The full lowdown on ATS systems

ATS systems are now in widespread use by HR teams and recruitment firms. If you don't know how they work, you are at risk of getting caught out by one when you apply for a job.

It doesn't matter how well qualified you are. Or how keen you are to take the role. If you're unaware of how ATS systems filter applications, you risk being rejected without any person even looking at your resume or application. It's that serious!

My first post here on applicant tracking systems or ATS attracted a lot of readers and comment. After that, I knew I needed to get more information to share here.

So I turned to the one person I know who probably knows more about this subject than anyone else in the world right now. My friend, Marcia LaReau, the President of Forward Motion US has spent two years testing and evaluating these systems!

Last week I interviewed Marcia to find out as much as I can and I'm pleased to share this information in this post. NB This is a long post...but if you want to go straight to the action points just scroll to the end!

Marcia LaReau Phd.

NP: Why did ATSs come into being? 

ML: What I’m about to tell you here is based on my experience and information I collected from hundreds of conversations within the hiring communities.

The birth of Applicant Tracking Systems was before the Great Recession in 2008. They came about because available technology filled a need and could be sold to a huge market.

The Applicant Tracking Systems began with the job boards and when I started Forward Motion in 2007, I began by studying Monster and CareerBuilder, which were among the first. CareerBuilder (formerly NetStart) was launched about 1995 and Monster in 1999. Both sites sold subscriptions to companies and posted their job openings. They were able to report demographic information and served as a searchable repository of résumés.

The Great Recession brought a flood of desperate job seekers applying for every possible position.  Hiring professionals were overwhelmed and unable to satisfactorily filter all the applicants manually. Although they were in their infancy, the ATS platforms offered a tempting solution, despite their shortcomings.

NP: What type of jobs are ATSs used to screen for? How widespread are they? 

ML: ATSs are used for every conceivable kind of position you can imagine. Since a company can own and customize its own system or simply rent a system on a monthly basis, or just pay for candidates who click on their postings, everyone can now use them - from big companies right down to tiny ones. A company does not even need a website; an email address is all that is needed.

For example, if an entrepreneur is looking for a marketing manager or a part-time administrative assistant, s/he can easily use a system to find the right help at a reasonable price.

Two years ago, I spoke at the Connecticut Library Association Conference on the topic, “The Library as Employment Center". The librarians bemoaned that local supermarket chains and even small businesses sent job seekers to the library to “apply online” for jobs such as stocking the shelves and unloading the trucks. Sadly, some of these individuals did not have any basic computer skills and had not even used email. 

What hope would such a person have of getting through an ATS system?

NP: How did applicants respond to the use of ATS?

ML: With the recession, thousands of people began applying for jobs. HR was overwhelmed with the number of applicants and the first real “Tracking Systems” were quickly upgraded to help with the screening process. New job boards were cropping up daily and ATS companies began competing for market share.

This is what I call the first generation of ATSs. I don’t think anyone thought they worked very well.

Job seekers realized that keywords were important and tried beating the system by loading their documents. The problem was that once they “got through” the verbiage was unreadable and many were quickly eliminated. Some companies were so overwhelmed that they actually outsourced the résumé review process overseas - which didn't work either.

NP: You've tested these systems extensively Marcia - how did you carry out the tests?

ML: Since I had been in HR prior to being laid off, I was able to connect with many of my former colleagues and ask them how these systems were being developed. Importantly, they were willing to allow me to test their systems with imaginary candidates.

Over a period of two years, I learned about their hiring process from end to end. With my contacts' permission, I created several imaginary job seekers and started applying for positions at their companies to see if I could get through. I wanted to know what it would take to get a phone call. This way, I was experiencing the systems from the job-seeker side.

At this time, the experience was rather dismal from both sides. I never managed to meet more than 80% of the requirements with my imaginary candidates. Over a period of a year, I developed a system that was able to get through about 65% of the time.

NP: Tell me about the second generation of ATS. What changed?

ML: The next generation of ATS came fairly quickly and by 2011, price wars had begun. As of today, it currently costs over $400 to post a job on CareerBuilder or Monster. The aggregate job boards (e.g. and SimplyHired) frequently use Pay-Per-Click (PPC) pricing with charges between $.25 to $1.50 for each click.

These second generation of ATS began using more sophisticated filtering systems. ATS companies began selling directly to large corporations and offered additional customization. (Examples are Brassring, Taleo, HRM, iCims…)

NP: Is it true that the right keywords alone were no longer enough to get a résumé through the system?

ML: Yes. Some companies used a public job board for initial screening and then applied additional criteria and invited select candidates to enter their information into their internal databases. This second generation of ATS was more sophisticated, but the experience on both sides was still less than acceptable.

I might add that the many new cost-effective options allowed even small businesses to use the systems for initial screening. This was far better than their “Craig’s List” attempts at finding candidates.

NP: What's the current state of play?

ML: We are now embarking on a third generation of ATS. New levels of sophistication have been added all along. At this point, the companies gladly give me a 90-minute review of their “latest and greatest” so I think I’m up-to-date on the functionality. With my help, my clients get through the ATS at least 90% of the time now.

This new generation is certainly the most sophisticated. They typically integrate the whole hiring workflow that includes tracking and compliance with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) as well as the Affirmative Action Plan (AAP). Since AAP is based on demographics and since the demographics are changing with regard to Hispanic and Asian populations in the U.S., these new systems have really taken on new roles. There are other features such as auto-responders and electronic scheduling that saves time and hopefully improves the experience for the job seeker as well.

These latest versions are better able to select qualified candidates, as they are able to read context. This is a double-edged sword for the job seeker though. Getting through to a person now requires a great deal of care. But it isn't rocket-science by any means. It is caring in ways that are meaningful to the hiring process, which begins with the ATS as well.

The articles I read that focus on beating the system and working around it (to get right to the hiring manager) are shortsighted from my perspective. Better, in my opinion, to work with the hiring communities rather than against or around them; especially since we all want the same thing - the right person in the right job.

NP: What in your opinion are the biggest shortcomings of ATS systems?

ML: This is an excellent question. Before I answer you, I’d like to give a bit of context.

I believe that we are still coming to grips with the fact that we are now a global economy and we have yet to fully comprehend the impact of the Great Recession. Add to this the technologies that are changing and influencing every area of our lives. I’m referring to Big Data, 3-D Printing, biotechnology, the demise of Moore’s Law, and disruptive innovations. (I’ve put 11 videos on YouTube about this topic.)

Add to this the number of baby-boomers who are retiring in record numbers (now that the stock market has restored some of the value of their retirement) and we can easily see that companies are scrambling. At this time, key concerns include “employee engagement” and succession planning.

So…let’s try to tackle “employee engagement.” We are learning that just because an employee can document that they have the needed skills, knowledge (experience) and abilities (SKA), doesn’t mean s/he will be engaged.

Business models have focused on measuring everything as proof of their success. Examples include Six Sigma, Lean Manufacturing, Balanced Scorecard and many, many others. But how do we measure employee engagement? And how do we devise a filter for it in an Applicant Tracking System?

Now, what about succession planning? With the record number of retirements, companies are losing their knowledge base. Succession planning is a challenge with a smaller Gen X. As we look to Millennials, we are finding a less-than-enthusiastic labor pool when it comes to corporate culture. So this takes us right back to the engagement question.

NP: So you're saying that the problem isn’t really with ATS at all?

ML: How many times do job seekers go through the interview process to find out that they have been eliminated because the position included something that was left off of the posting? Recruiters continually tell me about their frustrations when companies really don’t know what they want (or need) in a position.

The recruiter goes through long lists of candidates and scores of interviews and learns what the company is actually looking for through the process of learning what they don’t want. (The job seeker gets the frustrating response, “The company has decided to go in a different direction for this position.”)

Finally, the internal hiring professionals are enormously frustrated at the number of unqualified candidates. They are also deeply concerned that after careful vetting and attention to their hiring process, they are still hiring the wrong people.

The good news is that their attention to employee engagement is, in my opinion, exactly the right concern!

I have yet to see a job posting that sufficiently addresses this concern. Instead we get verbiage like, “Must be able to work under pressure and meet tight deadlines.” …now isn’t that inviting?

The root of the problem is how we think about the work that the employee will actually do. So the needed change will first require a shift in our thinking. Then we can ask the right questions so we can communicate with jobseekers. This is a whole new dimension about employment. From this point, we can easily manage the ATS questions to address the concerns about engagement. 

NP: What should job seekers do to avoid being eliminated?

ML: That’s the right question as well Neil. The Forward Motion Differentiation Workshop was designed in 2009 and has undergone 17 major upgrades and over 32 minor versions. I say this to make the point that as the hiring processes change, so must the jobseeker understand the phases of elimination in the ATS (usually 4 or 5) and adjust his or her cover letter and resume to fit with this.

It’s important to remember that once a candidate gets through the ATS screening, there are seven or eight more steps to get an offer. They have to appeal to HR first and then make it all the way through to the final approver. The ATS is step one. If we isolate that one step, then I offer the following suggestions:

1. Carefully vet the job posting and the company and apply only for those positions that are truly a good fit.

2. Narrow the information on both cover letter and résumé to address the skills, knowledge and abilities specific to the position. Customize accordingly.

3. Don’t assume that software can make a leap of understanding regarding experience. For example, if the job posting is for an Event Planner and asks for “project management” experience. If the résumé only addresses “event planning” the ATS won’t be able to translate. That résumé will be kicked out because it does not cite “project management.”

4. Different ATS set-ups have filters that may include a myriad of questions. These are critical. Many jobseekers do not fill out demographic information about themselves. Yet, with the AAP compliance, they may be eliminating themselves.

5. There should be ample demonstration of the needed skills, knowledge, and abilities in your résumé. These should come under the bullets in the Work Experience section.

6. Use Times New Roman font. Nothing smaller than 11pt. Despite the on-going concern over tables and bullets: they work just fine because the ATS is reading text strings.

7. If, after carefully entering your information into an ATS, you receive a link that takes you to another ATS and asks you to do it all over again…be encouraged! You've been invited to the “inner sanctum” of the company.

I believe the ATS is here to stay and it’s going to get better and better. As we look to new ways of finding the right people who can genuinely contribute to their employer’s success, it is only going to get better. I’m excited about it and looking forward to continuing to be a bridge between the job seeker and hiring communities.

I'd like to thank Marcia for the time she has taken to share these valuable insights. You can find out more about Forward Motion US and their resources and services here. Do please post any comments or questions below and we'll do our best to answer them.

A recruiter’s views on the 2014 job market

By Neil Patrick

If you’ve ever wondered what recruiters really think about job candidates and the evolving job market, you’re not alone. So last week I set out to find some answers. And here they are!

One of the great things about this blog is how it helps me get to speak to experts all over the world about their specialist insights into the world of jobs and careers. And recruiters are a very important group. But recruiters are very busy people. So their perspective is valuable but hard to come by.

Last week I was especially pleased to interview Laura Warnes, the Managing Director of a brand new specialist marketing recruitment agency, Proudfrog.

I wanted to get her insights into how the digital revolution is reshaping marketing jobs and what trends she is seeing. Even if you are not in marketing, it’s clear that technology is a key driver in the evolution of the jobs market and because tech is moving so fast, skill requirements are changing fast too!

A lot of great insights emerged from this interview and I’m pleased to share them here.


NP: In what ways have marketing job descriptions changed in the last 5-10 years?
LW: That’s a huge gap to speak about – 10 years ago we didn’t even have apps! I’ll go with the last five years. Multichannel, Big Data, and a bigger focus on consumption/ analytics have all become more widely used in JDs since the late noughties. There is more focus on the customer journey and UX (User experience – Ed.) over simple promotion and making a sale. There is also often now a requirement for global reach.

NP: What are the most in-demand marketing skills right now?
LW: Digital, creative, content, analytics, UX and CMS (Content/customer management systems – Ed.) seem to feature everywhere.

NP: Are marketing pay rates rising or falling in real terms?
LW: In real terms, it is on par with the average rise across all sectors.

NP: Do you see any skewing between gender, age and race profiles in marketing hires?
LW: Only in terms of pay in my experience. Female hires at entry/ graduate level in general secure higher salaries, but as the roles become more senior it is reported that the gap becomes wider, with men earning around 17k more than women as Marketing Director. There is a growing trend for hiring graduates in to positions which in the past would have required a “second jobber” as well and an overall more accepting attitude of youngsters in responsible roles.

NP: If so why do you think this is happening?
LW: In regard to the younger hires, I believe the value of millennials when it comes to technical aptitude for social media etc. is recognised more as these skills play a bigger part in Marketing and the ability to pick up new skills fast is important in an age where new technologies are introduced almost daily. Regards the gender pay gap, at Director level, women have often needed to take a pay cut to re-enter the work place after maternity leave and haven’t yet caught up. This is probably true of all sectors and not unique to marketing.

NP: What’s better for a marketing person’s resume/CV, a big brand name, or a small fast growth business?
LW: It depends entirely on the hiring manager and company culture! It is very difficult to achieve, but a well-rounded exposure to both environments will generally give you the best advantage. A theme which has emerged over the past few years is a dislike for applicants who have been in the same role for too long, or stayed within one industry sector through two or three roles – unless you wish to stay in the sector in which case this will be an advantage. I remember a time when anything less than five years in a role made an applicant appear “flaky”, now if you haven’t moved on to something bigger, better, or different after a couple of years then my clients are asking me why you aren’t driven or hungry for something new.

NP: What’s the most common error made by applicants for marketing roles?
LW: Not detailing your technical skills. If you’ve used it – put it on your CV and let us know about it! A dynamic personal statement is also crucial. We expect marketing professionals to be more tech savvy and more creative than others so a dry Times New Roman two pager isn’t going to cut it. Your CV is your personal marketing tool and demonstrates the value that you place on presentation, branding, content and technology.

NP: What are most marketing people looking for in their next employer?
LW: Learning, variety, a collaborative environment, flexible working, and the opportunity to use creative skills.

NP: Do you think recruitment firms serve clients and candidates equally well?
LW: A recruiter’s fees will always be paid by the client, and with this in mind they will usually be viewed as the true customer over and above the candidate. Many recruiters treat the candidate relationship as lesser and, on a basic level, that is understandable. However, for two reasons it is very important to treat candidates with respect and professionalism in the same way we treat clients: One, it is the ethical thing to do, we should treat others as we would wish to be treated and as professionals we should enjoy passing on our time and expertise to those who can benefit. And two, from a business perspective these candidates are our “tribe”. Good marketeers hang out with other good marketeers and as such we want them out there telling their peers how great we are! I have enjoyed many occasions where a former candidate becomes a client, or recommends me to a hiring manager even when I didn’t actually place them myself, simply because I treated them with kindness during an often daunting time in their life. 

NP: What are the main tools used by Proudfrog to search for suitable candidates?
LW: In the main, traditional job boards will always play a big part in sourcing candidates, and here at Proudfrog we put most of them through their paces day and night! However, it is also important to be constantly networking with passive candidates who aren’t active in the market for everyone to see. The real value for our clients is in the relationships we have built through dedicated networking and intelligent market mapping using social media, physical market presence, and research.

NP: How does Proudfrog think and act differently from other recruiters?
LW: Everyone at Proudfrog without exception is incredibly excited by what we are achieving. Being a start-up business we have a lot to prove and have no laurels to rest upon. Given the positivity in our market, we were confident to hire big right from the off and at just eight weeks old we are a team of eight, and actively seeking our next intake of trainees. As a lighthouse customer of Proudfrog you will receive the full, undivided attention of our founders but rest assured, if you miss that boat, we have the resources to hire around your needs and would be incredibly quick to do so! We all have big characters, boundless energy and our core team is diverse. At the helm we have 30+ years of the highest calibre of recruitment experience, but amongst us we also have a budding mobile app entrepreneur, a fashion graduate, sportsmen and a holistic therapy evangelist. We think like you do and ask ourselves every day: how can we utilise every technology and personal skill in our armoury in order to do our job as well as we possibly can?

NP: What should marketing professionals do if they would like to be on your radar?
LW: There are many ways to get in touch. There is a contact form on our website for one. We are also contactable via Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. You can email me at, or – my personal favourite – give us a call today on 0203 0565581.

I’d like to thank Laura for her time and the insights she has shared with me. And I wish Proudfrog every success with their business. Thanks guys!

Why are salaries such a secret?

I've noticed a worrying trend in job advertisements. It’s been going on for a while now, but seems to be becoming the norm.

Job advertisements which use terms such as, “attractive salary and benefits”,  “salary negotiable based on experience”, or similar.

This is such a waste of everyone’s time including the employer's.

Employers and recruiters are struggling to handle the volume of applications received for many positions.

This omission of such critical information makes this problem worse. Without the benchmark of salary, both under- and over-qualified applicants will apply when many of them would either not take the job if were offered to them because the salary was too low, or will be too junior to be a serious contender.

It reeks of deviousness and destroys brand value.

What message does this send to the world? That you are open and transparent? That you are trustworthy? That you care about your employees? I’d argue that it is rightly or wrongly interpreted as, “We’ll see who applies and then with luck we’ll be able to hire someone who fits the spec, but whom we can pay far less than the market rate for the job”.

All those carefully crafted brand values are brought into question by this one simple omission.

To apply a less negative viewpoint, it’s also possible, that they are thinking, “If we get an absolute superstar applying who we have to pay over the market rate for, we don’t want to put them off applying”.

I’d argue that this is wishful thinking. Not specifying the salary or even the range, will mean that the real superstars assume the worst and ignore the vacancy. After all they are probably already being generously remunerated in their present position and they know that if someone really wants them, they’ll come knocking.

There’s no excuse.

I accept that in advance of appointing someone, it's often impossible to know the exact salary that is appropriate. An employer doesn't know who is going to get hired and what their precise experience level might be. But they’ll have a clear idea. So there’s nothing to stop them specifying a range of salaries.

I think it's just plain dumb and helps no-one including the employer.

I’d love to hear what job seekers, HR and recruitment people have to say about this, so do please post any opinions below.

The dark side of positive thinking

By Neil Patrick

There’s power in positive thinking. But as dogma, it’s dangerous. It’s taken hold to such an extent that it risks blinding us to the reality of situations. Worse, when it becomes group think, that myopia becomes massively amplified. And the leveraging of delusion has created some catastrophic consequences.

In the world of work, positivity has become almost a mandatory pre-condition for employment.

It doesn’t matter how smart we are. How much experience we have. If we don’t fill the world with cheerfulness and positivity, employers don’t want us in their fold. The greatest virtue you can possess as an employee is the willingness to joyfully execute whatever task you are assigned.

The same mantra is provided to those looking for a job. Jobseekers are told that they must think positive. Their lack of a job is not a problem, it’s an opportunity. They should stride out into the world with a great big smile. True, but this is much easier said than done.

Freedom and blind enthusiasm cannot easily co-exist

This blind enthusiasm and mandatory cheerfulness is also a hallmark of the control systems of dictatorships. All that loving devotion to a leader and joyful exuberance at political rallies. We were mostly bewildered by the manipulated mourners at the funeral of Kim Jong-il in December 2011. But although more subtle, the same cult of positivity also underpins many codes of behavior in the west.

The statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on Mansu Hill in Pyongyang
 CC BY-SA 3.0 J.A. de Roo

The financial collapse of 2008 was foreseen by plenty of people. The trouble is, they were isolated, shut up and drummed out of the party by the rest who were just having too much of a good time to countenance any cautionary advice.

Too much positivity is as dangerous if not more so than too little.

I think of it as a continuum. At one extreme is the viewpoint characterized by thinking such as the cult of the power of attraction. The idea that we can have anything we want if we just want it enough and imagine it enough. This idea is that by some as yet unknown force of nature, we can have anything we desire – we just have to want it enough.

The power of attraction has found a convenient alibi in quantum physics. All those phenomena that fly in the face of conventional scientific thinking. If normal science cannot explain everything, anything is possible right? Well, no actually it isn’t. There’s plenty of stuff we cannot explain, but that doesn’t automatically prove the correctness of any random idea that comes into our heads.

At the other extreme is the idea that we are all victims of an inevitability that we are really powerless to stop. Forces which are so much more powerful than we are, that we are all doomed. This ideology of fearfulness is characterized by the survivalists – those folk that have abandoned all hope in the world avoiding Armageddon and have decided to take to their bunkers to survive whatever horrors are about to descend.

Both extremes are wrong. We can change things and we have a lot more power than we often recognize. But the key isn’t blind cheerfulness and all charging together lemming-like over the cliff, or self-isolation and hunkering down to ensure our families can survive the unimaginable perils of the future.

The power to effect change is by developing our abilities to discriminate between right and wrong. To vigorously pursue our ambitions and to engage with others with whom we can share mutual support and help. And to have the courage to confront and challenge our leaders when they are at risk of getting it wrong.

Sure, doing it with a smile on your face and joy in your heart is no bad thing. Just don’t place too much faith in group think.

My thanks go to Barbara Ehrenreich, whose RSA video here inspired me to write this post.

Why one is an oppressive number

By Neil Patrick

In the early 20th century, rigid hierarchies caused a lot of suffering. In the 21st century workplace, they're still causing disenfranchisement...

"What?" I hear you say, “One is just a number. How can a single number mean anything, let alone be oppressive?”

Well hear me out.

In the early 20th century, ‘civilized’,' respectable', professional men from the British Commonwealth would serve one career, one boss, one wife, one monarch and one God. Ideally for the whole of their adult working life.

This was espoused as the ideal; the 'bio' of a good citizen.

1914 marked the zenith of what we could call the 'world of ones'. Before that date, loyalty to king and country was seen as a British citizen's overarching duty. After that date, the sense of obligation slowly but steadily ebbed away.

This cultural shift can be largely attributed to the fact that World War One resulted in the deaths of over a million people from Britain and the Commonwealth countries.

In the words of historian Samuel Hynes:

"A generation of innocent young men, their heads full of high abstractions like Honour, Glory and England, went off to war to make the world safe for democracy. They were slaughtered.... Those who survived were shocked, disillusioned and embittered by their war experiences, and saw that their real enemies were not the Germans, but the old men at home who had lied to them. They rejected the values of the society that had sent them to war, and in doing so separated their own generation from the past and from their cultural inheritance."

Thus emerged the first widespread questioning of the legitimacy of governments to demand the ultimate sacrifice from their citizens. Exactly one hundred years have passed since the outbreak of the First World War. It was also called "the war to end all wars". Except it wasn't and it didn't.

The 20th century was a world of rigid hierarchies. For its people, it was experienced through top down command and control structures. Despite several notable relapses, most western governments became increasingly democratic. Nonetheless, most of these structures still retained features of medieval feudalism.

Credit: Wikipedia

Fast forward to today and this ‘world of ones’ is starting to look increasingly archaic:

  • Loose informal networks create more and more of our professional contacts and engagements.
  • News sources include almost as many independent commentators as staff journalists. 
  • Influence and communications don't just move top down. They also move laterally from one to many. Peer to peer. Social media and its enabling of the Arab Spring is a great example of this.
  • Fewer people than ever experience a whole lifetime with the same spouse.
  • More and more people work within complex matrix structures at work, where, they don’t just serve one boss, they have to deal with many.
  • No-one still seriously expects to have just one job for the whole of their adult life. In fact the average tenure in jobs has been getting shorter and shorter.

The rise of social media has brought with it a democratization of communication that would be terrifying to the ruling elites of the early 20th century. Their top down command and control structures would be seriously destabilized.

The ‘world of ones’ is now well past its sell-by date and has become redundant in more and more walks of life. But it shows few signs of retreat in most workplaces.

Most employers still cling to a requirement for absolute fealty from their employees. They apply binding contracts. They demand complete loyalty. And in some cases even require a promise that if we leave or are sacked, we won't compete with them.

They however remain free to dictate what will and won’t happen to our jobs. And usually these decisions rest with just a handful of people.

It's an unequal contract in which the employee waives much of their freedom in exchange for a pay cheque and a limited selection of other privileges.

Enlightened employers such as Zappos are bravely moving forward with new ideas more in keeping with the 21st century, like abolishing job titles and placing decisions in the hands not of managers, but self-governing circles. Employees may be members of several circles and hold a different position within each.

I’m not an anarchist or a communist or anti-monarchist. I don’t advocate revolution, or infidelity, or the abandoning of religious beliefs. I just think it’s time for all employers to get into the 21st century in terms of how they think about their relationship with their people and how those people are organised, motivated, governed and rewarded.

After all, as CEOs are always reminding us, their people are their most valuable asset. Not their serfs. Aren't they?

Applicant tracking systems – the hidden peril for job applicants

How to overcome the most invisible obstacle job seekers face today.

There’s a secret trap that stops great and highly qualified people getting hired. It’s the rise and rise of automated Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS). If you don’t know how these work, you are at serious risk of becoming a victim.

Here’s what you need to know.

You may have an excellent and relevant background, an impressive resume and be completely charged about working for a particular firm.

You may be by a country mile the best qualified person for the job.

But you still won’t get hired. Or even selected for interview.

And increasingly the reason is because an applicant tracking system filtered you out.

Some sources quote that as many as 75% of applicants are eliminated by ATS systems, as soon as they submit their resume, despite being qualified for the job!

In this post, I’ll explain all you need to know about ATS and what you can do to not get caught out by one. I’m sure you’ll be happy to leave those traps for your rivals!

So what is an ATS?

Applicant tracking systems are increasingly used by many employers to process job applications and to manage the hiring process. They are also sometimes known as talent management systems or job applicant tracking systems.

Applicant tracking systems automate the way companies manage the recruiting process. They extract key data from resumes and applications and store this in a database.

This information is then used for screening candidates, applicant testing, scheduling interviews, checking references, and documenting the end to end process.

Sounds good so far doesn't it? Instead of relying on the inconsistency of human screening, a machine will give everyone a fair and equal assessment.

If only that were true…

Why companies use Applicant Tracking Systems

The sheer volume of applications received for most positions today means that human reading of dozens or hundreds of applications and resumes is time consuming, expensive and prone to human error.

Applicant tracking systems are more than just administrative tools though. They are also used to provide a record of regulatory compliance and to track sources of candidates, for example where the candidate found the job posting.

How Applicant Tracking Systems work

Applicants upload their information, including their relevant experience, educational background and resume into the database. This information is transferred from one part of the system to another as the candidates move through the selection process.

So where’s the problem?

The problem with applicant tracking systems, is that they are just that. Systems. They lack human intelligence. And that’s a big problem for candidates.

If your resume isn't formatted how the system expects it to be and doesn't contain the right keywords and phrases, the applicant tracking system may well misread it and rank it as a bad match with the job, regardless of your qualifications.

And there’re no fail safe checks. That’s it. You’re out.

This weakness has been proven by research

In a test last year, Bersin & Associates created a resume for an ideal candidate for a clinical scientist position. The research firm perfectly matched the resume to the job description and submitted the resume to an applicant tracking system from Taleo, the leading maker of these systems.

When the researchers then studied how the resume appeared in the applicant tracking system, they found that one of the candidate's job positions was ignored completely simply because the resume had the dates of employment typed in before the name of the employer.

The applicant tracking system also failed to pick up several key educational qualifications the candidate held, giving a recruiter the impression that the candidate lacked the educational experience required for the job.

This perfect resume only scored a 43% relevance ranking to the job because the applicant tracking system misread it.

So your only hope for passing through an ATS successfully is to understand exactly how these systems work and to make sure you don’t get caught out.

How Applicant Tracking Systems rank your resume

Many think that applicant tracking systems rely simply on keywords to score the fit between a candidate's resume and a specific job. So they search to identify keywords in the job description and insert these keywords into their resumes.

In fact, what matters most to an ATS isn’t the number of word matches found. It’s the uniqueness or "rarity" of the keyword or the keyword phrase, i.e. those keywords and phrases specific to that particular job.

The ATS then calculates a ranking based on how closely each applicant's resume matches each keyword and phrase and only then how many of the keyword phrases each resume contains.

What recruiters see when they look at your resume on an Applicant Tracking System

But scoring shortcomings are not the end of it. An ATS also restricts what recruiters and HR people see when viewing candidates’ information on the system.

When a recruiter views a candidate whom the applicant tracking system has ranked as a good match for the job, the recruiter doesn't see the resume the candidate submitted. The recruiter sees only the information the applicant tracking system pulled from the candidate's resume into the database.

The ATS will try to identify this information on a job seeker's resume, but if a resume isn't formatted in the way the system expects it to be, it won't pull this information into the proper fields.

Sometimes, whole sections can be ignored, such as a key skills profile or an executive summary.

How to optimize your resume for an Applicant Tracking System

So if you are job seeking, ATS systems can potentially ruin your chances of getting hired. Fortunately there are some simple tips that can help ensure that the other applicants rather than you get tripped up.

Never send your resume as a PDF

ATS cannot readily structure PDF documents, so they're easily misread, or worse fail completely.

Don't include images, tables or graphs

An ATS can't read graphics and they misread tables. Instead of reading tables left to right, as a person would, applicant tracking systems read them top to bottom and consequently the information can get jumbled or missed altogether. So don’t be tempted to use images, boxes, tables or graphs anywhere in your resume.

You may choose to submit a longer resume

The length of your resume doesn't matter to an applicant tracking system. It will scan your whole resume regardless of its length. Because a longer resume allows you to include more of your relevant experience this may enable you to improve your ranking in the system.

However do not overdo this. If you get through the ATS screening, real people will still be reading your resume, so you still need to keep it concise and present it in a way which communicates your main strengths as clearly as possible.

Label your work experience, "Work Experience":

You may have chosen to refer to your work experience on your resume under headings such as "Professional Experience" or "Key Achievements". Don’t. Some people get very creative with their resumes because they think it will help them stand out, but in fact it damages your prospects once an ATS gets involved. Don’t run the risk of letting the computer miss your work experience just because you didn't label it as such.

Don't start your work experience with dates

To ensure applicant tracking systems read and import your work experience properly, always start it with your employer's name, followed by your title. Finally add the dates you held that title. It’s wise to give each of these pieces of information its own line. Applicant tracking systems look for company names first. By the same token, you should never start an entry about your work experience with the dates you held the position.

Follow these tips and at the very least an ATS should give your resume a fair assessment. And with luck your biggest rivals won’t know how to dodge these traps!

My friend and ATS expert Marcia LaReau at Forward Motion has also written a detailed guide for job seekers on how to format their resumes and cover letters to ensure you don't get caught out. I recommend you check it out. Just follow this link. 

Update: I have also just secured an in depth interview in which Marcia reveals the results of her two years of testing ATS systems and what every job seeker can do to avoid getting tripped up. The post with the full interview is here.

The easiest LinkedIn search rank tune up …ever!

Want to improve your LinkedIn search rank without spending a heap of time? Here’s the best tip I know…

Most professionals I work with want to have a high ranking on LinkedIn search against the keywords that are relevant to what they do.

That’s a good goal and one that is worthy of pursuit.

The trouble is as I have talked about elsewhere on this blog, there are not too many shortcuts to achieving this. You need to build a sizeable quality network. You need to share content. You need to engage. All this takes time.

And because time is at a premium for almost everyone these days, this goal gets little or no attention dedicated to it. And the result is that most people’s profiles stay stuck on page 9 or whatever of a search.

But there’s a simple and powerful way to increase your search rank position on LinkedIn, which takes no time at all.

Whilst I cannot tell you the precise workings of the LinkedIn search algorithm (and outside of the LinkedIn organisation, neither can anyone else), most search algorithms include components which count and appraise the number of links from elsewhere on the web that a page has.

And your LinkedIn profile page is no different.

Now you say, “Ah yes, but I’m not famous or high profile enough to have such attention”.

Well neither am I!

But my name appears all over this blog. And a few other people have been kind enough to mention me on their blogs and websites.

All I do is try and make sure that everytime my name appears elsewhere on the web, it appears as a link to my LinkedIn profile page.

That’s it!

It’s not a spammy SEO trick. It’s not deceitful; it’s even helpful to anyone who might want to know a little more about me for any reason.

So everytime your name is about to appear online in the context of you as a professional, just take a couple of extra seconds to convert it to a link to your LinkedIn profile page.

If you do this as matter of routine, over time the links will mount up. And unless your Linkedin peers also know this, your search rank will be on a steady upward trajectory!

You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.