Applicant tracking system: The secret to beating a resume-filtering ATS

Your resume is very likely to face off with an applicant tracking system before it reaches the desk of any human recruiter. Here’s how to prepare your resume to advance to the next stage.

Applicant tracking system defined

An applicant tracking system (ATS) is software used to help manage and automate hiring and recruitment practices for an organization by providing a centralized location to manage job postings, filter job applications, sort through resumes, and identify strong candidates for open positions. ATS software often uses artificial intelligence (AI) and natural language processing to score and sort resumes based on how well they align with job requirements. Candidates that pass through ATS filters are then matched with recruiters or hiring managers to move to the next steps in the hiring process.

Research from Capterra found that 75% of recruiters use some type of recruiting or applicant tracking system in the hiring process. And data from Jobscan found that over 98% of Fortune 500 companies use an ATS program when hiring new employees. That means there’s a good chance that your resume will be up against an ATS before it ever lands on the desk of a human recruiter or hiring manager.

Because an ATS will scan your resume for keywords and relevant work history to make a snap decision on whether you will advance to the next round, optimizing your resume so that it is ATS-friendly is an important step in your job search. Otherwise, you run the risk of your resume being cast aside despite your qualifications for the job.

Following is a look at how the ATS screening process works — and how you can tune your resume to successfully pass its filters.  

How applicant tracking systems work

ATS programs enable companies to input specific parameters for job openings and use the systems’ automated algorithms to parse through the vast number of resumes they receive. It’s often the first step in the hiring process and serves to eliminate the time human employees would otherwise spend sorting through resumes.

“Most applicant tracking systems’ platforms have built-in parsing and matching taxonomies in their process, so when you upload your resume to an ATS, the system will immediately rank and match your resume with the job you applied for,” says Arran Stewart, co-founder and chief visionary officer of Job.com.

Although it’s impossible to know exactly what parameters and weights are set by employers, there are general categories you can expect to play a factor in ranking your resume.

“Most score or weight items such as qualifications, education, job titles and compare your resume to the job description. Some employers use ‘knockout questions’ within the system, such as ‘do you have at least 5 years of experience.’ Once you answer no, you are out of consideration. Most search for keywords and titles, the resume is ‘scored’ and the higher the score, the better the chance of an actual person then reviewing,” says Carolyn Kleiman, career coach and expert at ResumeBuilder.com

There are a few ways you can tell if a prospective employer is using an ATS in its hiring process. You might see relevant branding on the website, or if you look at links carefully, you will often see the name of the ATS program at the beginning of the website domain, Stewart says.

How accurate are applicant tracking systems?

While ATS programs enable HR to be more efficient in sorting through resumes, they are not without faults. A study from Harvard Business Review found that 88% of employers felt that qualified, high-skilled candidates were vetted out of the process by an ATS because they “did not match the exact criteria established by the job description,” and that number rose to 94% for middle-skilled candidates.

Trouble can arise when it comes to updating and tailoring requirements in job descriptions. Often, job descriptions are too lofty or idealistic, with a long list of required skills or experience that quickly narrow the pool of candidates. The survey found that 72% of employers acknowledged that they rarely updated or changed job descriptions or only slightly modified them.

Over time, job descriptions can become bloated with excessive or outdated skills and requirements, which will eliminate qualified candidates from the job. A candidate might have the right experience, but not have the exact skills listed on the job description, which means they’ll go unnoticed by the ATS. This has a negative impact on both candidates and employers — candidates get overlooked and employers run the risk of creating a self-inflicted skills shortage.

How to optimize your resume for applicant tracking systems

A few simple strategies can help set your resume up for success in passing through an applicant tracking system. The most important advice? Keep things simple. An aesthetically pleasing resume with headers, different fonts, and visuals won’t do much to impress an ATS. Save that for the human recruiter or hiring manager by creating a second copy of your resume in a plain text format that will be easy for the ATS to scan.

“Font, formatting, and stylistic choices should be as simple as possible. There is no reason not to use the default font. There is no reason to use multiple bullet points, multiple levels, fancy formatting, or anything stylistic. The simpler it can be the better,” says Marc Cenedella, CEO of career site Ladders.

Also, be mindful of any charts, graphics, or other visuals that will look nice to a human, but that might confuse an ATS.

“Most ATS strip out formatting and parse the plain text, but you can still make your resume look nice. It is best to stay away from inserting graphics, columns, headers, footers, or tables. ATS reads top to bottom and left to right, if you have columns built into separate information the ATS might read two separate categories of information as one. Standard headers for categories, bold, capital letters, italics are all ok. Most ATS can read a PDF but Word.doc is almost always the safest bet,” says Kleiman.

Another tip is to carefully tailor your resume to the job description. If there are skills listed in the job description that you have, but typically leave off your resume, make sure to add them before you submit it.

“Resumes should be tailored to the job and, if possible, the company as well before you apply. Stacking your resume with words that are in the job description as much as possible, even down to the way it’s written or tense of the word in the description — even if it’s against everything you know about grammar — and stay away from abbreviations unless they are commonplace in the industry,” Kleiman says.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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