Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) is the one element of the recruiting process that most job applicants love to hate.  ATS is cussed and discussed as much as the habit of some executive recruiters not returning telephone calls.

ATS is a system loaded with the promise of improved efficiency in the recruiting process with an equal amount of irony; the resume is your first interview, but you will not be present nor will anyone from the prospective employer.  A decision regarding your continued consideration will be made by electronics and sophisticated mathematical formulas called algorithms. 

The bad news is that nothing much will change in the immediate future. ATS is not going away.  In fact, it will play a more prominent role in recruiting as the cost of these systems decline, and as the artificial intelligence component of the screening mechanism becomes more sophisticated.  When it comes to recruiters, well, they are what they are – transactionally oriented consultants whose continued prosperity requires that they be more interested in maintaining client relationships than soothing the feelings of a finalist who invested time and effort to be a good candidate, but who was not selected and just wanted feedback.

It is common to encounter executives who feel the ATS algorithms are unfair and should not be used to rule on executives’ resumes.  OK, I understand their irritation, but I would hasten to add that the likelihood of an executive winning an argument with an ATS screening computer is somewhere between slim and none.

…the likelihood of an executive winning an argument with an ATS screening computer is somewhere between slim and none.

John G. Self

The best course of action is to understand how these systems work and adjust how you apply for jobs.  

Here are five essential factors that job applicants must take into consideration when submitting their resume to a computer:

  1. The computer is scanning by category and keywords.  If you submit a generic resume – one that you have not customized for the specific job you are applying for without keywords or phrases – you are wasting your time and delaying your job search.  
  2. Identify the keywords from the job posting.  Also, identify key phrases describing the position.  Incorporate the keywords with relevant accomplishments in your Professional Summary at the top of your resume.  Then integrate the keywords and phrases throughout your resume, especially in descriptions of your other positions.
  3. Do not use a resume template.  ATS scanners tend to like basic resume formats.  Do not use graphics or boxes to highlight your accomplishments.  Less is more.
  4. Do not use a PDF format unless the ATS system indicates that this graphical format is acceptable.  Microsoft Word is the preferred word processor.
  5. Look for guidance on the typeface you select.  Ariel and Georgia are safe.  Verdana is the easiest typeface to read on a computer screen, which is where most resume are read for the first time by a human.

Bonus:  Check your spelling.  Some companies set their ATS scanning to exclude resumes with typos or misspelled words.