How Applicant Tracking Systems Work and How to Optimize Your Resume for ATS
Jobscan's ATS research study revealed that 98.8% of Fortune 500 companies use applicant tracking systems.
Today's online recruiting environment and the current economic crisis have led to a large increase in applications.
As a result, companies often use applicant tracking systems (or ATS) to collect, filter, and manage applications.
What does this mean for you?
When you're competing against a high volume of applicants, optimizing your resume will help ensure it makes it past the ATS and into the hands of a human!
You don't need to be an expert on exactly how an ATS works, but you should know how to optimize your resume for ATS scans.
To do so, you'll need to leverage resume design and keyword optimization principles effectively - especially when applying for jobs at large organizations.
If you don't have time to read this entire article, our ATS Optimization Checklist below highlights the key principles you need to know!
How can I optimize my resume to beat applicant tracking systems?
You can optimize your resume by following these steps:
- Read through the job description and make sure to naturally incorporate relevant keywords into your resume (solid resume writers can help with that too!)
- Stick to conventional formatting and use a simple layout (no two-column or graphic resumes!)
- Make sure to clearly label your sections (Education, Work Experience, Certifications, Relevant Skills, etc.)
- Use a chronological resume that lists your experience in order
- Avoid tables, charts, and any graphics
Does resume keyword optimization actually help?
When recruiters apply filters in an ATS, many of their search criteria are based on hard facts that you have no control over.
However, you can control the content of your resume and cover letter. You should optimize it accordingly to maximize your odds of "beating the system."
If a recruiter decides to filter for candidates with a master's degree in environmental engineering and you don't have one, you may be out of luck.
You can also get filtered out if you don't have the skills a recruiter is looking for listed on your resume, for example.
By strategically incorporating these skills into your document, you'll improve your chances of landing interviews.
Can I add additional relevant keywords in white text?
You may have come across "creative" ways of helping your resume beat ATS scans.
One of the most common approaches we hear about is adding additional keywords to your resume using white text.
Do not do this. Ever.
The idea behind this approach is to "stuff" the resume with additional keywords.
In theory, a recruiter won't be able to see them, but they can only benefit you from a keyword optimization perspective.
However, an ATS pulls ALL text from your resume, regardless of color.
When a recruiter sees your hidden white text in plain black and white, you'll end up coming across as sneaky and untrustworthy.
We wouldn't risk it.
Are there times when ATS optimization is not essential?
If you are applying to jobs through a recruiter, you likely don't need to worry.
If someone within the company has referred you, your application will probably be looked at more closely as well.
The same holds true if you are applying for roles within a small company.
However, for roles at large organizations, optimizing your resume for ATS is 100% worth paying attention to (especially at the entry and middle management levels).
How do I know if a company uses an applicant tracking system (ATS)?
We recommend assuming any application you submit online will be fed into an ATS, just to be on the safe side.
However, the best way to figure out whether a company uses an ATS is to look at the link in your browser when you are filling out an online application.
Usually, the name of the applicant tracking system will be embedded right into the URL!
For example, Goldman Sachs uses iCIMS:
ExxonMobil, on the other hand, uses SuccessFactors:
How do recruiters and hiring managers use applicant tracking systems (ATS)?
To get a better understanding of how your file moves through an ATS, let's look at the features of Taleo specifically.
To quickly narrow down the applicant pool in Taleo (read: eliminate candidates), recruiters use disqualification and pre-screening questions.
Disqualification and pre-screening questions prevent recruiters from wasting time on candidates who simply do not meet the minimum criteria required for a role.
When you're applying for jobs, you may come across a series of yes or no questions that you need to answer.
For example, you may be asked if you have permission to work in the United States or hold a bachelor's degree.
These types of questions are referred to as disqualification questions.
If you do not meet these hard requirements, you'll be automatically eliminated from the candidate pool.
However, these factors are out of your control, and there isn't much you can do to get around them.
Pre-screening questions, on the other hand, may ask you to rate your level of Excel skills, for example.
Instead of serving as an automatic disqualifier, pre-screening questions contribute to a score that recruiters can later use to rank applicants.
Recruiters can also perform candidate searches to filter down the applicant pool.
Recruiters can use Taleo and other applicant tracking systems to conduct keyword searches on applications.
Unfortunately, there is simply no way to predict what terms a recruiter will search for or what they will filter by with 100% accuracy.
Elements recruiters can filter by include your:
- Travel Preferences
- Preferred Location
- Education (Institution, Program, Education Level, Graduation Date, GPA, etc.)
- Work Experience (Current Job, Employer, Job Functions)
As Taleo explains in its training materials, the search criteria allow recruiters to narrow their candidate pool.
This step "typically results in fewer but more pertinent results [for recruiters].... [Recruiter] search results will then contain fewer candidates."*
At large organizations, application volumes can be significant:
"The search engine can retrieve any number of candidate files although, for performance and management reasons, only 300 will be displayed."*
What are the top applicant tracking systems?
According to Jobscan's research, the most common ATS systems used by Fortune 500 companies are:
- SAP / SuccessFactors
When you see these names appear when filling out online applications, you can safely assume the recruiter will be leveraging the ATS' capabilities in some capacity.
ATS optimization is important to be aware of, but don't overthink it!
As long as your resume and cover letter use a simple format and their content is tailored to each of the roles you apply for, you should be good to go.
We don't recommend using questionable tactics to "beat the system," as these can very easily backfire.
If you're considering working with us to optimize your resume, we encourage you to see what our clients have to say and learn more about what differentiates us.
About Resume Pilots
Resume Pilots is an award-winning executive resume writing firm and a proud member of the Professional Association of Resume Writers and Career Coaches. Our previous clients include CEOs and senior executives at the world's leading companies.
As a professional services firm, we take your reputation seriously. We are committed to delivering writing excellence and superior service while operating with integrity and discretion. Recruitment firms we partner with also trust us to consistently deliver quality documents for their clients.
Our writers have studied in the Ivy League and other top-tier universities and have strong writing backgrounds coupled with industry experience.
Here's how we can help you:
Resume, Cover Letter, and LinkedIn Writing Services: If you are looking for end-to-end support, hire one of our professional resume writers to rewrite your documents from the ground up.
Executive Resume Template Downloads: If you plan to prepare your own resume, consider using one of our classic, ATS-friendly resume templates for Microsoft Word.