Every other Tuesday, you’ll get actionable tips to land your dream job. Subscribe

How to Beat the Applicant Tracking System (ATS): A Checklist

How resumes are reviewed and evaluated is evolving fast. To get the interview, you must adapt to the new reality of candidate screening and beat the applicant tracking systems. Here's a checklist that will help you do exactly that.
How to Beat the Applicant Tracking System (ATS): A Checklist

These software applications are called many things – applicant tracking systems (ATS), resume screening software, resume robots, soulless automated resume rejecters…

But whatever you prefer to call them, you’ll need to speak their “language” fluently. This way, your resume will stand out enough to eventually meet human eyes.

If you think the secret to beating the ATS bots lies in adding keywords, you’re wrong. Many candidates in the past went overboard with the resume keyword-stuffing and created resumes that were pure nonsense. Considering that human eyes will eventually view the resume (if you’re lucky), this is a bad idea and one that shouldn’t be considered in an effort to outplay the system.

It’s better to learn how to write resumes with both resume robots and human readers in mind. After all, your resume needs to move past both in order for you to land that all-important big interview.

Before getting into practical tips on how to beat the applicant tracking system, let’s see what they are and how they work.

What Is an ATS?

Applicant tracking systems (ATS) are software employers and recruiters use to track and shortlist candidates through the hiring process. They’re also used to scan the resumes and cover letters candidates submit and pick those that match the job description best.

Companies advertising open positions often have hundreds, if not thousands, of applications to sift through in order to find a few “cream of the crop” candidates to interview for the job. Jobs continue to attract far more applicants than busy hiring departments have the time to interview.

It’s often too much for any one person — or even a small group of HR staff members — to deal with on their own. That’s how these resume robot programs came into existence –  as an aid to overwhelmed hiring managers.

How Common Are Applicant Tracking Systems?

The Wall Street Journal reports that resume screening software use is widespread among larger companies to the tune of the “high 90 percent range.” This means that finding a Fortune 500 company that doesn’t employ application tracking systems would be exceptionally rare today.

Applicant tracking systems reject 75 percent of candidates. Many highly-qualified candidates are rejected by ATS because they fail to write their resumes for the resume screening software.

While this practice of electronically screening resumes saves time for busy HR executives, it also means that many highly qualified candidates are slipping through the cracks because they didn’t use a specific language or, in some cases, formatting on their resumes. Don’t let this happen to you!

For job seekers in today’s era, it’s imperative to learn how to beat the applicant tracking system and move past the algorithms.

Bottom line: Applicants must learn how to optimize resumes to make it through the screening process so you can ultimately get the job they seek.

How Do Applicant Tracking Systems Work?

Before you can figure out how to craft a resume that wows the robot, it’s helpful to first learn what the robot is looking for. The system is actually quite simple, despite all the complexities involved.

First, the software removes all formatting from the resume and scans for specific recognized keywords and key phrases.

Next, it sorts the content of your resume into individual categories:

  • Education
  • Contact Information
  • Skills
  • Work Experience

Then, the employer’s list of desired skills and keywords are matched against the results of the resume to determine your potential value to the organization.

Resumes with the highest scores relevant to the employer’s specified keywords and phrases combined with your years of experience will be moved up for further review.

In the end, the software simply scores the resume in order to determine which candidates are most qualified to move up the ladder for an actual human within the organization to review.

How to Beat the Applicant Tracking System: Checklist

While the concept of getting past applicant tracking software sounds simple on paper, it can be a challenge to those who haven’t mastered the art of writing resumes with these applicant tracking systems in mind.

Implement the following practical checklist of tips to keep your resume out of the infamous online resume black hole.

  1. Nix the headers in your resume. According to Time, headers and footers jam the algorithms.
  2. Mirror wording from the actual job description in your resume. Yes, this means that you’ll need a custom resume for every job. Of course, you do not want a word-for-word match of the job description. If a nurse job description calls for someone with triage experience or primary care experience, for example, be sure that your resume contains those keywords. Similarly, if the job description asks for specific software experience, include your experience with that software.
  3. Nail your keywords. There is lingo in every profession. Whether it’s software, skills, certifications, licenses, responsibilities, or frameworks, there are words that matter in your profession that need to be included in your resume. Here are a few tips for getting the right combination of keywords and phrases into your resume.– Acronyms: Use acronyms and spelled out the form of titles, professional organizations, certifications, and other industry lingo, etc. If you have experience in electronic medical records, include the acronym EMR as well, for example. You have no idea which keyword the robots are scanning for. Using both allows you to be covered either way.– Repetition: Repeat important keywords related to your skills two or three times in the resume, or more depending on the length of your resume. Do not stuff keywords in your resume, however. Not only are the new scanners savvy to this tactic, but it’s a real turn-off to the people who actually read resumes if your resume does get past the scanner process.– Discuss keywords with an insider: Sometimes, going straight to the source helps. Look for an employer or HR manager in your field and ask them what skills or levels of experience they’re looking for in their candidates.– Spread your keywords: Give job-related keywords depth within your resume. You don’t want them listed in one single section of your resume if possible. Sprinkle them throughout your resume, instead.– Dive deeper: For instance, when discussing skills you have, include the basic skills, but don’t forget to dive deeper to mention specific and advanced skills. Some programs are looking for both the basic and advanced skills so include them both. Go in-depth and discuss all the relevant skills.
  4. Use bullets rather than paragraphs to describe your work. Not only are bulleted lists easier for human eyes to read, but they are also easier for screeners to navigate than long paragraphs describing work history and responsibilities.
  5. Take advantage of cloud services when writing your resume. IT World suggests you use services like Wordle and TagCrowd to help you determine the right keywords to use in your resume. These services are simple to use: Just copy and paste the job description into the generators and the software will tell you which keywords are important to include in your resume.
  6. Avoid creative wording and descriptions. Screening robots are like Joe Friday. They only want the facts. More importantly, they only want specific facts, in this case, keywords and key phrases, and they aren’t interested in alternative phrasing.
  7. Use the company website for keyword guidance. Employer websites offer a lot of information on company culture and what they value in their employees. Even lifestyle information can be important to include on your resume.For instance, the Wall Street Journal suggests that if a firm has an obvious interest in the environment, it’s a good idea to include volunteer work you’ve done for the environment or organizational memberships you have that promote the environment as these keywords may have relevance in the screening process.
  8. Include your address. Many programs will kick your resume to the curb without a postal address. Locations may even be included as keywords in the screening process. Just make sure you don’t only include it in the header or footer, which most algorithms ignore completely.
  9. Replace the career objective section with a bulleted qualifications summary. It’s an easy way to work relevant keywords into the resume without appearing to be using “stuffing” tactics and it eliminates a section that is superfluous and unnecessary.
  10. Don’t use graphics, logos, or tables in your resume. Essentially, resumes embedded with fancy graphics, images, tables, and logos confound and choke the applicant tracking systems. Confounded robots reject resumes. Aside from the fact that graphics and logos on resumes aren’t entirely professional (unless perhaps you’re a graphics designer or similar), the likelihood of rejection should be sufficient deterrent to avoid them.
  11. Choose your font wisely. Use sans-serif fonts — like Verdana or Tahoma — instead of serif fonts like Times New Roman or Cambria that some screening software will actually reject. Avoid script fonts completely. Also, pay attention to font size and avoid using anything smaller than 11 point font.
  12. Use social media to your advantage. Go to the company’s LinkedIn page and check out their employees. Look at the descriptions of their jobs as well as the company’s description. If you have similar skills and qualifications, list them on your resume.
  13. Submit resumes in text format rather than PDFs or MS Word. Word causes all manner of parsing errors and PDFs have caused problems in the past with application tracking systems. It’s wiser to stick with text, which has no known parsing problems with screening software.
  14. Don’t place dates before work experience on your resume. While this may look better, it confounds the robots. Instead, begin with the name of the employer. Move on to your professional title and the date range. Don’t forget to include all the titles you held at your employer and the dates you held the titles.
  15. Dare go long on your resume. Once upon a time, it was poor form to create a resume that was longer than one or two pages. The new normal is to create longer resumes that allow you to include the keywords you need to get noticed.

To complicate things, 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 person. For that person, you will first need to have crafted a resume that is entirely readable and coherent, and free of resume errors.

You’ll also need to back up all the claims you’ve made in your resume. In other words, you must not exaggerate your capabilities in order to appease the robot gatekeepers.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t mention a course you took at a high-profile university. Even if you didn’t get your degree from that school, the fact that you completed coursework at a school that may rank higher within the algorithm is still resume-worthy information that makes you a more interesting candidate to the software and the person who may someday sit in on your interview.

Caveat! Don’t attempt to game the system. Businesses invest a lot of money into their applicant tracking systems, sometimes to the tune of millions of dollars. Attempting to include “white words” to get in more keywords and keyword stuffing are maneuvers recognized by these systems consistently. Sneaky resume tactics can cause the resume-filtering software to move the resume that employs them to the bottom of the electronic search pile — or even worse, reject it!

Final Thoughts

To get hired, you’re going to want to get comfortable with the applicant tracking systems. As a job seeker, there’s more competition for a single job than ever before – largely due to the technology that makes it so easy for companies to post their job openings to a mass audience. This means that you’re competing with a much larger field of candidates.

Considering, though, that only 25 percent make it through the initial electronic resume screening process, the good news is that your odds of standing out remain high — as long as you adopt resume writing tactics that will help you move past the resume screening process to make it into the hands of real people on the other side.

These practical tips will help you get your resume seen by hiring managers. And once you do, be sure to consider interview coaching for the fastest way to turn your interview into a job. Big Interview provides video lessons, answer helpers, practice drills, and more to help you ace your interview.

Pamela Skillings
Pamela is the co-founder of BigInterview and an expert interview coach on a mission to help job seekers get their dream jobs. As an HR authority, she also provides consulting services to companies wishing to streamline their hiring process.

Turn interviews into offers

Get our Chief Coach’s best job-seeking and interviewing tips in your inbox every other week.

Share this article