Mastering the ATS

If you are uploading or cutting/pasting your resume into a job application then you are dealing with an Applicant Tracking System (ATS). The ATS is a software application that handles the initial recruitment process for a company by sorting through resumes to determine which ones are the best fit for a job.  Algorithms are used to determine how well an applicant matches the job description.

Applicant tracking systems “parse” information in the resumes submitted, pull them apart, and place information in specific fields within the ATS database. The system then analyzes the extracted information for criteria relevant to the position being filled — such as number of years of experience, education, contact data, 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.

Unfortunately, there are more than 300 different applicant tracking systems software programs on the market so it is impossible to know EXACTLY which one you are dealing with and how it specifically works. However, they do all work in a similar way by allowing for filtering, management, and analysis of candidates for a particular job opening. 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.

If resumes aren’t structured in a way that fit the applicant tracking system, they can enter a “black hole.” Success on the hiring side of things depends on querying the system with the right keywords, specifications, and requirements to draw out resumes that are the best fit for the position. It’s imperative to take the specific job that you are applying for and attempt to match the keywords in the job description with the words in your resume. It is also important to represent yourself truthfully and not include keywords and skills that you don’t have. You must be prepared to qualify each statement that you make about yourself on your resume in an interview.

In addition to including the appropriate keywords, ATS compliant resumes must start with your name on its own line, followed by credentials, address, phone, email, and LinkedIn. Systems look for clear section headings such as Profile Summary, Professional Experience, Education, Certifications, Licensure, Community Involvement, and Affiliations. It is important not to use Microsoft tables or text boxes because most system cannot read information in them. In general, ATS-friendly resumes do not include charts, graphics, or complex formatting (tabs, columns, and tables). Also avoid colored text, shading, lines, and special symbols.

Newer ATS software don’t simply identify keywords and apply a score based on how many times that keyword appeared – context is important as well. It’s not enough to have the right keyword in the resume — nor have it appear more than once (i.e., in a “keyword” or “skills” section). Instead, the system looks for relevance of keywords in work history and/or education. Those keywords are analyzed and weighed in the context of the entire resume. For students, it is important to include pending degrees and certifications in your resume because systems may be searching for a specific degree and licensure. Even if you don’t yet have the degree or licensure, it is important to let a company know that you are a viable candidate and are in the process of meeting their criteria.

Companies that create applicant tracking system software continue to refine their processes and algorithms — and the systems are becoming less expensive as more providers enter the market. It is important for jobseekers to continue to learn to adapt their career communication documents (especially resumes and cover letters) to meet the needs of both humans and computers. Remember, that in the end, people hire people. Networking remains the best way to get your resume in front of hiring managers!

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