Resumes & Cover Letters

13 Best Practices for Beating an Applicant Tracking System

February 22, 2021

When you apply for a job, your resume might go through an applicant tracking system before it reaches a hiring manager. As a component of efficient and effective hiring practices, the tracking system reviews resumes and accepts candidates who seem to be most qualified for the role based on certain criteria. It is important to learn how to navigate a tracking system to get your resume to the hiring manager so that they can decide whether to schedule an in-person interview.

In this article, we explore applicant tracking systems and how they work as well as best practices for getting your resume through one.

What is an applicant tracking system?

An applicant tracking system (ATS) is software that employers use to find the most qualified candidates for a role. These systems help streamline the hiring process and remove resumes that do not meet the qualifications. An ATS is more likely to submit your application to the hiring manager for review if you have optimized your resume and cover letter for the job you are specifically applying for.

How do applicant tracking systems work?

Applicant tracking systems work by scanning your submitted resume and cover letter to find keywords that match the job posting. They also store submitted resumes in a database for hiring managers and human resources professionals to look through later on. The ATS may highlight and rank any applications it has determined to be a good match for the role.

Related: What Happens to My Resume After I Click Apply? Plus Tips for Success

Best practices for getting your resume through an applicant tracking system

To increase your chances of getting hired, you need to first make it through the applicant tracking system. Here are some best practices you can consider to get your resume through the ATS and to the hiring manager:

  1. Only apply for jobs you qualify for.
  2. Be selective about the jobs you apply for at one company.
  3. Use relevant keywords.
  4. Connect your keywords to unique experiences.
  5. Include a skills section.
  6. Use basic language.
  7. Write out acronyms.
  8. Submit a tailored resume for each job.
  9. Keep your resume simple.
  10. Use basic formatting.
  11. Submit the right type of file.
  12. Update your information online.
  13. Include referrals in your application.

1. Only apply for jobs you qualify for

The easiest way to make it through the applicant tracking system is to apply for jobs you qualify for as the ATS might otherwise reject your application. By submitting applications for jobs that match your work history, education and skills, your experience should naturally appeal to the tracking system.

2. Be selective about the jobs you apply for at one company

Human resources professionals and hiring managers can log into the applicant tracking system at any time to sort through the submitted resumes. They can also see your application history, including how many active applications you have at their company. It is better to remain selective about the jobs you apply for to show hiring managers how serious you are about the right position.

3. Use relevant keywords

Look at the job posting, and use the same keywords in your application in a way that naturally highlights your experience and skills. Consider looking up similar jobs to get ideas for other terms you can include that may pique the interest of the applicant tracking system and hiring manager. To determine the most important keywords, make a note of specific software, education, certifications and methodologies that a job posting mentions.

Related: How to Use Resume Keyword Scanners to Get Your Application Noticed

4. Connect your keywords to unique experiences

The applicant tracking system is more likely to send your resume through if there are enough mentions of certain keywords relevant to the position, but hiring managers want to see how those keywords connect to real skills and experiences in the workplace. Think about your unique job history, and concisely explain how it makes you the perfect person for the position.

5. Include a skills section

A skills section is your chance to include relevant keywords in another location on your resume, especially for assets that didn't naturally fit into your work history section. Including a skills section with keywords makes it easier to scan your application for the terms the hiring manager is looking for.

Related: 10 Resume Writing Tips to Help You Land a Job

6. Use basic language

It may be tempting to use section headers that are a little less traditional, especially if you're applying for a creative role and want to show your personality, but using uncommon language on a resume can confuse an applicant tracking system. Use basic language and terms that are easy to understand, and mimic how you would address your qualifications during an in-person interview.

7. Write out acronyms

Depending on an applicant tracking system's settings, it may either search for acronyms or written-out phrases. It's more likely going to look for the long-form term or phrase, but it's best practice to include both. For example, you could say something like, "Experienced in Search Engine Optimization (SEO)."

8. Submit a tailored resume for each job

Even if two positions you are applying for are very similar, you should tailor your resume to each one. The job descriptions are likely to vary from each other in some way, so use any differences you find to make your resume more specific to each job. The companies are different as well. Take the time to visit each company's website to get an idea of their values and the business they do. You can then incorporate what you learned into your resume and cover letter to stand out.

Read more: The Complete Guide to Researching a Company

9. Keep your resume simple

You may want to create a resume that's graphically enhanced, especially if you're applying for a graphic design position, but it's best to keep it as simple as possible. An interesting-looking resume may be attractive to the hiring manager, but you need to make it past the applicant tracking system first. Some tracking systems have a hard time processing complicated resumes and may place the content in the wrong places.

10. Use basic formatting

Consider using a universally basic font throughout your resume, such as Arial, Times New Roman or Georgia. Also, instead of charts or graphical elements, use bullet points and bolded or underlined words to bring attention to something specific.

11. Submit the right type of file

After completing your resume, it's important to pay attention to how the job portal tells you to submit it. Specifically, you need to ensure that you are using an acceptable file type. If you submit any other type of file, the tracking system is less likely to read it accurately or even at all.

Even if there are many acceptable file types listed, try to upload only .pdf or .docx documents. Although both are common, applicant tracking systems typically find it easier to read .docx resumes, so consider using this file if you can.

12. Update your information online

Some applicant tracking systems do more than search the resume you've submitted. They may also search the web for your information to make sure it all matches. Keep your online profiles up to date to make your application more complete.

13. Include referrals in your application

Referrals have always been an important part of getting a job. Hiring managers want to hear directly from someone who knows you and can vouch for your work ethic. During an online application, there is often a section that asks if a current employee of the company has referred you to the role. If this is the case, remember to put your friend or colleague's name here to increase your chances of making it through the applicant tracking system.

Some companies even have employee referral systems that can move your application straight through the ATS to a hiring manager, so you should use this to your advantage if you have a contact within an organization.

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