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10 Things To Know About Applicant Tracking Systems

Ty Collins, March 12, 2021

Whether they know it or not, most hopeful job applicants have to contend with an unseen obstacle: the applicant tracking system (ATS). 

As of 2019, 99% of Fortune 500 companies used an ATS to filter applicant resumes. Since they’re designed to collect, sort, and filter large amounts of data, using an ATS makes sense for large employers. If you’re Starbucks or Nike, you’re getting way too many applications for open jobs to go through on your own. An ATS makes the process of handling thousands of applications much easier for employers. But the software can be a problem for applicants if they don’t know how to approach it. 

The filters that ATS software uses can discard an applicant’s resume unless they meet very specific criteria. Oftentimes this leads to a huge number of resumes from people who may be qualified for a position getting discarded. 

That revelation disheartens a lot of job seekers. What’s the point in submitting your resume at all if it’s never going to be seen by human eyes? But don't give up — it still can be. The key is in understanding what ATS software is, how it works, and how to work with it. 

1. What exactly is an ATS?

ATS software makes it easier for large employers to sift through the massive amounts of job applications they receive. These days, both large and small employers use ATS to save time. The software takes candidate information like educational background and job history from resumes and uploads it to a database that can be accessed by anyone involved in the hiring process. 

ATS software can carry out automatic functions like reply emails to let people know their resume was received. It can also conduct tests with screening questions to further narrow down the applicant pool and send rejection emails.

Once the system has that information, the software sorts and organizes applicant data to make it easier for employers to analyze later. The system also ranks and scores applicants based on their resumes after passing it through pre-programmed filters. 

For employers, this provides multiple benefits. It can tell a hiring manager where an applicant saw the job posting, store that applicant’s information for later use, and automatically contact them if they move to the next hiring phase. That said, there are drawbacks to any ATS. 

ATS software uses keywords and specific job positions to rank applicants. If someone is changing careers or has plenty of experience in the field but doesn’t include the right keywords on their resume, their application could get rejected at first glance.

The main weakness of ATS programs is that they’re designed to throw out what they see as the least qualified candidates, not find the ones that are the best fit for the position.

2. Why do employers use them?

If an ATS ends up tossing out qualified candidates, why do so many companies still use them? One reason is that employers receive such a large volume of applications that it still makes sense to use an ATS in spite of the drawbacks. 

Using this software also saves money. Businesses would have to pay employees a lot more to sift through applications without the use of an ATS. Hiring managers, HR, and anyone else who needs to review applicant data can see it in the same place, which saves companies time.

Sometimes ATS software really can weed out unqualified candidates. Lots of sites offer simplified or one-click job application processes, so it’s easier for people to apply for a role even if they don’t meet every qualification. An ATS can easily filter out these applications.

Even so, the filters used mean that top applicants end up slipping through the cracks. 

3. Just about every employer uses an ATS

ATS software is everywhere. Originally adopted by Fortune 500 companies to get through high application volumes, modern companies both large and small have adopted the practice. 

There are dozens of ATS programs on the market today. Some of these are just emerging and others have been around since the early days of online job applications. Various app review sites provide ranked lists and breakdowns of the top programs.

The top five most popular ATS providers for 2020 according to TrustRadius are:

  1. Greenhouse

  2. Jobvite

  3. LinkedIn Talent Hub

  4. JobDiva

  5. SmartRecruiters

Popular software review website G2 lists these ATS software programs as their top 10:

  1. ZoHo Recruit

  2. ApplicantStack

  3. SmartRecruiters

  4. BreezyHR

  5. CEIPAL ATS

  6. BambooHR

  7. JazzHR

  8. Workable

  9. Recruitee

  10. Oorwin

With more of these systems popping up as employers use them to save time and money, ATS software isn’t going away anytime soon.

4. How does ATS software work?

To get an application past an ATS, you have to understand how it works. Each ATS option has a set of programmable filters it applies to the data it takes in. These filters are highly customizable, so each employer uses their ATS a little differently.

Those filters can do things like:

  • Sort and store application data

  • Check whether an applicant followed the instructions on a job application

  • Give tests with screening questions

  • Check resumes for keywords that fit the job posting

  • Store applicant information for later job postings

Some ATS software, like Taleo, ranks your application based on how well it seems to fit the job description, then shows a list of the top-ranked applications to recruiters. Instead of reviewing every application themselves, employers often rely on these lists.

An ATS will scan and check your resume for keywords associated with the job posting. If you’re applying for a video editor role, for example, the system will search your resume for the words “video editor.” This gets rid of everyone who doesn’t have that exact job listed on their resume. 

To winnow it down further, an ATS system can perform a more complex search, say for the terms “video editor” AND “Final Cut Pro” AND “MacOS.” This theoretically finds people who have experience editing video with that exact program on Mac computers.

5. Resume formatting matters

ATS software is designed to scan the information from your resume and store it in a database. If your resume isn’t formatted in a way that makes it easy for an ATS to read, your application might get tossed out. 

If you submit your resume in the wrong format, the information could get distorted when pulled by an ATS. Your resume could get scrambled, corrupted, or parts of it could be deleted completely, tanking its chances of actually being seen. 

Modern ATS systems are improving, but older ones prone to these errors (like iCIMS) are still in wide use. To be on the safe side, keep your resume simple, include clear sections and headings, and save it as a .doc, .docx, or .pdf file. 

6. They can see your social media profiles

Some of the more advanced ATS software can crawl the web and find your social media profile using job-related keywords. They can even display your social page in the application so recruiters can see it. 

This can actually be an advantage if you set up your social media profiles with an SEO-like approach. Including keywords about your job and education in, say, your Twitter bio can let those systems find you. That can let recruiters see samples of your work. 

Always be mindful of what you post to social media, and try optimizing your public-facing pages to give yourself a boost. 

7. There are ways to improve your chances

A few simple changes to your resume can help improve your chances of getting past the ATS and being seen by human eyes. 

Keeping the formatting simple and submitting in a common file format like .doc or .pdf will help the software read your resume without corrupting it. Matching your keywords to the words in the job description can also help. That will most likely mean customizing your resume for different applications. This can be labor-intensive if you’re sending out a lot of applications at once, but the effort can pay off. 

Do your research on the company. Check pages like LinkedIn to see what kind of qualifications people that already work at your target company have. Scan their profiles and see if your resume and their pages have similar keywords. 

Avoid using header and footer sections, as any information you include there could end up getting lost. If you put your contact information in a header, for example, the system could miss it completely. Avoid using unconventional fonts or overly complicated templates, as the system probably won’t recognize them. 

Chronological or hybrid resume formats seem to work best. Avoid the functional resume format. Try not to use tables or columns, as they won’t translate well from your resume to the database. 

8. Don’t try to game the system

Stuffing your resume with unnatural keywords or using other tricks to get it past the ATS might fool the system, but it’ll probably just annoy the recruiter. Instead of cheating, try to tailor your resume to read well. Use keywords where they’d naturally fit, and keep your headings simple. That way, both the ATS and the recruiter will have an easier time reading it.

Make Hiring (and Getting Hired) Easier

If you’re a recruiter sifting through candidates, you’ll need an easy way to contact them and set up interviews once you’re ready to move to the next stage. That’s where Calendly can help. 

Automated email links make it simple for candidates to choose an interview time that works for all parties, choose whether to interview remotely or in-person, and even give feedback on the recruitment process. 

Take a look at the other features Calendly offers, then get in touch when you’re ready to make them work for you.

Ty Collins biography
Ty Collins

Ty is the head of digital acquisition and content at Calendly.

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