Applicant Tracking Systems and How to Beat Them

Close-up of a female applicant's CV being reviewed by a hiring manager

You’ve applied for the perfect position and submitted your CV and cover letter, but it’s been weeks since you’ve had any feedback. What went wrong?

It’s not them; it’s not you; it’s probably the ATS.

Indeed, according to Jobscan, over 98% of major US companies filter résumés using an ATS.

Could you have fallen victim to this pioneering recruitment technology?

Have a read through this article to find out what an ATS truly is, how it affects your application and how you can beat it.

What Is an ATS?

Or more importantly, what does ‘ATS’ stand for?

The answer is ‘applicant tracking system’, which is a form of software that helps recruiters filter and screen candidates for their job positions.

These systems enable companies to save tremendous time in the process of reading through CVs and selecting applicants. No longer must they open dozens of tabs or print out hundreds of résumés – an ATS will gather and organise the best applications that match the job requirements and pass them on to the human recruiter for a final evaluation.

When a CV is submitted, it will join the database of hundreds of others. The CV robots and algorithms will then scan and scour all the crucial information and requirements needed for the role. Some applicant tracking software will even use ratings; depending on how accurate your application is according to the job description, it will get a score out of 100.

Recruiters can also take advantage of other notable ATS features such as the ability to post on job boards and integrate email templates to send out to applicants.

How Does it Affect My Application?

According to TopResume, 75% of CVs are never seen by human eyes. Shocking and disappointing, indeed. Before your potential employer even sees your application, it will be sent to the trash if it doesn’t meet the specific criteria of an ATS.

Though you may feel a great sense of frustration reading this, know that if you successfully structure your CV, you’ll be able to beat the ATS and have your application read by your desired company.

So, How Can I Beat It?

The increasing use of applicant tracking systems by organisations requires candidates to optimise their CVs and make them ATS-friendly. To get past the bots and receive that call from your potential employer, there are a few great tips to follow.

From incorporating the right keywords to structuring and writing your CV in the most readable manner, here are seven tips on how to beat an application tracking system:

1. Use the Right Keywords

An ATS will compare the keywords in the job description to those used in your CV or résumé. If the system notices a match in your skills and experience sections, your CV will be given the go-ahead and sent on to a real person. For example, if the job description asks for a ‘software developer’ and your CV includes those exact keywords, kudos to you – your application will proceed.

Some ATS are so advanced that they’ll even detect synonyms. Lesser advanced ones, however, might not realise that ‘Microsoft Word’ is the same as ‘MS Word’, for instance.

Aim to use exact keywords for your skills and titles, but also be careful not to overcram it. You might fool the system, but you won’t fool the recruiters once they read your CV.

2. Select an Appropriate Font

As much as you’d like your CV to stand out in the crowd or look visually appealing using fancy typefaces, it’s recommended that you use the most basic of fonts. Most ATS can’t even recognise standard fonts such as Times New Roman or Cambria. These serif fonts have marks attached to their characters, making them unreadable by the software. Sans serif fonts (like Calibri), on the other hand, are the best fonts to help give your résumé the green light.

Another minor (yet oh so major) factor to consider is your use of bullet points. The circular-shaped bullets are more easily read by an ATS compared to diamond or arrow-shaped ones.

3. Use the Proper Format

Many CVs don't pass the ATS stage simply because of their format.

Avoid using PDF, HTML, Open Office and Apple Pages, as these will likely not be read by the system. ATSs are more compatible with Microsoft Word documents.

In fact, it’s generally advised that you create your CV in Word, convert it to a TXT file and then back to Word – this ensures that your file will be ultra-tidy and readable by the system.

4. Avoid Headers and Footers

Many candidates like to place their contact details, address and photo in the header and footer areas of their CV. While this may look visually appealing, unfortunately, it won’t be read by an ATS.

Avoid placing important information in the header and footer of your document and, instead, position it in the body of the CV. It’s best to leave the header and footer area empty so as not to confuse the system.

5. Structure it Correctly

Again, as sassy as you’d like your CV to look, if you suspect that an ATS will read it, make sure its content is aligned to the left. Right alignment may make you different, but it will also send you to the trash pile by the system.

It’s also a great idea to structure your CV or résumé into specific sections such as ‘Summary’, ‘Work Experience’ and ‘Education’. ATSs are made to detect and categorise these segments, so aim to include them when creating your CV (just don’t ramble too much, and consider the ideal length for a CV).

The software will read your résumé correctly, as long as it’s structured in the most appropriate way.

6. Scrap the Visuals

It can be tempting to make your résumé eye-catching, especially if you’re applying for an artistic role such as graphic designer or architect. In the case of applicant tracking systems, it’s best that visuals are left for your portfolio or a face-to-face interview.

Unfortunately, an ATS won’t be able to translate tables, graphs, images or icons – it’s only able to read text, so ensure to save the creativity for a later stage.

7. Watch out for Slang, Acronyms and Spelling

Think of the ATS as a dictionary. It only recognises formal, professional and recognisable words rather than slang and acronyms. The ATS might not detect words like ‘hustle’ or ‘pro’, neither will it associate ‘HU’ with ‘Harvard University’.

So, always ensure that you use proper terminology and buzzwords in your CV and that you spell words correctly and in full. Yes, an ATS will skip any words that are misspelt, but don’t make the common CV mistake of not running it by spellcheck before you apply for a job!

Applicant tracking systems continue to save recruiters and large organisations a tremendous amount of time and money. The future, therefore, looks bright for this technology, and it’s only about to become smarter than it already is (especially if artificial intelligence steps in!).

For this reason, it’s essential that you optimise your CV so that it is ATS-friendly. You just never know which system might be scanning your résumé next!

Has an ATS ever affected your job application? What are the ways you could have improved it? Let us know in the comments section below.