Understanding How Companies Use Applicant Tracking Software to Review Your Resume

John Krautzel
Posted by in Career Advice

Applicant tracking systems help HR managers and recruiters quickly narrow a field of hundreds of candidates. This type of computer software saves staff time and money as corporations try to make the hiring process more efficient. Employees usually must get past an applicant tracking system before a person in human resources looks at a resume closer, and the first step to retooling your resume includes understanding how employers use this software.

Parsing Information

After you submit your resume, the applicant tracker parses the information. This means the program breaks it down into usable text. The ATS removes any formatting you made in your resume. The software then places the information into a database to organize the information. For example, the program knows what words to place under the headings "Education," "Skills" and "Work Experience." Once the applicant tracking system compiles the information, the data becomes more useful.

Matching Criteria

HR managers set the criteria for applicant tracking systems and then search that information for the best candidates. If a recruiter wants to find everyone who used "sales executive" as a keyword, all he has to do is input that word into the ATS search function. A tracking system then returns everyone who used that keyword a specified number of time. ATS programs can even determine how far into the past someone used a particular skill based on the dates included on a resume.

HR staffers could give some keywords a greater weight than others. For instance, a recruiter may want to see a rank of resumes based on a person's experience with Java programming. A recruiter can tweak the relevancy of this word to rank resumes in a certain order. Java could be a high priority in a resume or a low priority based on what the employer needs from a candidate. An employer then ranks other keywords based on relevancy to the job opening.

After viewing resumes that contain one particular keyword, the recruiter can go in and perform a search for another keyword, and so on and so forth. The ultimate result of an applicant tracking system is that it generates a list of prospective employees based on those that have the best mix of keywords as determined by the criteria input by human resources.

Rankings and Score

Once your resume gets a score from the applicant tracker, it ranks each candidate in a list. Those with higher scores move to the top of the list, and resumes with lower scores go toward the bottom. An applicant tracker can eliminate potential employees that fall below a certain score or a particular rank.

For example, Brown's Security receives 100 resumes for a managerial position. The HR department wants to narrow the field to 10 people. The HR manager can instruct the applicant tracker to give him the contact information of just the top 10 candidates so he can start searching for references, conducting phone interviews and scheduling in-person interviews. This function is handy when it comes to saving time and effort in the hiring process; however, ATS programs do more than just give human resources a way to eliminate potential employees for one position.

Other Uses for ATS Programs

Applicant trackers save your information for employers to use later. When a position opens in three months, an HR manager could dip into a pool of applicants already stored in the database. This could eliminate the need for posting a job and opening the position up to hundreds of people.

Special types of applicant tracking systems, called social recruiting software, may search social media profiles for relevant keywords. These programs add another way for employers to rank prospective hires. Therefore, future employees should add keywords to social media profiles and posts. Applicant trackers have become much more sophisticated since they first hit the market, so job applicants should try to tailor a resume to be read by both a computer and by humans.

More and more companies turn towards ATS programs as prices come down. As this technology improves, everybody wins when applying for jobs becomes easier, faster and more efficient.


Photo  Courtesy of Newton at Flickr.com


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  • Martha Bern
    Martha Bern

    Great article. Thanks

  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    @Randall sometimes that is true; that knowing someone inside makes it easier to get your foot in the door. But that's not always the case. When you apply for a position, you are selling yourself. You are the commodity and you are selling your experience and skills. That's how you get interviews. In the past I would end my cover letters with "thank you for time and attention. I will contact you early next week to set up an interview." Not sure if it will work today but it's worth a shot. I am sure someone will respond here and say that it doesn't work anymore but I would have to wonder if they even tried it. Also, networking is a great tool to get your foot in the door - because you know someone who works there or someone who knows someone who works there. Best of luck.

  • Randall Spraul
    Randall Spraul

    The only way to get a interview is if you know someone

  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    Thanks for the comments and thanks @William for your first hand account. All of us have been there! @Hema you don't need to remove the bullets from your resume. Of course formatting should be kept to a minimum - no fancy stuff here. You want your resume to get through ATS and into the hands of a human. Bullet points are nice and make it easier for the hiring manager to view.

  • William Browning
    William Browning

    I have found even small businesses or public organizations have applicant trackers. I tried to get a job at a local library system, with around 100 employees, two years ago and I found out my application didn't get past the ATS. I certainly discovered the hard way to tailor my resume to the job description no matter what!

  • Hema Zahid
    Hema Zahid

    If the ATS removes all formatting from a resume, should I keep formatting at a minimum? In my case, it’s difficult to present all the information I want to without bullet points. Without the bullets, I’m worried that my resume will appear to be a jumble of phrases. Should I rewrite my resume and remove the bullets before the ATS does?

  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    @Jay you should always try to tailor both the resume and the cover letter specifically for the position. Make sure that you use keywords from the posting in your resume and cover letter also so that you can get through the ATS. @Lydia in today's world it seems almost unreal to think of a job seeker trying to find a job when they don't have a social media presence. I would think that yes they would be at a disadvantage since most companies will do at least a cursory search to find out more about you.

  • Lydia K.
    Lydia K.

    It seems that ATS programs aren't just parsing resumes, they also scanning for and parsing social media profiles too. I wonder, does this mean that social media profiles are basically essential in today's job market? Are people who choose not to have a social media presence at a disadvantage? It seems like there wouldn't be much point of setting up a social media account just to start a job search since the ATS might ding you if the account is new. I'd be interested to see what others think about this.

  • Jay Bowyer
    Jay Bowyer

    Great tips about getting past applicant tracking software here. I'm sure many jobseekers out there don't even know they have this type of software to contend with! I agree that some words are given much more weight than others: for this reason, perhaps it's best to tailor resumes and cover letters specifically to the jobs we're applying to?

  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    Thanks for the comments. @Erin so very true that trying to stuff your resume and cover letter with keywords is soulless. Be yourself while still trying to pull some of the keywords from the posting into your resume and cover letter. @Erica you shouldn't have to worry about keywords in your social media profiles. The keywords come into play with your resume and cover letter not with your Facebook profile.

  • Erin Jean
    Erin Jean

    This process definitely makes things more difficult, and in my opinion, as much so for the employer as employee. This is soulless. A great deal of what makes a person the best fit for a position is who they are, not just their vital details. This loses that spark of humanity.

  • Erica  T.
    Erica T.

    How often should I update my social media profiles to include relevant keywords to attract companies using ATS programs? Currently, I update these profiles after completing a project or landing a new client (typically every four to six months). In all honesty, I don't worry too much about keywords - but I guess I should pay more attention.

  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    Thanks for the comments. @Abbey I am sure that well qualified applicants have been thrown out due to issues between their resume and ATS but they are probably the exception. Most companies would not take the time or have the time to review every resume that was rejected from the system. If they are going to do that, why use the system? @Sylvia yes the ATS is necessary in larger companies. It's hard to imagine but a company will receive thousands of applications for one position. If a human had to go through all of those applications, no one would ever be hired. Although there are flaws in the ATS, it's probably the best way to get through the multitude of applications so that a hiring manager can start contacting viable candidates.

  • Sylvia L.
    Sylvia L.

    I agree with the insight others have provided. While I understand the desire for employers to reduce time spent weeding through resumes of unqualified applicants, this just strikes me as having the potential to eliminate some fantastic candidates unnecessarily. I wonder what harm it does if, say, a person identifies as an educator rather than teacher, or a secretary instead of a receptionist. Are companies truly receiving so many resumes that this system is that necessary?

  • Abbey Boyd
    Abbey Boyd

    I understand the general idea of ATS, but I have to imagine it's not without its flaws. I wonder how many times a very well-qualified candidate has been thrown out because of something simple within the ATS. Does anyone have any experience in actually using the ATS? If so, do you rely solely on the system to sort through resumes, or do you manually look through any of them yourself just to make sure the system didn't miss anything?

  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    Thanks @Erin for your comment. The human part comes in after the resume and cover letter have made it through the Gatekeeper. It is true that they could lose a great candidate only because the keywords were not included or were not enough to get him through. But in all reality, as @Kellen said, the software truly does help the hiring manager out a lot. They don't have time to weed through the thousands of applications that came through on one job posting. It would take them weeks to get through them as, all the while, more are coming in. ATS has made it a bit harder for a job seeker and a bit easier for a hiring manager.

  • Erin H.
    Erin H.

    I like that technology makes the hiring process more streamlined, but I have to wonder if this software isn't taking the "human" connection out of human resources? I think that anyone can write good keyword rich copy, but I don't think a software program is a good substitute for good old-fashioned human intuition.

  • Kellen P.
    Kellen P.

    I agree that this software has the potential to make the whole hiring process much easier for everyone involved. Including the correct keywords can be tricky, though. The hiring manager should be very clear when crafting job descriptions so applicants know what to include on their resumes. It would be a shame to not be considered for a job because a computer determined that your keywords didn't match up. But for hiring managers, this software makes digging through a stack of resumes much easier.

  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    @Shannon in response - yes and yes. Yes there are disadvantages to using a software program to vet out the best resumes. As with any software program, it's only as good as the programming. Yes, if you use nothing but keywords in your submission, it's going raise a flag and probably be removed. It can be discouraging @Katharine but ATS is here to stay for the foreseeable future. We just have to learn to adapt to it. Flaws are a possibility in any software program and the ATS is not an exception.

  • Katharine M.
    Katharine M.

    I understand why companies use this software, but I have to disagree that it makes applying for jobs "easier." It adds the step of having to edit your resume repeatedly to make sure you used the "right" words (e.g., you don't want to say "lawyer" if the job description says "attorney," even though they're the same thing.) It's a little discouraging that a machine is the bridgekeeper before your resume gets in front of a real person who can look at it organically.

  • Shannon Philpott
    Shannon Philpott

    While I agree that applicant tracking systems are beneficial for employers to streamline the hiring process, I'm curious if there are any disadvantages to applicants. For example, can the system inaccurately categorize candidates or flag the submission as spam if too many keywords are used? Flaws in the system could also overlook qualified candidates.

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