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ATS Keyword Optimization Tips That Work [Research Based]

Matt Glodz
ATS Keyword Optimization Tips That Work [Research Based]

How Applicant Tracking Systems Work and How to Optimize Your Resume for ATS

Applying to jobs online is easy, but due to high application volumes, getting noticed can be hard.

Today's online recruiting environment has led to the rise of applicant tracking systems (ATS), which companies use to collect, sort through, and manage the hundreds of applications they receive.

Jobscan's 2019 Fortune 500 ATS research study revealed that 98.8% of Fortune 500 companies use applicant tracking systems.

As a result, resume keyword optimization is clearly key when you're applying for jobs at large organizations.

When competing against a high volume of applicants, optimizing your resume can help ensure it actually makes it past the ATS and into the hands of a human!

ATS Optimization Checklist

How do I know if a company uses an applicant tracking system (ATS)?

The best way to identify 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:


That said, we recommend assuming any application you submit online will be fed into an ATS, just to be on the safe side.

What are the top applicant tracking systems?

According to Jobscan's research, the most common ATS systems used by Fortune 500 companies are:

  • Workday
  • Taleo

  • SAP / SuccessFactors

  • Brassring

  • iCIMS

  • ADP

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 take a look at the features of Taleo specifically.

In Taleo, recruiters can use disqualification questions and pre-screening questions to eliminate candidates.

Disqualification and pre-screening questions help recruiters ensure they are not wasting time on candidates who simply do not meet the minimum criteria set forth.

• Disqualification questions

When you're applying to jobs, you may encounter questions asking whether you have permission to work in the United States, for example.

If you do not meet these hard requirements, you may be automatically eliminated from the candidate pool (but these factors are often out of your control).

• Pre-screening questions

Pre-screening questions may ask you to rate your level of Excel skills or to answer a series of yes or no questions (such as whether you are able to work on weekends, etc.).

These pre-screening questions contribute to a score that recruiters can 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 and filter search results.

There is simply no way to predict what terms a recruiter will search for or what they will filter by with 100% accuracy.

Recruiters can search anything provided in your online application including the resume and cover letter you submit.

Elements recruiters can filter by include your:

  • Travel Preferences
  • Preferred Location
  • Availability
  • Education (Institution, Program, Education Level, Graduation Date, GPA, etc.)
  • Work Experience (Current Job, Employer, Job Functions)
  • Questionnaires
  • Certifications

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 does this mean for me?

When it comes to your application, much of the search criteria are based on hard facts that you have no control over.

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.

However, you do have control over your resume and cover letter and should take steps to make sure that they are optimized to maximize your odds of "beating the system."

Simply put, you may get filtered out if you don't have the education, skills, or certifications a recruiter is looking for listed on your resume.

How can I optimize my resume to beat applicant tracking systems?

You can optimize your resume by following these steps:

  • 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

Are there times when ATS optimization is not essential?


If you are applying to jobs through a recruiter who is filtering applications on the company's behalf, 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 - especially at the entry and middle management levels - optimizing your resume for ATS is 100% worth paying attention to.

The Resume Pilots team can optimize your resume to help pass ATS scans.

Scroll down to see our services or email us at with any questions!

Wondering how your resume stacks up? Submit it here! We'll provide you with feedback and let you know how we can help if needed.


Oracle Recruiting Cloud - Using Hiring

Oracle - Searching for Candidates*



About the AuthorMatt Glodz

Matt Glodz is the Founder and Managing Partner of Resume Pilots and a Certified Professional Resume Writer.

After studying business communication at Cornell University, Matt worked within Fortune 500 companies, where he observed what drove the decision making of recruiters and hiring managers first-hand, noting that qualified candidates were frequently denied interview opportunities due to poorly written documents.

At Resume Pilots, Matt combines his solid business and writing background - which includes prior work for a Chicago Tribune publication - to craft resumes that give his clients the best chance of landing interviews. He currently works with applicants ranging from CEOs to recent graduates and has been writing resumes for over eight years.

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