3 Smart Tips to Beat the ATS (Applicant Tracking Systems)


New job openings are more accessible than ever online.

That, combined with the relative ease of submitting a job application online, has created a problem for job seekers and hiring companies alike.

Any given job opening can result in hundreds of incoming resumes, many of which are from unqualified job hunters who believe they’re playing a numbers game.

“It’s worth a try,” they think. This flood of resumes buries qualified candidates and leaves recruiters unable to keep up.

Instead of sorting through a stack of printed resumes or a cluttered inbox, recruiters at most companies (including 90% of Fortune 500) use applicant tracking systems, or ATS, to keep themselves as organized and efficient as possible.

This software parses the content on incoming resumes and allows recruiters to search and filter the results. Some ATS even automatically rank and assign a score to applicants based on how well their resume matches the job description.

While ATS software lightens the load for recruiters by shrinking the applicant pool and keeping things organized in a CRM-style pipeline, they still leave much to be desired.

Most glaringly, many highly qualified candidates slip right through the cracks with zero consideration.

Why Do Top Candidates Get Lost in Applicant Tracking Systems?

When it comes to job applications, we would like to believe that the cream always rises to the top and the most qualified candidates always land interviews. With perfect and impartial ATS algorithms ranking candidates objectively, one could argue that this should be especially true when technology enters the mix.

But while technology continues to advance, we’re not quite there yet. The ATS algorithms aren’t advanced enough to make nuanced judgements about candidates and the human recruiters pushing the buttons don’t have time to carefully read every incoming resume.

That means great candidates get ignored or rejected for reasons they might not realize. The ATS aren’t out to get you, they just aren’t yet good at what they do.

Job seekers need to work in sync with ATS to avoid falling through the cracks due to word choices, formatting decisions, or other seemingly innocuous choices.

How to Beat the ATS

There are dozens of ATS out there, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and quirks. Following these three tips will help you avoid the most common ATS obstacles.

  1. Optimize Your Resume Keywords

While some less-advanced ATS are simply a repository for downloadable resumes, many top ATS allow the recruiter to search applicants for specific keywords.

The recruiter will often start by searching the job title for which they’re applying.

For example, if they’re hiring a Client Success Manager, it makes sense that they’ll start with applicants who have “Client Success Manager” in their resume and direct, one-to-one experience.

Once they’ve exhausted candidates with previous experience, they will likely search for relevant skills that are in the job description, such as “training” or “presentation.”

Job seekers should analyze the job description to identify the most important titles, hard skills, and other keywords that they should include in their resume. Exact keywords. Most ATS are not advanced enough to distinguish between different tenses, conjugations, or similar terms.

For example, a recruiter’s search for “management” will probably find your resume only if it contains the word “management.”

Sometimes a recruiter doesn’t even need to search. Some of the more advanced ATS automatically compare an applicant’s resume to the job description or pre-assigned skills and assign a ranking. Recruiters can filter the talent pool to see applicants that were ranked highly, ignoring anyone else. Because of this, it’s critical to use the exact keywords found in a job description.

  2. Keep Resume Formatting Simple

When an ATS scrapes an uploaded resume for content and keywords, an applicant’s formatting choices can cause errors or hide data. For example, some ATS struggle to read tables or text boxes on a resume and exclude any data contained within. That information might be critical to your qualifications.

Use a Simple Font

The same thing can happen with unusual fonts. While you might hope that your unique font choice will help you stand out, the reality is that ATS might convert your font to a standard font (like Times New Roman) or, much worse, fail to register skills that are in a font it doesn’t recognize.

Use Standard Section Headings

Some ATS auto-populate fields based on the resume to create a digital applicant profile. The ATS algorithm has to be able to recognize common resume sections in order to do this accurately. This means you shouldn’t get cute with heading titles.

Use basic headings like “Work Experience” or “Professional Experience” that the ATS will have been programmed to recognize, rather than something creative like “Where I’ve Been” or “My Background.”

Format this text simply as a heading or with bold font so as not to obscure it from the ATS.

Use This Simple Sequence for Experience

Sequencing within the work experience section can also make a difference. To account for ATS that try to parse this information, use this order:

Company Name / City and State / Job Title / Start Date – End Date.

In your resume, the sequence would look like this, for example:

  • ABC Company, Seattle, WA – Customer Success Manager (Dec. 2012-Present)

  3. Take “Knockout Questions” and Additional Fields Seriously

Knockout questions are built into many ATS and are typically asked early in the job application process. The purpose is to eliminate applicants who are unable or unwilling to perform key job functions, lack required qualifications, or exhibit other red flags.

These questions are designed to keep hiring managers from wasting their time vetting and interviewing applicants who are unlikely to be among their top candidates.

The term “knockout” is not an exaggeration. Some of these questions are programmed to auto-reject candidates who give the “wrong” answer to the question.

For example, a knockout question for an Account Manager job with an employer who uses Salesforce to manage their sales process might be, “Do you have experience with Salesforce?” If the hiring manager has indicated that they don’t want to have to train the new hire on their CRM software, then answering “no” immediately takes the applicant out of the running without the recruiter or hiring manager even looking at the resume.

Avoid “See Resume” Responses

A common complaint from job seekers applying through online applicant tracking systems is that they have to repeat information that is already on their resume. For example, an ATS might have an applicant fill out sections for each of their previous positions.

In this case, do not write “See resume” in these sections! While it may feel redundant, this extra step is an attempt to avoid the resume parsing errors mentioned above. The uploaded resume might be used if a recruiter or hiring manager wishes to print out a physical resume to review or take to the interview, but these other fields are what matters when it comes to searching or ranking.

Take these fields seriously. At a minimum, paste in all the information from your resume. To improve your chances, use these fields to flesh out your skills and experience with content you might have removed from your resume to keep it to one or two pages.

Bottom Line on Beating the ATS

As much as job seekers hate them, applicant tracking systems are here to stay. You might get around them to some degree by taking your job search offline and networking, but it’s hard to avoid them completely.

Don’t fight it. The more you know about ATS and how to work in sync with them, the faster you’ll get through the system, and land an interview.

About the author…

Jon Shields is a writer and editor focused on uncovering the hidden obstacles faced by today’s job seekers. He a member of the team at Jobscan, a Seattle-based startup specializing in resume and LinkedIn optimization technology for job seekers. Jon is the managing editor of the Jobscan Blog, which features in-depth articles from himself and expert contributors on the topics of resume writing, applicant tracking systems, LinkedIn for job seekers, and other job search topics. You can follow or connect with Jon on Linkedin.

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