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.


  1. Neil,

    Great article.

    Let me add two other things to avoid in your resume.

    1. No tables in a MS Word formatted resume. Use tabs to format.
    2. Nothing in the headers or footers

    1. Hi Marc. Great additions to the tips list! Thank you.

  2. Good tips. It is important to note as well that different applicant tracking systems process resumes differently, according to how they are configured. The best defense in these systems is really to mimic the job posting, company values, and corporate culture, and as you say, make sure that you do not use any problematic formatting.

    1. Thanks for sharing these insights Pam - I know you're an expert on these things!. The various ATS platforms will all work slightly differently I presume. I am guessing too that even the same platform can be configured slightly differently by each user.So it's hard to give definitive advice, but I agree with your recommendations. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Hi Neil - thanks for a great article. Are you able to publish an example of the correct formatting - especially of Work Experience. Easier to get the idea with a visual, rather than word description. Thanks in anticipation... Lynda

    1. Thanks for posting and for the request Lynda. I agree that a visual would be helpful. Am working on a part two with a couple of experts right now so please watch this space!

  4. Hi Neil, interesting article, thanks.

    That research was done by Josh Bersin, as I understand it, in 2011 or 2012, and using only Taleo (ie, software now three or four years old). I don't think the research was peer reviewed, either. I would be very interested to see a paper on it: do you have a link to the research results themselves?

  5. Thanks Sam. You are right that the research I think looked only at Taleo. Unfortunately I do not have the raw research results, just what was reported about the findings. Bersin/Deloitte probably regard it as part of their IP and therefore haven't made it freely available to my knowledge. But if you know better, I'd be delighted to hear about it!

  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Thanks for posting here guys. I do not disagree that ATS platforms are a huge benefit to employers. But applicants can easily get tripped up by them I think. Do you have any recommendations for them to avoid this risk?

  7. It’s no secret that the applicant tracking system (ATS) has been one of the dominant sources of frustration among talent acquisition practitioners and job seekers alike. While many ATS vendors have come a long way in offering more user-friendly interfaces and intuitive workflows, many employers leverage their ATSs simply as place to store resumes and post jobs. While these features are necessary to the recruiting process, they aren't core features for which these systems were originally intended to be used.

  8. Very interesting article and your advice is pretty much everything that I tend to build in to every CV that I write.

    One of the big issues is that candidates simply have no idea what ATS is or how to deal with it

    I think a bigger problem for the jobseeker is not aware of exactly how recruiters use systems to headhunt which is a similar issue and, for example, have no idea what keywords are in a CV

    Thanks for the input, enjoyed reading the article,

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience Glenn. Makes me think if folk are not conscious of the situation, they aren't even going to look for the answer in the right place. Getting professional help is necessary I agree.