5 insider secrets for beating applicant tracking systems (ATS)

Error-prone applicant tracking systems kill 75 percent of job seekers' chances of landing an interview as soon as they submit their resumes, despite how qualified they may be. Job seekers' only hope for rising through these systems is to understand exactly how these systems work and how best to optimize their resumes for them. Here are five insider tips.

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Employers use applicant tracking systems (ATS) to manage job openings across their enterprises and screen incoming resumes. But these systems are the bane of legions of job seekers because they kill 75 percent of candidates' chances of landing an interview as soon as they submit their resumes, according to job search services provider Preptel.

The problem with applicant tracking systems, as many job seekers know, is that they are flawed. Very flawed. If a job seeker's resume isn't formatted the right way and doesn't contain the right keywords and phrases, the applicant tracking system will misread it and rank it as a bad match with the job opening, regardless of the candidate's qualifications.

Bersin & Associates, an Oakland, Calif.-based research and advisory services firm specializing in talent management, confirmed the weaknesses of applicant tracking systems. In a test conducted last year, Bersin & Associates created a perfect resume for an ideal candidate for a clinical scientist position. The research firm matched the resume to the job description and submitted the resume to an applicant tracking system from Taleo, arguably the leading maker of these systems.

When Bersin & Associates studied how the resume rendered in the applicant tracking system, the company saw that one of the candidate's work experiences was lost entirely because the resume had the date typed before the employer. The applicant tracking system also failed to read several educational degrees the putative candidate held, which would have given a recruiter the impression that the candidate lacked the educational experience necessary for the job. The end result: The resume Bersin & Associates submitted only scored a 43 percent relevance ranking to the job because the applicant tracking system misread it.

Josh Bersin, CEO and president of the firm, notes that since all applicant tracking systems use the same parsing software to read resumes, the results his company found would be typical of most systems, not just Taleo's.

The problems with applicant tracking systems beg the question: If they're so flawed and if they filter out good candidates, why do employers bother to use them? The answer is simple: Bersin says they still make recruiters' lives easier. Applicant tracking systems save recruiters days' worth of time by performing the initial evaluation and by narrowing down the candidate pool to the top 10 candidates whose resumes the system ranks as the most relevant. Even if some good candidates get filtered out, recruiters still have a place to start.

As long as employers rely on applicant tracking systems to screen resumes, qualified job seekers' only hope for passing through them successfully is to understand exactly how these systems work. Jon Ciampi, CEO of Preptel, has intimate knowledge of applicant tracking systems. He previously served as a general manager with SumTotal Systems, a maker of applicant tracking systems, and his new company aims to help job seekers penetrate these systems. (Read a CIO.com review of Preptel's services.) Ciampi shared his insider secrets that explain how applicant tracking systems work—and how job seekers should best format their resumes to get through them.

How Applicant Tracking Systems Rank a Resume's Relevance

Many job seekers and career experts think applicant tracking systems rely on keywords to determine the fit between a candidate's resume and a specific job. They do their best to identify keywords in a job description that may be important to an employer or applicant tracking system, then they stuff these keywords in their resumes.

In fact, what matters most to applicant tracking systems is the uniqueness or "rarity" of the keyword or the keyword phrase, says Ciampi. That is, the keywords and phrases must be specific to a particular job ad. Applicant tracking systems, which "see" all job ads a company has ever published, determine which keywords and phrases in a specific job ad are unique to that job ad, says Ciampi.

The systems then develop a ranking based on how closely a job seeker's resume matches each keyword and phrase and how many of the keyword phrases the job seeker's resume has, he adds.

What Recruiters See When They Look at Your Resume in an Applicant Tracking System

When a recruiter clicks on the name of a candidate whom the applicant tracking system has ranked as a good match for a job, the recruiter doesn't see the resume the candidate submitted. The recruiter sees the information the applicant tracking system pulled from the candidate's resume into a database, as the picture below shows.

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