What are Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) and how do they work?

Posted by Lucas Leung

In basic terms, an applicant tracking system (ATS) is a robot that sifts through a mass number of resumes, giving some to humans to read if it matches a job description and then discarding the rest into a black hole. This is why it's a huge bonus to understand how an ATS works and outsmart it so that your resume makes it into the hands of a human (recruiter).

Here are a few key topics and questions we've answered about ATSs that will assist you with your application:

Why do employers use them?

It's a known fact that recruiters struggle with the overwhelming number of applications they receive for various positions at their company, especially for graduate and internship programs at large firms. They use an ATS so that they don't have to sort through the irrelevant applications before getting to the strong ones.

How do they work?

An ATS saves and records resumes in a database for the hiring manager to sort through. Depending on the recruiter, a different method may be used each time. Here are a few of the methods that might be implemented:

  • Automatic Rankings Using AI

    An ATS can compare your resume to a job description. This means that recruiters can easily review the applications that score well with the ATS. Each application will often receive a ranking or a percentage score for how relevant the resume is.
  • Screening Using Multi-Choice Questions

    When you are filling out your online application, there are probably questions that are multiple choice. A recruiter can determine specific answers in the multiple choice question that are knockout choices. If a candidate selects one of those choices, their application is deemed unsuccessful.
  • Weighting of Questions

    On top of the multi-choice screening, recruiters can weigh the importance of certain questions based on how critical they think the question is for the role. At the end of a candidate's application, they would be given a score based on the points that the ATS calculated.
  • Keyword Search

    Some recruiters can use their ATS to scan all of the resumes in their databae to see how they match certain keywords. They can then access the resumes with the specific keywords to review them.

How do you beat an ATS?

  • Carefully tailor your resume to the job description and make sure you get straight to the point with no fluff
  • Write the long-form and acronym version of keywords and use them in the correct context e.g. Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)
  • Use a chronological or hybrid resume format
  • Apply for jobs that are relevant for you, not just for the sake of it to give you a better chance of making it through and not wasting your own time
  • Use standard resume headings such as 'Education' or 'Work Experience'
  • Save your file in either PDF or Word format and don't use non-standard file types or formats

But how common are they really?

Most large corporations that receive huge volumes of applications will use some kind of ATS. Job Scan found that 99% of Fortune 500 companies use an ATS, showing how common they are in recruitment funnels.

Candidate experience for recruitment is becoming more of a priority for recruiters. As recruitment software begins to leverage AI, it is clear that automation and ranking systems are here to stay.

The first thing you need to face a human recruiter is an ATS compliant resume. After reading this article we hope that you have the best chance you have at beating any applicant tracking system!


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