The Good, The Bad, And The Scary Truth About Applicant Tracking Systems

Gone are the days of scanning the Sunday paper to find your next job. Advancements in technology have allowed companies to post job openings online, making them available to the masses.  In turn, it has opened the door for applicants to submit resumes on a colossal scale. Just as an example, Starbucks reported receiving 7.6 million applications for 65,000 corporate jobs in a single year. That is a lot of barista hopefuls.

Candidates are flooding in through online submissions, creating an impossible task for HR departments to determine those who meet basic job requirements, let alone pare down to a list of finalists. As a result, Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) are on the rise.

According to the Wall Street Journal, upwards of 90% of large companies use ATS in recruiting and hiring. Mid-size companies have also gotten on board with resume screening software, with over 50% of these companies using ATS.

While these systems carry benefits and help to cut costs, there are also quite a few features of ATS that can work against the average job seeker. Tracking systems can make applying online as frightening as entering a haunted mansion.

What are Application Tracking Systems and How Do They Work?

Applicant Tracking Systems fulfill two purposes:
1. to efficiently manage applications for a given job posting, and;
2. to screen out candidates who lack the required skills for the job.

These electronic filters parse information from submitted resumes and place it into specific fields within a database.  The system then analyzes the extracted information for criteria relevant to the position being filled (ex. number of years of experience). Finally, a score is assigned to each resume, ranking the candidates against one another.

This rating system assists recruiters and hiring managers in finding the “best fit”. The higher the resume ranking, the more likely the application will end up being reviewed by a human reader.

The Good – The Benefits of Applicant Tracking Systems

Recruitment and hiring is actually a very expensive process, with HR experts calculating that the average hiring process costs about $3500. ATS can cut that number significantly by reducing the amount of time spent on hiring, improving communications, and providing search and referral systems that focus on the ideal candidate.

While creating a more manageable pile of applicants, ATS can also provide hiring managers with metrics and data that can improve the hiring process and streamline compliance reporting.

Moreover, U.S. employment law prevents employers from discriminating in hiring based on age, gender, and ethnicity. Many systems strip names, labeling candidates by number or “ghost” names.  This is good news for you as the job seeker because placing everyone in a dark room can level the playing field against unconscious bias.


Another advantage for jobseekers applying through an ATS is that some systems automatically notify candidates when position requirements are not met. Receiving a response to a manual resume submission is rare due to the volume of applications many employers receive — so notification by the ATS that the application has been rejected allows the candidate to pursue other opportunities for consideration (i.e. using networking contacts), to tweak the resume, or to simply move on.

Unfortunately, these systems bring their fair share of tricks to the table as well.

The Bad – The Challenges of Applicant Tracking Systems

Statistics show that Applicant Tracking Systems eliminate 75% of candidates. Translated, one in four resumes submitted are never seen by the human eye. Many highly-qualified candidates are rejected by ATS because they fail to write their resume for the resume screening software.

It is a robot, after all. Cobbled together like Frankenstein, Applicant Tracking Systems are only as good as the data elements from which they are built. These systems lack awareness and intuition and can only work from information provided by the system administrator. 

Considering few resumes make it past the ATS ghosts and goblins and safely to the other side, the odds are in your favor. As long as you adopt resume writing tactics that help you move past the screening process, your document has a solid chance of making it into the hands of real people.

Resumes that Enter ATS Live or Die by Key Words

There is lingo in every profession. Whether it’s software, skills, certifications, licenses, responsibilities, or even procedures, there are words that matter in your profession. These key words are the primary filters Applicant Tracking Systems use to select candidates. Simply put, if your resume does not contain the right key words, it will be rejected.

Keywords can be nouns, adjectives, or short phrases — and describe unique skills, abilities, knowledge, training, and/or experience. There are several great sources for identifying key words associated with your target position:

  • Review 2-3 job postings for the type of position you are seeking. Words repeated across distinct postings are likely key.
  • Services like Wordle and TagCrowd can help determine the right key words. Simply copy and paste your target job description into the generators and the software will tell you which keywords are important to include in your resume.
  • Still in the dark? Use the company website for keyword guidance. Scanning the About Us section or reviewing corporate culture details can offer some insight into the type of employee and or skills the company values most.

INSIDER TIP: Whether entering into an ATS or not, proper use of key words in your resume – and even LinkedIn profile – can be the deciding factor on landing that job. 

Robots require simple, unsophisticated formatting

Certain style applications can disguise your resume content, making important information unreadable by an ATS. Below is a list of formatting guidelines to help your resume avoid the graveyard:

  • When listing work experience, list the company name first followed by dates. Dates appearing to the left of the company will not register.
  • Avoid special characters, strange symbols, and accent marks as they can be misinterpreted by an ATS. Stick to standard “typewriter” keyboard characters.
  • Omit any graphics or logos. These embedded images will cause the system to go bump in the night.
  • Always use a standard, sans-serif font. Script fonts will be rejected by some screening software.
  • Include standard section headers to make it easy for the ATS to categorize information.
  • Place your name on the first line of the document – nothing else. List credentials (MBA, CPA, etc.) on a separate line.
  • If you are working towards a degree or certification that is a requirement for the position, include it on the resume using a clarifying phrase such as “Pursuing (name of credential)” or “Degree anticipated (date).”
  • Use an intentional file name, including your name and a keyword in the file name (ex. “JohnJonesSalesManager.doc”) instead of the generic “Resume.doc.”
  • Do not submit multiple resumes to the same company. Applicant tracking systems have a memory and all previous submissions remain in the system. When applying to multiple, related positions, be sure the resume information is consistent.

While writing your resume to make it past the robots, it’s important to remember that the hope is that it gets read by a real flesh and blood person. For that person, you will first need to have crafted a resume that is entirely readable and coherent, that is free of errors. This harsh reality leads us to the scary truth about ATS …

The Scary Truth

There is no foolproof way to predict if a given company has an Applicant Tracking System, how it is administered, or which filters have been applied. Rather than let this scare you away from applying to the job you want, use it as motivation to take on a more comprehensive view of your search. Developing a focused career brand and building your networking are critical elements of a successful job search. Instead of devoting all of your time cracking the ATS code, you would be better served by making real-world, in-person connections and crafting a 100% complete LinkedIn profile to strengthen those virtual relationships.

If the idea of facing your job search alone arouses terror <insert bloodcurdling scream>, keep calm and call Professional Courage today at 216-403-5243.