If you’ve ever submitted your resume for a job and didn’t hear a peep in response, it’s probably not because a human tossed your application in the trash bin. The more likely reason your application didn’t receive a response (assuming that you were, in fact, qualified for the job) is that it failed to make it past the company’s applicant tracking system.
So what is an applicant tracking system, and what role does it play in helping or hurting your chances of getting a job? We’ll explain this often-frustrating piece of technology and share the surefire ways to ensure your application meets its requirements so you can make it through to an interview.
What is an applicant tracking system?
An applicant tracking system, or ATS, is a piece of software that helps companies screen and manage candidates for jobs.
Since most open positions receive dozens, if not hundreds, of applications, it’s not usually feasible for a staff member to review every candidate for every job. This is especially true for large organizations that are hiring for numerous positions at any given time.
An ATS tackles early-stage screening, reviewing resumes, and only passing along those that are worthy of an interview to a recruiter for further consideration.
But wait! You’re probably saying. That doesn’t seem fair.
And you’re right–at least partially. Though an ATS does achieve the very helpful task of filtering out spam applications and disqualifying candidates who are clearly unqualified, it can also unintentionally screen out perfectly qualified candidates who did not meet the system’s criteria for one reason or another.
Why is it necessary to beat an applicant tracking system?
You need to “beat” an applicant tracking system if you want to get your resume in front of a live person who’s a more apt judge of whether you’re a good candidate. This is necessary because an ATS may sometimes reject applications–even those from strong candidates–due to:
- Missing or insufficient keywords
- Nonstandard layout
- Unreadable file format
- Too many pages
- Failing to meet arbitrary “requirements,” like having nine years of experience when the machine is looking for 10
Any of these reasons for rejection could easily be avoided if a human reviewed your resume. But, since you can’t control a company’s application process, your best bet is to play by the machine’s rules to advance to the next round of the hiring process and be considered more carefully.
14 tips to beat applicant tracking systems
1. Ensure you meet the job requirements
No amount of tips and tricks can help you if you’re not truly qualified for a job. That’s why it’s in your interest to only apply for positions that match your experience and qualifications.
You might think you’ll apply for jobs that are out of reach, then convince the hiring manager to give you a chance once you land an interview, but this is an imprudent strategy. Not only are you taking time away from a more qualified applicant, but you’re also using up your own time that could be better spent finding positions that are a stronger fit.
Suppose you really want to get your foot in the door with a company when there’s no suitable opening for you. In that case, a better strategy is to use a letter of inquiry to introduce yourself to the appropriate contact person and go from there.
2. Optimize with the right keywords
This is the most important factor in beating an ATS and the one that trips up many good candidates.
Computers are pretty good at following a set of predefined instructions. Still, they’re not great at nuance, like inferring context from a resume that merely provides a list of previous jobs and employment dates. You have to help the system ascertain that you meet the job requirements, and the best way to do that is by incorporating the right keywords from a job description in your resume.
To find the right keywords, look carefully at the job description and make a list of the most important skills, qualifications, and requirements listed in it. You should develop a list that includes phrases like ‘five years of experience,’ ‘proficient in Adobe Illustrator,’ or ‘fluent in Mandarin Chinese.’ Ensure these keywords– the exact match and similar phrases–are included throughout your resume.
You also want to think strategically about how the ATS might scan for different requirements. For example, if a position calls for at least three years of experience and you have four years, using the phrase ‘more than three years of experience’ on your resume may actually serve you better than ‘four years of experience’ since the number three is part of the phrase directly cited in the job requirements.
3. Don’t keyword-stuff
Keywords are crucial, but don’t go too far with them.
They should sound natural, not as if a robot dropped in them. Too many keywords or too high of a frequency of the same ones can also get your resume tossed.
4. Tailor your resume for every individual job
This is always a wise tip to follow, but it’s all the more important when you’re dealing with applicant tracking systems because no two are alike. Even if you’re applying for identical roles with two different companies, those companies likely have different pieces of applicant tracking software and have set them up to screen for different criteria.
So, you must edit each version of your resume for each distinct job you’re submitting to, using the job description for guidance.
5. Use a traditional resume layout
Not only does a standard resume layout help your application make it past an ATS, but it also ensures it’s easy for a recruiter to scan when they’re trying to get a feel for your qualifications.
The chronological resume is by far the most common resume format and is a fool-proof choice to ensure that your resume’s layout isn’t cause for getting eliminated.
6. Avoid complex formatting
Any time you add a design element that shies away from the standard resume format, you’re taking a risk that an ATS might not be able to read your resume properly. Adding multiple columns, images, icons, and even nontraditional fonts can all cause your resume to become jumbled and thus, unreadable within an ATS.
So, keep it simple. You want to stick to a traditional one-page, single-column, text-only format for most jobs.
7. Submit a standard file format
PDF is a pretty safe bet, but it’s best to read the job description carefully to ensure you follow the application instructions.
8. Use plain language
Describe your job duties, responsibilities, and accomplishments in clear language that’s easy for anyone (a.k.a. a software program) to understand.
If you work in a job that uses a lot of technical jargon, swap it out for more commonly understood terminology. So, instead of saying you ‘remedied code smell in JSON schema,’ say you were responsible for detecting and fixing JSON coding errors.
9. Spell out acronyms
On that note, any acronyms that aren’t universally known should be fully written out alongside their abbreviation, like this:
- CEH (certified ethical hacker)
- Member of AACN (American Association of Critical-Care Nurses)
- Increased CTR (click-through rate) by 26%
10. Include a skills section
A skills section is a portion of your resume listing your qualifications. It’s a good spot to highlight the most relevant capabilities for the job and also a great tactic for incorporating terms an ATS will be looking for.
11. Consider adding a resume summary
A resume summary is a two- to three-sentence blurb at the top of your resume that spotlights the experience, skills, and credentials that make you a strong candidate. It can help a hiring manager gain a quick summary of who you are as a candidate–or in this case, help an applicant tracking system spot prominent qualifications.
12. Check for grammar and spelling errors
While a human recruiter might reject an error-laden resume because it’s a red flag of carelessness, an ATS has a different problem with spelling and grammar errors–they can confuse and prevent the system from correctly interpreting your capabilities.
Before you submit your resume, have a trusted friend or mentor review it carefully for any mistakes.
13. Don’t use ‘black hat’ tricks
Black-hat job application tactics attempt to beat an ATS by copying and pasting the job description into your resume or filling it with keywords in tiny, white font. You shouldn’t be surprised that these “tricks” don’t work and are almost always a surefire way to get your application rejected.
14. Limit the number of jobs you apply for at a single company
In addition to helping recruiters screen resumes, applicant tracking systems also track applicants’ activity. This means within your profile, a recruiter can see which jobs you’ve applied for and how many times, among other details.
To avoid looking like you’re spam-applying to any and every job, you should limit your applications to the one or two positions you’re most interested in and qualified for at a company.
Applicant tracking systems can be tricky, but by working within their rules rather than trying to find a way around them, you’ll have a better chance of succeeding and getting a call back for a coveted interview.