Will Your Resume Pass Through An Applicant Tracking System (ATS)?

Increasing your chances of success.

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Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) are artificial intelligence powered gatekeepers which have the power to reject your resume. How can you beat them at their own game and ensure your resume passes the ATS test?

In the ‘good old days’, one of the main challenges of job search was writing a resume that could catch a recruiter’s attention. However, the increased popularity of Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) has introduced another gatekeeper into the job search process.

Applicant Tracking Systems are, in effect, automated filtering algorithms that are intent on ‘assessing’ resumes for fit – well before a human has had the chance to see them.

(Bonus Read: How To Write A Standout Resume: New Rules Of Resume Writing).

This means that submitting a resume which isn’t optimised for an Applicant Tracking System (ATS) can mark your job application as incomplete or – at worst – identify you as entirely unsuitable for the role.


The Good News.

Once you do submit your job application to a company, their Applicant Tracking System will store your details forever, which means you could be automatically put forward for new positions which arise within that organisation.

Also, a lot of the major job boards like Indeed.com have seamless integrations with the most popular ATS platforms.

This means that the information you submit via these job search portals will be pushed directly into applicant tracking systems of potential employers.

In fact, as more and more employers and recruitment agencies begin to rely on ATS platforms, it’s more likely that your details will be ‘sucked’ into their systems without you knowing.

Somewhat creepy? Perhaps.

Skating on the edge of privacy laws? Definitely.

But it does mean that you may be considered for positions which you know nothing about.


The Bad News.

Unless you know what Applicant Tracking Systems expect to see on a resume – and write yours accordingly – there’s a good chance that your job application will be automatically rejected.

Furthermore, a lot of the newer systems automatically scan your social media accounts, which means that those shaky iPhone videos of you dancing on a table in Amsterdam are likely to get attached as ‘supplementary information’ to your employee profile.


As if that wasn’t enough, modern ATS are powered by ML (Machine Learning), so not only can such a system automatically reject you – it can also write your “Dear John, thank you for applying, however..” letter, too.

(Bonus Read: 3 Linguistic Mistakes That Horribly Deflate Your Executive Resume).

So, in the interest of ensuring that your resume flies under the radar of modern Applicant Tracking Systems, let’s learn a little more about them, where they came from, and how to beat them at their own game.


Why Does Your Resume Get Screened By An ATS?

The 80/20 rule.

In other words, it boils down to time.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) can scan millions of resumes per minute and discard 80% of them automatically, which means recruiters only have to worry about the top 20%.

Clearly, this is a huge time saver.

Especially when you consider that, historically, recruiters would have ‘read’ every single resume and made subjective decisions about the suitability of candidates – a process which, clearly, could be biased in any number of ways.

There is a theory that Applicant Tracking Systems can be exploited to automatically reject applicants based on race, religion and probability of maternity leave, but understandably, not many recruiters are open to a public discussion about this!

The bottom line is this – if recruitment teams use an ATS, they can spend much more time manually reviewing the top percentage of applicants.

If you’re in that chosen group, you’re in luck.


Who Uses Applicant Tracking Systems?

Research suggests that over 95% of the Fortune 500 use ATS. Well over 80% of the world’s top 1,000 companies are converts, too.

It’s  wise to assume that any company you’re applying to today will be using some kind of ATS, which means it’s important to know how to prevent your resume from going straight into the ‘spam’ folder.


How Do Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) Work?

This is where you need to understand the concept of ‘parsing’.

Parsing is the software engineers term for taking huge lumps of text and converting into data sets that can be read & measured by an algorithm.

For example, an ATS won’t admire your font choice and your beautiful cover page (in fact, formatting can hurt your chances).

Instead, it sucks in your resume and converts it to a huge wall of text that a machine knows how to scan. Essentially, it’s fishing for keywords.

Just as Google uses keywords to rank websites in its search results, an ATS will use keywords to rank applicants for a position.

So, if the job description states that ‘software engineering’ is a must, but you’ve described yourself as a ‘PHP developer’ in your resume, there’s a good chance that you will be marked as ‘not suitable’.

In a similar vein, modern ATS will know when you’re ‘gaming the system’, so simply listing all the keywords which you think the algorithm is looking for is a no-no, too.

So, what can you do to ensure that your resume is ATS-friendly?

Well, obviously you can save yourself a lot of time and get outstanding results by using my resume writing services.

However, if you prefer to write your resume yourself, read on – my tips below will help you get past Applicant Tracking Systems.


1. Use Standard Resume Sections.

The ‘robot’ will scan your resume and look for expected sections. For example, it’s likely to be programmed to search for information on:

  • work experience
  • qualifications & schooling
  • contact information
  • social media profiles
  • skills

It’s easy to imagine a quirky designer with extensive experience at Apple might call ‘former employers’ something like ‘previous gigs’ as a way to convey their ‘personal brand’ to a recruiter.

However, an ATS will ignore that section completely – because it doesn’t know what ‘previous gigs’ means.

So instead of the designer being flagged as working at arguably one of the most prestigious design departments in the world, they’d never even get an interview.

(Bonus Read: Ultimate List Of Resume Mistakes).

Other things to consider in your formatting and layout:

  • use bullets rather than paragraphs where possible – there’s anecdotal evidence that this is better for an ATS
  • include any qualifications and certifications
  • include any awards you’ve won, even if they were a long time ago
  • include education and courses you’ve completed – that 1-day primer on HTML might be the difference between an interview or not


2. Drop The Quirks.

Remember, it’s no longer ‘humans first’.

Long gone are the days where a great photo or a quirky font would raise a smile (or an eyebrow) from the recruiter as they scanned their pile of resumes.

When you write your resume you must assume that a computer will make the initial sift. This means you need to:

  • use highly relevant keywords
  • use simple formatting & standard fonts
  • avoid tables, images and graphs

Having said all that, don’t forget that a human will also have to look at it at some point, so don’t create a resume which looks like it was intended for machines only. Contemporary style and inviting design are important.


3. Use Different Resumes For Different Jobs.

The important thing to understand about an ATS is that it wants to match your resume with keywords that are found in the job description.

Let’s look at an example of a job description extract:

“…the successful applicant will have advanced knowledge of the accounting software Xero, including skills in credit control, automated bank reconciliation and forecasting & budgeting.”

The keywords than an ATS is likely to be scanning your resume for are:

  • accounting software
  • Xero
  • credit control
  • automated reconciliation
  • bank reconciliation
  • forecasting
  • budgeting

However, imagine if the resume you submitted had these alternative terms instead:

  • accounts
  • accounts package
  • online accounting platform
  • late payments
  • minimising bad debts
  • credit risk analysis
  • budgetary planning
  • fiscal estimates
  • financial planning

A human would easily conclude that you’re the perfect applicant despite these subtle variations in terminology.

However, the algorithm wouldn’t find a single relevant keyword in your resume (which means you’d probably be rejected).

The lesson is clear: for each job you are applying for, you should ensure that your resume includes the exact terms found in the job description.

This means changing ‘fiscal estimates’ to ‘budgets’ and ensuring you explicitly mention any software or systems that the employer is looking for.


4. Review Your Online Presence.

Applicant Tracking Systems put your ‘social’ life under the microscope, too.

Some advanced systems can now automatically scan your social media profiles and use that information as part of the electronic decision-making process.

So, make sure you tidy up your profiles.

Ensure that your LinkedIn profile is relevant and up-to-date (rewrite it if necessary, paying particular attention to the Profile Summary section). Consider adding a paragraph which lists the important keywords mentioned in the job description (remember, the ATS is a keyword-hound which loves to sniff out relevant keyword terms).

Consider adding a paragraph which lists the important keywords mentioned in the job description (remember, the ATS is a keyword-hound which loves to sniff out relevant keyword terms).

Also, ensure that whenever you mention your job titles, you use terms that an ATS can understand (e.g. ‘credit control’, rather than just ‘Accounts clerk’ or – worse – ‘Number monkey’!)

Whilst most ATS focus on LinkedIn, if you’re active on other social networks (Facebook, Twitter etc), it’s a good idea to update those, too (or, if they’re for personal use only, lock them down with maximum privacy settings).


5. Spy On Employees.

If you’re looking for inspiration, use LinkedIn to spy on existing employees.

Scanning existing employee’s profiles may identify some similar traits or common themes.

Even better, try to find an employee who is doing the exact job and pay extra attention to the keywords used in his/her job description.

Make sure these are mentioned in your resume, too – it can’t hurt and could be the difference between getting a job interview and being cyber rejected.


6. Do Not Use PDF.

Applicant Tracking Systems don’t like resumes formatted in PDF format. They just want text. No glitter or fancy formats – just text.


Get Your Resume Noticed By An ATS.

So, let’s summarise the strategies you can employ to have the best chance of being passed by an ATS:

  • add the exact keywords to the job description of your resume
  • don’t try to game the system – tactics like listing hundreds of semi-relevant keywords on your resume are easily spotted and will result in your resume being deleted
  • never submit a PDF
  • avoid images and graphs
  • use standard sections on your resume
  • be careful with social media; assume that unless it’s locked down, it will be used (possibly against you)

That’s all!

Thank you for reading – and I wish you all the best in your job search.


– Irene



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