What is an Applicant Tracking System (ATS) and Why Should I Care?
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What is an Applicant Tracking System (ATS) and Why Should I Care?

If you are looking for a job, you are likely to hear that your resume should be optimized for an applicant tracking system (also called an ATS.)  What exactly is an ATS, and how does it impact you as a candidate?

In this article, we’ll walk you through:

  • What an ATS is and why recruiters and employers use them
  • How the ATS ranks candidates before recruiters ever see them
  • Things you can do to increase your chances of ranking higher

What is an Applicant Tracking System (ATS)?

In layman’s terms, an ATS is a piece of software that helps companies manage candidates.  Sometimes it is a stand-alone piece of software, and other times it may be integrated with a broader HR information management system.

It can serve several functions, but the one we care about most is screening and ranking candidates. We’ll also provide some common examples.

Of course, that’s not all it does. There are many other important functions most ATS software provides such as:

  • Automating the job posting process to job boards
  • Approval workflows to support internal company processes
  • Tracking the status of candidates
  • Automating candidate outreach (emails)

Let’s take a look at the most important (to us) one first, and then we’ll explore the rest.

Note: An HR professional would rightly tell you that an ATS doesn’t necessarily do all of the items above. However, we’re going to use the now-common broader sense of the term to include the collection of technology and software used in the hiring process. Cool?

coding computer data depth of field
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How an ATS screens candidates

Let’s start with the piece that impacts you – the job seeker – most.

A recruiter often doesn’t have time to read every resume that comes in.  The good news (for them) is that they don’t need to. 

The recruiter or hiring manager simply puts in their ideal candidate criteria when the job is created, and the ATS does the rest.  In fact, many systems will score a candidate based on the job description alone, even when a human does not provide any scoring criteria.

That means that having a single resume that you use to apply for all roles is likely to get you nowhere fast.  It must be optimized for each specific job.  Want to land a job at McDonald’s?  You’d better have a different resume for that open cashier position than you do for the vacant fry cook role that is your fallback.

How does the ATS decide who ranks highest?

The answer is…it’s complicated. Let’s compare it to something we all understand.

Compare an ATS to Google or Bing

Imagine your candidate profile is a website. Your resume is the home page.  You’ve designed your site to be found by recruiters and hiring managers filling jobs that interest to you.

The ATS is like a search engine.  It looks at all of the websites (candidates) and all of the pages (resumes) on each site, and categorizes the information in a way that is likely to be useful to someone doing a web search.

So when the recruiter sits down in front of the ATS to review candidates, it’s like they are typing “find me the perfect purchasing manager” into Google.  The ATS, similar to a search engine, looks at all of the candidates and comes back with the most relevant results first.  The difference is that instead of typing in a search each time they look at candidates, they defined the search parameters when they created the job posting.

Make ATS optimization a priority (your career SEO)

If you really were a web page, you would want to be on the first page of Google.  Being on page 18 of search results means that your website is unlikely to ever get a visit.  It doesn’t matter that it’s the best website on the internet.

On the other hand, the real goal is to show up on page one of the search results as long as you can answer the reader’s question.

Starting to see the comparison?

adult attractive beautiful beauty
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How to make yourself attractive to the computer

They say that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”  That is certainly true when it comes to the ATS. 

It cares about formatting (think of it as ATS “grooming”), but not in the same way a human would. 

Your resume format should think about what the parser (a fancy word for a tiny gnome that sorts out and organizes the content in your resume) wants to see.  They don’t like pictures, text boxes, or tables.  You know…all the stuff you added to make your resume look good!

A few simple rules will make your resume much more readable:

  • Make sure your resume tells a story that aligns with the job for which you are applying. Use (but don’t over-use) the same words as the posting when possible.
  • Text boxes and pictures are invisible to the computer. If you add them, make sure your resume makes sense without them.
  • Avoid columns and tables. These confuse the ATS and it has to guess in what order to process the information (it will probably guess wrong).
  • Make sure your most important information is at the beginning of the document. Content up front is weighted higher than the stuff at the end.
  • Use common headings like “Professional Experience” and “Education”.

So what if you have a really killer resume that is beautiful but violates every rule above? 

If you want something that has visual sizzle to win over an interviewer, then just make sure you have two versions of your resume.  One for the ATS, and one to hand out during interviews.

So why not just make sure you fill out the application correctly (it’s mostly the same as your resume, right?) Then you can email the “pretty” resume to everyone.

Don’t do it!

Because the next section is a thing. Really!

Beware the resume inhaler!

No, it’s not a spray that helps resumes breathe better, although that would be cool.

A resume inhaler is what recruiters use to populate their databases of candidates.

When you apply for a job and they say that they’ll “keep you on file” they might do just that. However, don’t count on the system keeping your carefully typed and formatted online application intact.

The resume inhaler is a tool where a recruiter can take a file folder full of resumes and auto-import them into the ATS. Tens, hundreds, or even thousands at once.

For each resume, it creates an entry for the candidate that recruiters can search when they are looking to fill a role in the future.

Still think that having an ATS-friendly resume isn’t important?

Examples of screening software built into hiring and recruiting solutions

It’s not just enterprise level systems like Oracle’s Taleo, which offers a product called EasyRecruit, that have sophisticated algorithms.

But let’s start at the top with the big boys. Taleo’s EasyRecruit makes the following claim:

Artificial Intelligence makes it possible to further streamline your hiring method by automating repetitive tasks and narrowing candidate selection. One aspect of this involves implementing a Digital Assistant for improved results.

Future State – The Oracle Consulting Blog

So what does that mean? Essentially, with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, computers are (supposedly) just as good at picking potential winners out of the candidate pool as a human. And they can do it MUCH faster.

But not every company can afford a huge Taleo + EasyRecruit implementation.

Let’s look at some tools used by small and medium-sized businesses. They are probably names you’ll recognize.

Source: https://www.ziprecruiter.com/


Ziprecruiter is growing fast, and it is within reach of most businesses with plans starting at a few hundred dollars per month.

In their How It Works blog (targeted at their customers… employers) step two reads as follows:

Our powerful matching technology scans thousands of resumes to find candidates with the right skills, education, and experience for your job — then actively invites them to apply.

Ziprecruiter.com – How it Works

But it doesn’t stop there! Just like Netflix serves up what they think you want to see based on what you watched, ZipRecruiter does the same with candidate selection:

Our smart, easy-to-use dashboard helps you sort, review, and rate your candidates. We learn from your ratings and send you similar applicants to the ones you liked.

Ziprecruiter.com – How it Works

But how does that look to the actual recruiter or hiring manager on the other end? A little something like this:

In the image above, you see that candidate John Bridges has a big green box that says “Great Match” in the column with the same name.

That’s ZipRecruiter telling the employer that they’re likely to find that candidate highly qualified.

Also, above the candidates there are some filter selectors. “All” is chosen in the image above, but if you have hundreds (or even tens) of candidates, you might be tempted as the employer to click the “Great Matches” button.

Then what? Every candidate who is not flagged as a Great Match by ZipRecruiter disappears from the screen, leaving only those who the algorithm thought were a good fit for the role.

The real magic…

Ziprecruiter pioneered a solution that actually targets qualified candidates in their database as soon as an employer posts a job that aligns with their experience and location.

This is GREAT for the employer, because they quickly get access to tons of qualified candidates. The bummer is that if you weren’t one of them, you’re competing with a lot of job-seekers that the algorithm thought were a good fit for the job.

Source: https://hiring-assets.careerbuilder.com/assets/


Another hugely popular place for employers to post jobs is CareerBuilder which boasts over 140 million resumes and social profiles in its database.

Here’s what they have to say about artificial intelligence in the recruiting process:

Save time with automated Candidate Matches. Our sophisticated matching technology finds relevant candidates and sends them directly to your inbox or you can view them directly in your dashboard.

Careerbuilder For Employers – Benefits

Once again, AI is going out and finding candidates that are potential matches and encouraging them to apply.

Other functions of the ATS

Now that we got the biggie out of the way, let’s take a look at some of the other uses.

Automating the job posting process to job boards

Posting a job to a job board is a pain.  You have to log into the job board via your recruiter account, enter all of the data so the system knows how to categorize and sort the job, and then paste in the job description.  And it never formats correctly.  Ever.  So you get to fiddle with that until it looks right.

Then, you get to log into the next job board and do the same thing.  Rinse and repeat.  It is a tedious task, especially if you are posting the job to several job boards.

Enter the ATS, which now lets you create the job once in the software, and with the click of a single button post to as many job boards as you like.  That’s it.

Approval workflows to support internal company processes

Large companies have a lot of people that need to sign off before a job gets posted.  Usually, it is the HR manager, the hiring manager, and the hiring manager’s boss at a minimum.  If it is a specialized or more senior role, then there could be more approvers in the chain.  Ugh.

How do you make sure all of the right people have signed off?  It was once a nightmare involving email (at best) or approval forms (at worst) requiring physical signatures.  Many times the various approvers aren’t in the same building…or even the same time zone!  The ATS makes this a breeze by auto-routing the position based on internal rules.  Once all the boxes have been checked, the recruiter can make it live.  It also sends gentle reminders to approvers when they get busy and forget.

Automating candidate outreach

A lot of emails you receive from recruiters may read like form letters.  That’s because they probably are.  Companies can create templates for the most common stages in the candidate workflow. 

For example, when a candidate is marked as hired in the system, it has the option to send every other candidate the dreaded “Thank you for your interest” message.

Using the ATS to manage communication also allows the employer to associate all messages and communication with each candidate. That makes it much easier for a small team of recruiters to support each other.

If you are qualified for the job, the ATS can be your friend

Candidates that optimize their resumes and online applications for the ATS have an advantage over all of the applicants that are still doing things the old way. 

If you play your cards right (and write your resume correctly) you have a way to move yourself to the top of the list of candidates.

Remember that while the format is important, having high quality content that showcases your skills and achievements is critical.

Whether you decide to invest in a professional writer or decide to learn the ropes and do it yourself, make sure your resume is ATS-compliant.

Since so many platforms offer proactive outreach to candidates in their databases that appear to be qualified when a job is posted, it’s also a great idea to have your optimized resume on file with all of the major job sites.

There is no substitute for expertise with the latest recruiting technology if you want to catch the attention of employers.

Good luck!

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