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You found a BEAUTIFUL template. You’ve input all your experience, and sent out your brand new resume to a myriad of employers with openings. And then… crickets. Zip. Zero. Nada by way of call backs or response of any kind. What happened?? My guess is you got screened out. By a computer. How does THAT make you feel? Let’s avoid this situation in the future, shall we? Here’s what you need to know about Applicant Tracking Systems…

Hearing crickets in your job search? You could be getting weeded out by a computer! Here's what you need to know about Applicant Tracking Systems.What I need to know about a WHAT?

Applicant Tracking Systems, aka “ATS.” Your saving grace, if you’re a hiring manager. Your arch nemesis, if you’re a job seeker. It’s the computer system that scans every resume in the employer’s VERY large inbox, looking for key words, skills, and experience that meets their minimum requirements for hiring for a certain position. As I said, it’s a really handy tool when you have 500+ resumes to evaluate and narrow down in a hurry.

However, it’s not so nice for you as a job candidate. If you aren’t careful, you could be positively PERFECT for this job and still get weeded out. How is that even possible? Oh, it’s possible. If the way you phrase your experience doesn’t hit on the same wording the employer uses, if your skill sets don’t reflect the exact skills they want, or if your resume is formatted in a way the computer can’t read, the system will simply rank you lowly and move on to the next candidate. If you rank lowly enough and there are other candidates who rank higher, you’re out. Your application is never even seen by human eyes!

The flip-side of this ATS coin is that if you KNOW what the system is looking for, you can use it to your advantage and easily rise to the TOP of the pile instead of being dumped in the trash. So, here’s what you need to know about ATS to beat the system! (Think of it like a computer or video game, if you like. ?)

What the ATS is looking for…

Key words & skills

We covered this piece of the resume puzzle in my post on How to Use Job Postings to Get Your Resume Noticed, so I won’t go into too much detail here. Bottom line: find the job responsibilities, skills, technology requirements, and personal characteristics that are repeated or seem to be thematic throughout the job posting, then use THOSE EXACT WORDS in YOUR descriptions of your work history, experiences, and core competencies.

And I don’t mean use the word once and be done. If the job posting is for a management position and mentions “management experience” more than once, be sure YOU use that phrase and its cousins “manager,” “managed,” and “managing” as often as fits your experience.

Hearing crickets in your job search? You could be getting weeded out by a computer! Here's what you need to know about Applicant Tracking Systems.What the ATS is NOT looking for…

Charts, graphs, & tables

ATS systems are great at sorting through text, but they don’t have any idea what to do with information “hidden” in fancy formats like charts, graphs, or tables. All the computer sees is a picture, which it doesn’t recognize as readable text, so it skips it.

While it is HIGHLY recommended to have a Core Competencies or Skills Summary section, don’t use a Word “table” to format it. Bullets and columns are great, and they will accomplish the same keep-it-organized function as a chart without confusing the system.

Another big trend in modern resume templates is to use graphs to show how adept someone is at a certain skill. Don’t do it. Just don’t. Please. Not only is a chart completely subjective, it also takes up an exorbitant amount of prime resume real estate. It doesn’t give the employer any substantive information about you, and an ATS system can’t read it anyway.

(The possible exception to this rule would be if you are in a graphic design field and know for a FACT your target employer does not use ATS to screen their applicants. In every other situation, avoid charts, graphs, and tables at all costs.)

Headers/Footers

Just like charts, graphs, and tables, ATS are not designed to scan “extra” spaces like headers and footers for usable information. Some people like to use the header space for their name and contact information. However, if the computer doesn’t “see” your name or contact information in the “right” place (where it knows resume contact information SHOULD be), you won’t be properly stored in their system, the employer won’t know how to contact you, and your application could be lost in limbo, even if everything else made you a perfect candidate.

Keep your name and contact information at the top of resume — just not in a header. If your resume spills on to two pages, feel free to use the page 1 footer to note “continued…” With such a note, the employer knows to look for a second page, should the printed pages become separated. (I’ve never dropped a huge pile of important paperwork and had to spend hours sorting it all out, have you? *cough, cough*)

Along with using the footer to note a page continuation, you CAN use the header on page 2 of your resume to include a copy of your name and contact information. The computer has already noted this information on page 1, so it doesn’t matter that it won’t be able to read it on page 2. This addition is simply a courtesy for the human eyes that finally see your resume after it passes ATS.

Hearing crickets in your job search? You could be getting weeded out by a computer! Here's what you need to know about Applicant Tracking Systems.ATS doesn’t sound like any fun at all…

No, for job seekers, it’s really not. But, Applicant Tracking systems are here to stay, so we’d better figure out how to deal with it and use it to our advantage. That said, if you know someone who works at the company you’re applying to, give her your resume and ask her to get it into the right hands. Even if something goes wrong with the ATS processing of your application, your resume still has a shot to pass the human inspection. Nothing wrong with having a supplemental plan in place!

If you live locally to a company you’re targeting, stop by the office to drop off your application in person. (Unless the job posting specifically asks candidates NOT to do so.) Make friends with the secretaries and receptionists — you’ll need them on your side when you land the job! — and ask them to direct you to the right person to submit your application. Sometimes you won’t get to actually meet anyone — office hours are busy, we get that — but other times you’ll get to meet the entire hiring team!

Just a little intentionality and a personal touch can make a world of difference.

So, there’s what you need to know about Applicant Tracking Systems.

To sum it all up, remember the following:

  • Use lots of key words and skills from the job posting.
  • Skip using charts, graphs, and tables.
  • Only use headers and footers for non-essential-for-a-computer, but helpful-for-a-human information.
  • When possible, bypass the ATS entirely & give your resume directly to a human! 

As always, if you need help with your resume or other job search documents, I’m just an email away! Check out my resume-writing page here on the website, my Facebook page, or leave me a comment below. I’m happy to help! ?


One last reminder about the Personality MEGA Set Giveaway — Be sure to get all your entries in by 11:59pm on Thursday, March 30th, 2017! I’ll be announcing the winner in my last Improving Relationships with the Personalities series post on Friday morning. Don’t miss your chance to win!

Click to enter ScatteredWoman's first ever giveaway: an entire set of resources about The Personalities to improve your relationships!

Click here to enter!

As a former University Resident Director, Career Counselor, Certified Personality Trainer, and high school Spanish teacher, Laura has quite the “scattered” background — with one underlying theme: education! She writes to teach and inspire women on topics related to faith, family, and lifework. She is also a resume writer, specializing in resumes for moms, career changers, and new graduates.

2 thoughts on “What You Need to Know About Applicant Tracking Systems

    • Much more so now than it used to be! It can be really frustrating to put in application after application and still get nowhere. We need to get the word out! 🙂

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