The (Mis)Education of the Applicant Tracking Software (ATS)

6 min readOct 27, 2020

by Justin Tyler

With the advent of the Applicant Tracking Software (ATS), a considerable batch of candidates are not being identified and recognized by recruiters. Because of the widespread use of applicant tracking software, this system acts as a filter to perform the identification of keywords, acronyms and phrases listed on job descriptions. If recruiters are not physically performing this task when resumes are submitted, this means that the ATS is doing this on their behalf.

Since a staggering amount of small-, mid- and large-sized companies utilize applicant tracking software, this preference oftentimes results in your resume being at the mercy of how well the system grades you for keyword optimization.

Yeah, my head hurts too thinking about all this, but the world of the ATS is our reality; your resume must pass this system in order to have a human recruiter then scan your knowledge, skills, abilities and experience for the job you have applied for.

Why Are Employers Opting to Use the ATS?

To take advantage of technological benefits in the 21st century, ATS software has been developed to fit the needs of modern and global business. “Speed” and “efficiency” are the buzzwords and key performance indicators (KPIs) of many organizations, so as employers vie to secure and retain the best talent, it is vital for employers to automate more processes and maximum human time for the highest impact transactions.

With this in mind, job seekers must prioritize the following advice to be a step ahead in the competition:

  1. Optimize your resume by identifying the important keywords, phrases and acronyms that are synonymous with your KSAs and experience.
  2. Make sure that your job titles align with the job title of your target company. For example, if the company you are applying to calls the title “Administrative Assistant” and your resume states you were an “Administrative Associate,” ensure that your title states “Administrative Assistant.”
  3. Optimize your LinkedIn profile. LinkedIn also uses applicant tracking software on its platform.
  4. If you are unsure how to optimize your resume or LinkedIn profile, then work with a certified resume writer and/or a career coach to educate you while providing a DFY (done-for-you) service.
  5. Use services like Jobscan to see what keywords show up the most when you copy and paste the job description you will be applying to.

What Are Examples of Applicant Tracking Software?

In my career as an in-house talent acquisition specialist and external recruiter, I have used human resource information system (HRIS) applicant tracking software like Taleo, Jobvite and Greenhouse to analyze the resumes that were “graded” by the system. Some other HRISs with embedded applicant tracking systems are Brassring, iCIMS, BambooHR, Workday and SmartRecruiters, to name a few.

As a recruiter and HR professional in charter schools, I did not use an ATS because we were a school of less than 80 employees. Thus, the human recruiter was the first set of “eyes” that viewed applications and physically scanned resumes. Typically, I was on the hunt for job titles, achievements, skills, companies the applicant worked for and any notable gaps of employment. Yes, all in about 15–30 seconds. If the resume had the prerequisites and the layout was easy to follow, the information I need was easily and readily identifiable.

Again, my charter school experience is not the norm. Rather, the norm is that companies all of sizes are or will be utilizing an ATS in the near future. It’s a trend. It’s here to stay.

How Does the ATS Work?

Since I have discussed how the ATS reviews applications, let’s proceed to how candidates receive a score so recruiters can prioritize the right resumes to scan. As aforementioned, applicant tracking software have allowed recruiters to eliminated large blocks of time to manually review applicants and resumes. As unemployment rates fluctuate, competition remains global, COVID-19 presents fewer job opportunities and technology eliminates traditionally human jobs, the frequency of applications per advertised job is higher than ever. Thus, the historical way of first reviewing each application submission with human eyes became obsolete.

Filtering resumes is another way that recruiters shortlist the best candidates. A recruiter can filter based on their preference. For example, a recruiter can filter for “Human Resources Assistant” to see what candidates have “Human Resources Assistant” or HR Assistant experience in their resumes. Perhaps, the recruiter only wants to view candidates who had this title in the past/have this role currently. If a candidate’s resume doesn’t pass this human or software filter, then his/her resume will go unnoticed.

Resume Formatting and the ATS Relationship

Even though applicant tracking systems are built for modern recruitment, the systems and the algorithms are not perfect. Depending on the particular ATS, some software will take your resume and make a digital file to search keywords. When your resume is rendered to a digital file, oftentimes, your keywords, phrases and acronyms are not imported properly into the new digital format. Therefore, even the most keyword optimized resume can fall victim to this error.

As technology progresses and this flaw is being exposed, many ATS systems are getting better at addressing this issue, but this unfortunate situation still happens. To avoid this, it is in your best interest to keep your section headings simple, save your resume in a .docx or .pdf file format and use clean, consistent formatting for your work history, experience and employment dates.

So…, How Do I Defeat the ATS?

Your chances of landing an interview and winning the job significantly increases when you can bypass the Applicant Tracking Software (ATS) to get your resume straight to the hiring manager or talent acquisition team. This requires you to build a robust, professional network online (through LinkedIn, Facebook and other social media platforms) as well as in-person connections; leverage these professional groups to find your next role. In the end, your pathway to obtaining your position of preference will be a faster process than undergoing the traditional submit-your-application-and-resume arrangement.

Other ways to defeat the ATS include:

● Your resume should always be tailored to the job description that you are targeting

● Keep your resume formatting simple and always save in .pdf and .docx file format

● Use prominent and important keywords, phrases and acronyms on your resume that match with the job description

● Express your qualifications, years of experience, achievements, soft skills and hard skills in your Resume Summary with the keywords that the job description is also using

● Use achievement-based statements (with quantifiable evidence) that also use keywords in these statements

● Build a career where you are an in-demand talent as a thought-influencer or subject matter expert (SME). Also, your reputation can precede you if your work is high-quality.

Cheaters Never Prosper

So, with all of this talk about keyword optimization, it is important to not get overzealous by it either.

Yes, if you do become uncontrollable with resume keywords, you can manipulate ATS algorithms, but a seasoned recruiter will understand and know the tricks that achieved your high score. These veterans will see through your deception and view you as a negative applicant. Some organizations will even blacklist you from the recruitment process due to this practice.

Instead, focus on learning the nuances of authoring an interview-generating resume or just hire a certified professional resume writer who can educate and execute a do-for-yourself service. The job search is a daunting and time-consuming process, so it will behoove you to follow ATS best practices to rank high and apply confidently for the job(s) of your dreams.

Photo by Timon Studler on Unsplash