What is an ATS, how does it impact hiring, and what can you do about it?

If you’ve applied for jobs online in the past while, there’s a good chance your resume was scanned by an applicant tracking system (ATS) before it made it to the eyes of a recruiter.

Research from Jobscan reports that 98.2% of Fortune500 companies use a type of ATS during their hiring process.

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So if your resume isn’t ATS optimized, an automated system might toss you from consideration for your dream job before a hiring manager at the company even reviews your application.

What is an ATS?

Corporate job postings receive, on average, 250 applications, and hiring managers do not have time to review that many resumes, cover letters, and work samples. To streamline this process, companies use applicant tracking systems to scan resumes for keywords, filter out applications that don’t display relevant job experience, and automatically rank candidates.

Additionally, during the hiring process, an ATS can be used to send automated emails to potential hires (like that “We received your application!” email you often get), track your interview process, and prompt your successful applicants for electronic signatures. These systems are designed with HR teams and recruiters in mind so they can quickly hire quality candidates, but that doesn’t mean you, the applicant, have to be at a disadvantage.

If you learn how to optimize your resume for ATS, your application doesn’t have to be one of the 75% that get rejected before ever landing in front of a human.

How to write an ATS-compliant resume

If you’re currently on the job hunt or you’re just giving your resume an annual update, it’s time to use ATS best practices. Here are some easy ways you can keep both an ATS and hiring managers in mind when submitting your next application:

Use keywords on your resume.

Keywords are not the same as buzzwords. Keywords indicate the soft and hard skills you have developed through education and professional experience, while buzzwords like “hard worker” and “go-getter” won’t impress an ATS or a recruiter.

Here are some examples of hard and soft skills you may want to include (as relevant to the job you’re applying for and your experience):

Hard skills

  • Computer programing
  • Editing
  • Foreign language skills
  • Degrees and certificates you’ve earned
  • Machine operation
  • Typing speed

Soft skills

  • Communication
  • Time management
  • Leadership
  • Patience
  • Flexibility
  • Teamwork

Make sure the keywords you include are actual skills you possess that you can back up with examples from previous jobs, rather than just words you think will sound impressive.

Adjust keywords for the position you’re applying for.

You probably won’t have to write an entirely new resume and cover letter for every job you apply for, but you do need to adjust the keywords you use based on the position you’re going after. A good test is to open your application and the job description side by side. Go through the job description carefully and pick out specific skills the company is seeking for the position.

Assuming you have those skills, use the same keywords in your resume and cover letter that you found in the job description. Those are usually the same keywords that an applicant tracking system will be looking for when scanning your resume, and probably the words a hiring manager will be looking for when they get ahold of your resume too.

Submit your resume in the correct format.

Many people choose to submit their resumes, cover letters, and other application materials as PDFs. This is a great option because it maintains the format of your resume that you probably spent a long time perfecting. You might also consider submitting a resume as a Word document or in a plain text file to be safe, but however you submit, just be sure you are using one of the listed formats. If you don’t, your application could be chucked from the pile because the ATS can’t read it.

Bonus tip: Don’t put any key information, like your contact info, in the header or footer. Most ATS won’t read this information, and those essential details could get cut.

Use a standard resume design.

A standard design doesn’t mean you can’t add a little personality, but unless you are giving your resume directly to a hiring manager, leave off the graphs and funky designs. An ATS is not designed to read those and won’t be able to register the skills you are trying to display using a non-traditional chart or image. Instead, focus on creating a clean design with a hierarchical listing of your skills, including a chronological professional history and relevant skills and accomplishments. Once your application makes it past the ATS, your recruiter will be happy to be able to quickly review your resume for key information.

You can make sure your resume design will be easily read by an ATS by using a resume reviewer like this one. It uses an automated system to review your resume for content, style, and formatting.

While it might feel like a pain to optimize your job application materials for every position you apply for, you’ll be happy you did when you land a job you love. Even if you have all the right skills and qualifications, if you don’t know how to translate that for an applicant tracking system, your application won’t make it far. Take the time now to make your resume and other application materials ATS compliant, and you can focus on preparing for calls and interviews instead of wondering whether your resume made the cut.

Brian Anderson is an HR copywriter, with work exploring the intersection between employee engagement, total rewards, and HR software. He’s lucky enough to write about people topics in his day job with BambooHR, a full-service, cloud-based HR management software.

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