Special to Quintessential Careers
The series of articles accompanying our Annual Report: Have Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) “Ruined” Recruiting Hiring and Job Search? include Optimizing and Formatting Your Resume for Applicant Tracking Systems and Preparing Job-Seeker Resumes for Applicant Tracking Systems: Checklist and Critical Do’s and Don’ts.
The promise of applicant tracking systems (ATS) is an alluring one: Apply the principles of technology search to the complicated hiring process allowing recruiters and hiring managers access to a search system like the one that exists online with Google Bing Yahoo and other search engines. Type in what you want and voila! The perfect candidate appears. That’s the idea anyway. Applicant tracking systems allow companies to determine which candidates may be a match for a particular position based on their resume.
Applicant tracking systems fulfill two purposes: to manage applications for positions (especially in the face of a high volume of applicants) and to screen out candidates who lack the required skills for the job.
The ATS can assist companies with hiring compliance. United States employment law prevents employers from discriminating in hiring based on age gender and ethnicity. By using an applicant tracking system to select candidates to interview the system allows employers to comply with the law.
They also provide hiring managers with metrics and data that can improve the hiring process. Some systems collect Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) data from candidates as part of the job application streamlining compliance reporting.
Some applicant tracking systems facilitate internal communication among hiring professionals — allowing those with access to the system to share applicant resumes and notes.
Any time new technology is introduced into the hiring process job-seekers are naturally concerned about what it means. It’s important to remember that technology is often used as a means to facilitate one goal: To make the hiring process more effective and efficient.
In the case of applicant tracking systems the goal is to help hiring managers and recruiters more easily identify candidates with the skills education and experience that are most desired of candidates. Just as you want the most relevant search results returned when you type a query into Google the hiring manager doesn’t want to sift through hundreds or thousands of resumes to find the handful of people he or she really wants to talk to. So if you focus your goal on ensuring you are the best fit for the types of positions you seek the data that will make you findable in applicant tracking systems will already be in your resume and cover letter — because they are important qualifications for the type of position you are seeking.
When large number of job-seekers for a position the ATS allows the hiring manager to screen out low-ranking resumes saving valuable time. In this instance the applicant tracking system works a bit like your email spam filter. It separates out resumes not relevant for the position being filled. Like a spam filter it recognizes content that might not be important.
The appeal of an ATS for those doing the hiring is clear. Looking for a candidate with specific skills? Type them into a database and receive a targeted list of candidates with exactly those skills.
Unfortunately the reality hasn’t quite panned out that way. These applicant tracking systems are limited by the information they acquire from job-seeker resumes. If the resumes aren’t structured in a way that fits the applicant tracking system they can enter a black hole. Success on the hiring side depends on querying the system with the right keywords specifications and requirements to draw out resumes that are the best fit for the position.
However even when the applicant is qualified for the job if the resume doesn’t work well with the ATS the recruiter or hiring manager won’t find him or her.
One advantage for job-seekers applying through an applicant tracking system is that some systems automatically notify candidates whose resumes don’t meet the position requirements as identified by the ATS software. Receiving a response to a manual resume submission is rare because of 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 to be considered for the role (i.e. using networking contacts) to tweak the resume or to simply move on.
No clear statistics exist about the number of companies using applicant tracking systems; however it’s clear that those numbers will continue to grow as the software’s cost comes down. You also might not be aware of which companies are using an ATS when you submit your resume; however applicant tracking systems are currently being used primarily in midsize and larger companies. Research indicates that almost all Fortune 500 companies use ATS software.
How Applicant Tracking Systems Work: Keywords
Most online applications end up in one of two places: an applicant tracking system or an email inbox. Neither are particularly easy to get out of.
Although companies can search their database for candidates (much like you would query Google to find what you’re looking for) most companies use their ATS only to manage applications for a specific job. They only look at resumes submitted for that particular job; they don’t query the database for other candidates.
Numerous ATS software programs are on the market — including a few new ones that operate “in the cloud” — and all applicant tracking systems are slightly different. However they all work in a similar way — by allowing for filtering management and analysis of candidates for a particular job opening.
Applicant tracking systems “parse” the information in the resumes submitted pulling them apart and placing information in specific fields within the ATS database such as work experience education and contact data. The system then analyzes the extracted information for criteria relevant to the position being filled — such as number of years of experience or particular skills. Then it assigns each resume a score giving the candidate a ranking compared to other applicants so recruiters and hiring managers can identify candidates who are the “best fit” for the job.
Criteria used by the applicant tracking system to determine a match includes:
- Appearance of a keyword or phrase that can be measured by its presence in the document as well as the number of times the keyword or phrase appears.
- Relevance of the keyword within context. (Does the keyword or phrase appear with other keywords you would expect?)
The higher the resume ranking the more likely the application will end up being reviewed by a human reader.
Success in navigating an applicant tracking system isn’t simply about the volume of keywords and phrases — it’s the right keywords — and in particular their uniqueness. Most job-seekers include the “obvious” keywords but many applicant tracking systems put value on related keywords not those specific terms.
Applicant tracking systems see some keywords and phrases as more “valuable” than others. Many systems also allow the hiring manager or recruiter to “weight” criteria — applying greater significance to certain terms or qualifications. Hiring managers can also apply filters to further refine the candidate pool — for example geographic or educational criteria. They can also specify keywords as either “desired” or “required” which affects rankings.
In many cases however the system itself determines the most relevant keywords and phrases as outlined in the job posting.
Companies that create applicant tracking systems continue to refine their processes and algorithms — and the systems are becoming less expensive as more providers enter the market. Job-seekers continue to learn to adapt their career-communication documents (especially resumes and cover letters) to meet the needs of both humans and computers.
Newer ATS software doesn’t simply identify keywords and apply a score based on how many times that keyword appeared. (Older systems were subject to manipulation by job-seekers who would simply “keyword stuff” their documents using white text or a tiny font to include the same keywords over and over again to trick the ATS into assigning a higher ranking to the document based simply on the number of times the keyword appeared.)
Context is the new part of this newer approach. It’s not enough to have the right keyword in the resume — nor have it appear more than once (i.e. in a “keyword” section). Instead the system looks for relevance of the keyword to your work history and/or education. Those keywords are analyzed and weighed in the context of the entire resume. Also considered in context is how recently the desired skill has been used and the depth of knowledge the candidate possesses of the topic (by assessing whether relevant and related terms are also present in the resume in relation to the keyword or phrase).
Resume effectiveness goes beyond the ATS however. Once your resume pops up in the ATS search results it needs to reflect what the recruiter or hiring manager expects from a candidate with the qualifications they desire.
Think about when you’re conducting a search on Google. You type in your search criteria and a list of results appears. You begin clicking on results and can tell within a matter of seconds if the item fits what you were looking for. If it does you’ll read further. If it doesn’t you’ll click onto the next result. The same is true with the ATS.
For resumes analyzed by an ATS it is important to include as much relevant information as possible. Inadvertent omission of key data can be the difference between having your resume appear in a list of candidates meeting search criteria — and not making the cut.
For example a degree or certification you are pursuing should be included in your resume (labeling it as “in progress” or “pending completion”) because a hiring manager may search for a specific type of degree or keywords contained in an area of study.
If the missing information is keyword-rich (i.e. a relevant job educational credential or certification) that can negatively impact the resume’s rating — and therefore the likelihood of being selected for an interview.
Keywords can be nouns adjectives or short phrases — and describe unique skills abilities knowledge/education/training and/or experience.
How can you find the keywords or search terms that are likely going to be used to query the ATS?
- Review job postings for the type of position you’re seeking
- Analyze your current job descriptions (and job descriptions of positions similar to the one you have and the one you want)
- Dictionary of Occupational Titles
- Occupational Outlook Handbook
Further look for synonyms to the keywords you identify. See also our article Tapping the Power of Keywords to Enhance Your Resume and our Resume Keywords Worksheet.
Stuck about how to identify relevant keywords and phrases?
- Find 6-8 job postings for the type of position you want. Copy the text from the ad into a Microsoft Word document.
- Select all the text and copy it to your clipboard.
- Go to ToCloud or Wordle to create a tag cloud.
- Paste your selected text into the “text” box and generate the word cloud.
The word cloud will reveal keywords and phrases that are relevant for the type of job you’re seeking. The larger the word appears the more relevant it is for that type of position.
Final Thoughts on Understanding Employer ATS and Use of Keywords
You can also use Google’s Keyword Tool to find keywords to make your resume more effective with applicant tracking systems.
Gain additional insights into how you can improve your resume and succeed with ATS using these free Applicant Tracking System Tools for Job-Seekers.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college career and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.