Career Advice

What is an ATS, and Why Should I Care?

Lisa M. Balbes

What, exactly, does “ATS” stand for?

Advanced Tomography Satellites?

Automated Tomato Spreader?

Alpine Tangential Snowmobile?

Nope, none of those. The ATS you need to care about (especially if you ever plan to look for a job) is an Applicant Tracking System.

Because it is so easy to find listings of job openings, and so easy to submit a resume online, companies are often inundated with hundreds of resumes for each open position they post. Unfortunately, recruiters say that at least 50% of the applicants don’t have the basic qualifications for any given position.1

In order to quickly weed out the unqualified and save staff time for more complex assessments, more than 90% of large companies, and virtually all Fortune 500 companies, currently use some version of an ATS to manage their recruiting processes.1

When you apply through a company’s Web site, or e-mail them ­­­a resume, you are entered into their ATS. Sometimes you don’t even have to apply because recruiters may extract information for “passive candidates” from LinkedIn.com, Monster.com, CareerBuilder, and so on. The ATS collects all the information about each candidate: resume, social media data, position(s) applied for, recommendations from employers, interview notes, results of background checks, status (decline to contact, pending interview, interviewed, hired, not hired after interview, etc.), and much more. But an ATS can be more than just a database. Some ATSs automate the entire workflow process of vetting and hiring candidates. For human resources professionals and hiring managers, ATSs can help with scheduling interviews and collecting statistics about applicants. For you, the job seeker, the systems become one more hurdle to get through before you get the job.

Understanding How ATSs Work

When they were first used, ATSs would contain a scanned image of an individual’s resume, which was read by a human being. Over time, the software started using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) to convert the image into text, and programmers added automated keyword searching and other features. Three of the biggest commercial systems are Taleo, iCIMS, and Greenhouse.io. If you see one of those terms in the URL when you submit your application online, you know it’s going into an ATS. If not, the organization may still be using a home-grown or other system.

Over time, these systems have grown extremely sophisticated. Today they can pull dates and tell how many years of experience you have with specific techniques. They can extract your education (degrees, schools, and years) and parse out the pieces of text that relate to professional associations, volunteer work, awards, and so on. Large companies can afford expensive ATSs that are less likely to wrongly identify different types of data. Medium-sized companies are more likely to have lower-end or home-grown systems, which may be more prone to errors, and small companies may not hire enough people to have one at all.

Using artificial intelligence and natural language processing, the most sophisticated systems take your beautifully crafted resume and convert it into a numerical score, based on how well their extracted version of your information matches the parameters of the specific position for which you are being considered. They will assign weights to various pieces such as work experience, industry experience, skills, education, and proximity to the job, and then they will combine them into a single cumulative score. If you are one of the top-scoring candidates, you will move on to the next stage, where a human being will review your resume and determine whether or not you will be called for an interview.

The good news is this: There are many things you can do to make sure that your resume rises to the top­- and attracts the attention of the human resources professional.

Craft a Resume That Will Sail Through ATS Review

First, make sure your contact information is at the very top, full name first, on a line by itself. After that, you want to include at least your city and state (to show proximity to the job), one phone number, and one e-mail address. You may also wish to include your LinkedIn URL. If you have enough room, putting each item on a separate line will increase the likelihood that the system will be able to parse them. If you include multiple pieces of information on the same line, use spaces or tabs to separate them; don’t put them into tables. Use blank lines to separate sections, but do not use blank lines within a section. When entering a blank line, use the Enter/Return key, not a long line of spaces.

Probably the single most important thing you can do is to make sure your document has the appropriate keywords. Read the job description carefully, highlighting all the important nouns. Then, make sure every one with which you have experience is included in your resume. Furthermore, make sure these keywords appear in sentence fragments, not in a comma-separated list. (There are no complete sentences on a resume.) Most ATSs assign more points to words in sentences, or things that look like sentences, than to words in comma-separated lists

For example, if a job description says the position requires “monitoring, measuring, and assessing quality assurance practices,” the ATS will search for exactly those words. If your resume says “Experience with quantifying QA techniques,” you will not match. In addition to the job description, look at the company’s Web site and annual report, and see what they say about their values or their corporate mission. For example, if they have a strong message of customer service, make sure to include your job as a barista, so you can list your excellent customer service and high satisfaction rating as an accomplishment. Pay special attention to keywords that are unique for the position, not the generic skills that are listed for all openings at that company.

Although you may have an “Additional Competencies” section for secondary skills that did not make it into your “Professional Experience” section, even there you want to use sentence fragments.

Old Style:

Keywords:  HPLC, NMR

New Style:

Competencies:  Proficient with methods development and sample analysis using HPLC
                            Expert at sample preparation and troubleshooting 2-D NMR and 3-D NMR

Make sure you also include synonyms, such as MS and Mass Spec, at different places in your document. Remember that a person will eventually look at your resume, and you never know which term may catch that individual’s­­­ eye.

Although creativity in formatting and section names may make you stand out to a human reviewer, they are poison to an ATS. Stick with traditional sections and headers, such as “Education,” “Professional Experience,” “Awards,” and so on. Words in headers also get more points than words in the body, so chose them carefully.

Keep the formatting simple and streamlined. Do not use underlines, columns, tables, headers or footers, etc. You may even want to save a text-only version of your resume for ATSs, and keep a separate, nicely formatted one for humans. For each position on your resume, you may want to put the company name, position title, and dates you worked there (month and year) on separate lines, so the system does not get them confused.

Some systems assign extra points to top-tier schools. Even if you didn’t get your degree from one of these, you can include continuing education classes you took there.

When you have your resume looking exactly the way you want it, there is still some final cleanup to be done. Make sure to check the metadata and document properties, to make sure to remove anything that you don’t want the employer to see. Finally, make sure the filename is something appropriate, like JaneSmithResume.pdf.

Submitting a PDF file is preferable, since you know the formatting will remain exactly as you intended. However, if the organization specifies MS Word, send MS Word. For ATSs, you may want to save your file as a plain text version and send that in addition to the Word or PDF version. Plain text makes it easier for the ATS to extract the text, but the file should at least look decent if a human reads it.

While an ATS can narrow the pool of applicants to a manageable number, it is still human beings who make the decisions and do the hiring. By customizing your resume for the position, and making it as clear as possible, you will maximize your chances of being in that top group that is brought to the attention of the actual people who have the ability to hire you.