What you need to know about applicant tracking systems

By Andrew Seaman

You may have come across the term “applicant tracking system” at some point during your job search. These systems are often portrayed as the mindless robots that sort your resumes and ultimately decide whether or not you’ll get an interview or a job. The reality is much less terrifying than that description, however.

In fact, as a job seeker, you’ve likely used the front end of one of these systems at some point.  For example, an ATS (as they’re known) was probably involved if you ever logged into a website, uploaded your resume/CV and cover letter, and then had to answer additional screening questions.

My understanding of ATSs has evolved so much over the years thanks to the help of recruiters and exploring these systems on my own. So, while we’ve talked about ATSs in the past, I want to give you information from someone who has worked with these systems for years. The benefit of that is that you’ll not only find out how they work but how they’re used.

Amy Miller, who has been a recruiter for more than two decades, helped educate me about ATSs and how they’re used. She offered to address some questions for all of you in this newsletter. You can follow her posts on LinkedIn by clicking here. You can also check out her popular YouTube channel by clicking here.

What are applicant tracking systems?

“An ATS is a system that tracks applicants,” Miller told me. “The best way to visualize an ATS is that it’s a big filing cabinet. There are different categories people can be in, but they all happen in folders in the filing cabinet.”

You may be in a folder of applicants waiting to be reviewed, for example. Or, you may be in a folder of reviewed applicants who have been rejected. There are many possibilities.

ATSs also have a number of other functions. The key thing to know, according to Miller, is that all functions are managed by people using the system — most likely recruiters. “There is no rogue system out there doing things without human intervention.”

So, ATSs don’t enable recruiters to get out of doing work. Instead, they’re more-or-less ways to help them be more efficient. If there are 500 applications for a specific position, you can understand why a recruiter would want the help of a program to sort those people into different groups and track their progress through the hiring process.

In fact, Miller said that’s why some recruiters will tell job seekers to submit their applications online. It’s not to give them a brush-off, it’s to get them into the system to get the process rolling.

“All of that cool stuff that you want to happen, happens in the ATS,” she said. “Interviews are requested in the ATS, notes about you are documented in the ATS, and an offer is created in the ATS.”

What about keywords and formatting?

One of the main concerns about ATSs among job seekers is that they need to include keywords from the specific job ad in hopes of getting to a human on the other side of the program. Also, they have to be very careful with formatting or the ATS may reject the application.

Miller told me there are some truths to those concerns, but people’s fears about ATSs are generally overblown.

Keywords from a job description are important, but Miller said just throwing them on your resume will not get you any further along in the process. The keywords need to be included on the resume in context with your experience. Using them in context will signal to recruiters that you understand the complexities of the role. Otherwise, they will likely know that you’re just including keywords in some attempt to game the system. “We never hear them in context,” she said. “That’s the secret sauce.”

As for formatting, Miller said ATSs try to parse the information from resumes into relevant fields in the system. The ATS will try to take what you have listed under your education section and put it in its relevant field, for example. “When you have graphics, columns and things like that, it makes it difficult for the ATS to read it.”

If you’ve ever uploaded your resume when applying for a job online only to have to retype the information into separate spaces, Miller said it may be due to the ATS being unable to parse the information into the correct fields.

Don’t write for a robot. Write for a human

ATSs are computer programs, but Miller said the key thing to keep in mind is that you should always be thinking about the human using the system.

Thinking about the human recruiters is key for two reasons. First, they’re ultimately the person responsible for passing along your information to hiring managers. Also, many — if not most — recruiters still manually look at all of the resumes that come in for the various positions.

Even at very large companies, Miller said all resumes may get scanned by humans. At Google, for example, she said there is an entire team of recruiters who look at resumes that are submitted and sort them into the appropriate groups for available positions.

Focus on what you can control

Instead of worrying too much about ATSs, Miller said it’s best to focus on what you can control. She said that includes the companies you’re applying to, the information you’re putting in front of recruiters and hiring managers, and working with the recruiter for a specific position.

“The best possible resource for you to navigate any company is a recruiter at that company.”

Miller said job seekers should also still follow best practices for finding work, such as networking and effectively telling your story on your resume. But ATSs are not things to be overly concerned about.

“The thing to remember is the ATS is just a tool,” she said. “It’s merely a digital filing cabinet. It’s no more powerful than your email or any app you’re using daily.”

Also, it’s always important to note that hiring processes differ from employer to employer. Some companies — especially small businesses — may not use ATSs. Or, they may use them in a unique way. I always tell job seekers that the best way to interact with an ATS is to read the instructions when applying for jobs online. In those cases, you’re often submitting your application directly into the ATS. Taking the time to read all of the instructions should answer most of your questions, including the file format for your resumes and any important formatting concerns.

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