, in doing so, they establish the minimum requirements for the role. If an applicant meets the minimum threshold, they will move through the process, and if not, they won’t.

They can also stipulate whether these are an asset, preferred quality, or a nice to have. This allows recruiters to further understand the candidates’ qualifications and parse the minimally qualified from the ideal.

Some ATSs, like Taleo, can add a numerical value or weight to these questions/proficiencies. This assigns a numerical weight to the question and is used to further refine the minimum and preferred qualifications. In Taleo’s case, the accumulative total adds up to 100%.

For Example: Indicate which software you have used professionally:

Adobe Lightroom – Required

Adobe Photoshop – Required

Adobe InDesign – Preferred (60%)

Adobe Illustrator – Preferred (40%)

None of the Above

If you selected Lightroom and Photoshop, you would have met the minimum requirements of the role. If you then selected InDesign, you would be qualified but with a preferred quality accounting for 60% of the total weight.

The crucial takeaway is that when you’re applying for roles, and you encounter these types of questions, remember they are most likely being used to qualify candidates, and if you answer no, zero, or less than a year for many of them, you are probably not qualified for the role or need to take other steps to optimize your candidacy.

Candidate Information Storage

Many years ago, recruiters had to file and sort all of their candidate information by hand, organizing them alphabetically in color-coded folders ranging from hard-no’s to ideal candidates. At least this is how I picture it (I’m young enough to have never been a part of this process :D).

But now, ATS solutions allow companies to store candidate files that contain data including personal information, work experience, certifications, references, screening information.

Think: Name, Location, Number, Email, Resume Info, Education & Certifications, Work Experience, Work Conditions (full time, remote, contract, willingness to travel, salary expectations).

This information is collected during the application process and by parsing the resume (more below). This is important simply because it provides some context for how recruiters can search for candidates within their application tracking system.

Resume Storage and Parsing

As part of the hiring process, candidate resumes are stored within their candidate information or profile. In addition, resumes are parsed to extract key data to populate fields in the application and the internal candidate profile. This can replace entering your information into an online form or application, although it rarely does, as many of you will attest to.

Typically, the information that is generated includes: Personal Info: First Name, Last Name, Middle Name, Address (City, State), Email, Phone Number

Education: Education Level, Graduation Date, Start Date, School, Program

Work Experience: Start Date, End Date, Employer, Position Title, Responsibilities/Accomplishments

Recruiters also rely on the resume’s content during searches. This is where keywords and content come into play. But I will explore that in the following sections. For now, I want to discuss why this information being parsed impacts your likelihood of being an ideal candidate, starting with the personal information.

I always tell my clients to include their location (city, state). There are two reasons for this, certain search filters and criteria rely on generating a pool of local applicants. The second reason is that even if you can work remotely or want to, some companies hire within their state, country, etc. for legal reasons. Plus, recruiters always consider location in a hiring decision, so best be upfront about where you are.

Education is less particular. While I can’t speak for every ATS or every recruiter, it is rare that the graduation date and start date matter. (An exception would be new graduates). What is more important is the school, program, and degree type. My recommendation is to write out the degree to avoid any confusion. Bachelor of Arts in English, for example. If a degree is a requirement, this information is used to sort candidates in terms of potential candidacy.

Finally, the work experience section. Employers rely on this data to better understand your experience as it relates to the position you’re applying for. But before we jump into the details, this is how I recommend you should format your work experience on your resume:

This is a very easy-to-scan, visually aligned method that all recruiters are familiar with.

Moving forward, you should note that recruiters use position titles as search criteria, and the start and end date show when you worked at a role and for how long. Recruiters can use this information to determine the recency value of your related experience, if you have career gaps, and if you’re a job hopper.

Recruiters also search or scan your employer information to see if you have worked for a competitor.

The responsibilities/accomplishments, basically the thrust of the resume content, can be crucial in keyword searches, so it is important to read the job posting and include the key phrases. More on this later.

There was an interesting point concerning employment gaps in the HBS study. “Almost half the companies surveyed weeded out resumes that present a work gap. If an applicant’s work history has a gap of more than six months, the resume is automatically screened out by their RMS or ATS. A recruiter will never see that candidate’s application, even though it might fill all of the employer’s requirements.”

Although I’m well aware of employment gaps being viewed negatively by recruiters/employers and that ATSs can filter candidates via employment dates, I was unaware that an ATS could automatically screen out candidates like this. I intend on doing more research, but for the time being, I take this comment with a grain of salt.

Regardless, all of this information is factored in the candidate profile, the search, and the recruiters’ ability to identify ideal candidates.

Candidate Search & Keyword Search Tools

Before we dive into this topic, there is a common misconception that I need to clear up. ATSs do not remove candidates from the applicant pool if they are missing certain keywords. The reason keywords are important is for recruiter-initiated searches, not because a robot is crawling your resume for related words. The more related keywords you have, the likelier you are to appear.

That said, candidate searches can be conducted with many criteria, including first name, last name, email address, and username. But these searches are only helpful if the recruiter already knows who you are. The remaining search criteria that recruiters rely on are crucial.

Keyword searches are used to find crucial details in candidate-provided information. The ATS often generates the keywords from your resume or the application form you filled out. Many ATSs support Boolean operators. This enables recruiters to have a more refined approach. These tables show how they can use them.

These are the Boolean operators used in Taleo, one of the world’s most common applicant tracking systems. Each ATS has unique criteria and configurations, but this search method is consistent across almost all of them.

When recruiters rely on keywords to search for potential candidates, the results can appear with the indicated keywords highlighted or bolded. Additionally, they can find and score or rate candidates based on how closely they profiles match the searched criteria. The search will include candidates who have the correct resume keywords, and the ones who don’t disappear into the resume “black hole.”

Other Possible Searches:

Candidate Match via Job Description and Qualifications: Some ATSs enable recruiters and hiring managers to search for candidates based on the criteria in the job posting.

As Taleo puts it, “it is as if you could paste the entire description and the qualifications in the Keywords field in the advanced search and there was no 2,500–character limit.”[iv] BrassRing and Peoplesoft have a comparable function, although not as rigorous. iCIMS (ATS used by Amazon) has a function called “Talent Discover,” which searches for candidates who best match specific jobs listed in the ATS.

Similar Candidate: This is a common feature across ATSs. It essentially looks for similar candidates based on information of an existing candidate. iCIMS refers to this as Talent Match. It uses a lot of the search criteria that I have discussed, but the foundation of the information is a pre-existing candidate.

These cover the general search options for many of the popular ATSs. Of course, there are more nuanced searches, different filters, different criteria, and so on. But the idea is for you to have a general understanding of how your candidate profile can populate in searches.

Automatic Functions

A common misconception for ATSs is that they automatically remove candidates from the application process by scanning for specific keywords.

The only time candidates are “automatically” exited is when they disqualify themselves via knockout questions, or as according to Harvard, they have an employment gap of +6 months. (As mentioned, I’m not 100% sure about this). However, ATSs have some automatic functionality, and I will go over a few of them.

Resume Parsing: I will only go into brief detail here, as I have already discussed it, but ATSs can scan your resume and parse data from it. This is often done automatically to populate a candidate profile. For example, iCIMS scans your document and parses it, looking for things like contact info, skills, employment history, education, etc.

Automatic Candidate Pooling: This is an optional function as part of Taleo. This enables a recruiter to find candidates in their database who are qualified and available for a job. When using this function, the recruiter can specify criteria, often using the job posting/qualifications. The search then populates a list of up to 300 candidates unless otherwise specified. While this is an “automatic” function, it still requires input from a user.

ACE Candidate Alert: This is a Taleo function as well, but it is also present or comparable in other ATSs. This enables recruiters to establish a bar to identify ideal candidates. If a candidate meets or exceeds the criteria, an email is automatically sent to the recruiter. The alert criteria are detailed below:

How to "Beat" Them?

It seems unfair, right? The resume you wrote, edited, tailored, and submitted may not even get reviewed. But consider the position of a recruiter or hiring manager in the digital age where job seekers can submit dozens of resumes a day. In fact, in 2020, corporations received an average of 250 applications per posting. [v]

The ATSs many functions save the recruiters from sorting through irrelevant, unqualified, weak, and unrelated resumes. If you’re not using the correct format, keywords, headings, and context and answering the questions correctly, your resume may never be seen.

I want to add, despite many organizations using ATSs, anecdotally, I have spoken to dozens of recruiters that promise that they look at every resume that is submitted. Including recruiters from some very large technology companies. I take this with a grain of salt, but I don’t see why they would lie. Recruiters want to help their candidates and do their best to get as many people hired as possible. However, this does not mean your resume is getting a thorough review, especially if you aren’t qualified. This post talks more about this!

Step 1: READ the posting and match the keywords! Take the time to scan through the whole posting and list the skills, requirements, qualifications, and responsibilities. Include the verbs, skills, and key phrases written in the posting/job description in your resume. There is a high probability that these will be the words the ATS is looking for. Think ‘senior accountant, Python, Degree in (blank), and process improvement.’

A caveat to this is many ATSs use exact search criteria. For example, if “markets” is in the posting, “markets” will be used as a keyword. However, many ATSs and recruiters recognize that resumes will not always use the EXACT language, so they have related keywords or relayed terms functions. For example, Taleo retrieves words with the same first six letters since those words are most likely in the same family. For example, if you search for “Markets” using related terms, the engine will also search for “marketing,” “marketer,” etc.

I stress writing the resume grammatically correct and in the first person instead of copying the job description word-for-word. Employers often write positions in the third person, but referring to yourself in the third in your resume sounds odd and is technically incorrect. Plus, using the exact verbiage from the posting can also give you away, whereas changing it to the first person further masks your use of the language.

Step 2: Increase the number of times you use important keywords. Without stuffing your resume. Why? Because once it gets to a human, they will wonder why your resume lacks a human touch, and your keyword ploy will become all too transparent.

This is also why I use a skills section in nearly all of my documents. Check out my services here.

Step 3: Title your resume and match it to the role you’re applying for! It will help with optimizing your candidacy and your visibility in recruiter searches. This is also a practice I rely on in all my documents.

Step 4: Follow the instructions. If the company wants you to fill out an additional application, submit a cover letter, submit in .docx, or explain why you want to work there, do it. Applicants who are unwilling to perform the required tasks can be eliminated from the hiring process.

Step 5: Apply to Roles You’re Qualified for. It is important to point out that many job postings are a Wishlist and not a set-in-stone guideline. Plus, many job postings and descriptions are dated or inaccurate, as I discuss here.

Regardless, if you do not meet all the qualifications, you can still have a very good chance of getting an interview. In fact, most recruiters and hiring managers don’t expect applicants to be 100% qualified or even MOSTLY qualified. As this study shows. This table is how I frame this discussion for my clients.

The key takeaway is that if you’re applying to roles where you meet the qualifications, it is less likely knockout questions will be an issue in your job hunt.

Step 6: Answer the knockout questions correctly, as the wrong answer can get you instantly disqualified. Make sure you refer to the posting to see the key qualifications, to determine how to best answer these.

If you feel you’re missing many of the qualifications, you probably shouldn’t be applying. If you still want to move forward applying to the role, consider relying on your network to get an introduction or to circumnavigate the application process.

If you can stretch the truth to answer the questions, be ready to back it up in an interview.

Recruiter: You said you had two years of professional experience in Python.

Candidate: Yes, one year at [Employer] and the other as part of a project at [University].

Completely lying may get your resume in front of a recruiter, but probably no further. In addition, they may flag you for future applications.

Step 7: If you’re using uncommon acronyms in your resume, include the full spelling the first time you use them. This will help with ATS scoring. If it only appears in your resume once, refer to how it is listed in the posting and match it or use both Project Management Professional (PMP). I also recommend spelling out your education, as mentioned earlier.

Step 8: If they ask you to supply your LinkedIn account, apply through LinkedIn, or if they can reach you through LinkedIn, it is in your best interest to supply the URL for your LinkedIn. Although this is not a deal-breaker, employers can use it to weed out applicants who are not fully committed.

I also recommend including your LinkedIn and being active on it. A study found that applicants who included a link to a “comprehensive” LinkedIn profile on their resume were 71% more likely to get a job interview than applicants who didn’t have a LinkedIn profile at all. Therefore, I include a LinkedIn profile on almost all of my clients’ documents. [vi]

Step 9: Spelling and Grammar: How does this affect ATSs? Because if you’re misspelling keywords, the ATS may not be intelligent enough to know what you are talking about. For example, ‘account vs accountant, or manger vs manager.’

There are some recruiters who will exit employees with too many spelling errors. Be careful, but don’t worry if you apply to a role and later see an error. If they disqualify you because of it, chances are you wouldn’t want to work there.

Step 10: Include a Professional Summary as it is an easy way to add keywords and duplicate the important ones instead of stuffing them into your work experience. Once again, a practice I’m almost always implementing.

Step 11: Use the right format. Complex and unusual resume designs with information scattered around can confuse how an ATS parses data and annoy recruiters. Also, use typical font (Calibri, Georgia, Arial, etc.) and use typical heading sections like “Education, Professional Experience, Volunteer Experience, etc.).

Avoid using charts, graphics, rated skills, text boxes, complex bullet shapes, images, and photos in excess, if at all. Although they may look neat, they are often scrambled in the ATS scan.

The odd table or text box should be okay, as many ATSs can still parse the information, although the result is often somewhat scrambled. It is why, if you decide to include a table, the format and content should be straightforward. The resume included in this post would be an example of an ATS deal breaker.

Note: I go into extensive detail about how to format a resume in my book. So, if you don’t want to work with me, please check out that resource!

Step 12: Submit your resume as a PDF document unless stated otherwise. This may be heretical for many career coaches as .docx documents are generally parsed more accurately by ATSs. However, the format can be displayed differently than how you submitted it.

Plus, the time advancements in the field have lessened the negative data parsing elements of PDF documents, so go with PDF!

Step 13: Save your resume with a suitable name. If you are applying to an account manager position, save and upload your resume as ‘Your Name Account Manager Resume.’ This way, the hiring manager will be able to track your resume amongst the other applicants. Especially if they titled theirs as ‘Resume, Name Resume, Name, etc.’ In addition, it may help with the ATS depending on how it organizes candidates or parses data.

Step 14: Don’t put information in your header/footer (not a concern with PDFs). Not all ATSs can properly scan and parse the data in these sections of a word document. Although, this is also becoming more of a non-issue.

Step 15: There are websites you can use to ‘score’ your resume, like JobScan. They can give you a general idea of where you need to do revisions. But be sure you review the content and suggestions yourself, as the scans are usually not entirely accurate from what I have seen.

For example, I worked with a VP of Revenue Operations, who relied on this to help with his job search. He was instructed to use the word “create” more in his resume because it was in the posting. However, it would have been an exceedingly weak addition considering more important terms like Salesforce, Marketo, HubSpot, revenue generation, etc.

If you are viewing multiple postings (for a general resume) or there is too much text to analyze, try using copy and paste the posting in there, hit visualize, and it will display the words appearing most often. Although not always accurate, this can give you some idea of what keywords might be important to include.

Step 16: Employment Gaps: You can either explain your gap in the cover letter or your resume depending on your preference, but they should, almost always, be addressed. And it is my recommendation to cover them in both documents.

Here are a few ways to address a gap in your resume:

The benefit of explaining the gap is that it shows you’re honest and not trying to hide anything. In addition, recruiters will not be guessing why you were out of the workforce. I would, however, suggest keeping the details fairly brief in both the resume and cover letter. If it warrants more conversation, wait until the interview.

Finally, I have noticed many recruiters being less harsh in employment gaps from March 2020ish and beyond (COVID). This is also why Harvard’s article was such a surprise.

Side Note 1: Any resume writer or resume writing service that guarantees that they can write you a resume that will get “through” every ATS is a liar. Unless they know the exact system, its configuration, and your competition, how could they ever guarantee this?

Side Note 2: NEVER use white text or tiny font to hide keywords throughout your resume. There was some success with this years ago (kudos to the crafty job seeker who discovered this loophole), but it is now recognized and will harm your resumes score and your professional image.

Side Note 3: Want to know the easiest way to deal with the ATS or recruiter scanning? AVOID IT. The best way to get "past" an ATS is to leverage referrals. Is there a way for you to get your resume to the hiring manager without submitting it through their online platform? Try to use your LinkedIn, industry connections, friends, and family.

Closing Thoughts

ATSs are and will continue to be a constant in recruitment. The idea behind the post was to provide some clarity on their function and how they impact job seekers, not to intimidate them.

I think an important factor to note is that I have helped hundreds of professionals get hired, that I know of, in my career. And probably many more that I don’t! The point is, these are not impossible barriers, and nor are they meant to bar applicants from getting interviews.

They are meant to streamline the recruitment process. And because of this, they have well-recognized functions that can be considered when crafting your career documents and applying to roles.

If you still feel like you need more help with your job search, don’t hesitate to reach out!


[i] [ii] [iii] [iv] [v] [vi]

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