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The secrets to beating an applicant tracking system (ATS)

The secrets to beating an applicant tracking system (ATS)

Error-prone applicant tracking systems kill 75 percent of job seekers' chances of landing a job as soon as they submit their resumes. Here’s how to get yours past the system.

Job hunters should know that nearly 40 percent of employers use an applicant tracking system (ATS) to screen candidates for their job openings. Don’t let the name fool you. Applicant tracking systems don’t “track” where you are in the recruitment process. They’re aimed at saving employers time by dividing strong candidates from the weak. But the way in which your resume is written — not the information it conveys — is what the technology actually uses to decide. As a result, says Josh Bersin, principal at HR consulting firm Bersin by Deloitte, “Most companies have thousands of resumes sitting in a database that they’ve never looked at.” In fact, 75 percent are never seen by a real person.

How applicant tracking systems work

“If a job offer is posted via a job board, your resume will likely be scanned by bots before it reaches an actual human being,” says Michael Tomaszewski, a content creator at Upwork. Hit apply, and an applicant tracking system scans your resume for terms that match those used in the job description. Say you’re applying for a product evangelist position, for example. If your resume uses the word “evangelist,” great. The system will pass your application on to a real person. But if your current job title is listed as “sales engineer,” no dice.

Of course, not all systems are so harsh. Some ATS brands are better equipped to take synonyms into account. But the problem is older, exact-match systems are still in use. And Tomaszewski says, “There's no surefire way to check if your prospective employer uses ATS.”

With a little bit of sleuthing, though, Oracle Resumes President Dustin Polk says you may be able to figure it out. Look on the employer’s job page, he says: “Most will be branded somewhere with the ATS vendor's logo. If you can't find this anywhere in their listing, mouse over the apply or submit resume buttons and check the destination URL in the bottom of your web browser. If the company is using recruiting software, the destination URL may show which one.”

A broken system

Applicant tracking systems are by no means fail-safe. In fact, 62 percent of companies using applicant tracking systems admit “some qualified candidates are likely being automatically filtered out of the vetting process by mistake,” according to a joint CareerArc/Future Workplace survey.

From the job hunter’s perspective, that’s an overwhelmingly frustrating statistic. Corporations need automation to help sort through hordes of applications, yes, but poor systems are a problem for employers and candidates alike. Without a major change in how these companies hire, though, the onus of fixing it lies with the job seeker: How do you adjust your resume so applicant tracking software won’t sort you out?

How to optimize your resume for applicant tracking systems

For job seekers dealing with application tracking systems, the first step is to realize it’s not them, it’s not you, it’s your font. That’s right. In addition to getting job-blocked by tech that can’t recognize different titles, your resume may get lost in the slushpile because you used Times New Roman. That’s what Polk says: “Some applicant tracking systems have trouble reading serif fonts such as Times New Roman or Cambria.” Serif fonts have little marks added to their letters — like this Times New Roman R. Sans serif fonts don’t.

Why is that important? When applicant tracking systems search the skills and experience section of your resume for certain keywords, the matches have to be exact. That’s why Tomaszewski recommends applicants rewrite their resume every time they apply for work, lifting words from each job post’s expected duties, responsibilities, and skills sections: “Use those keywords in your resume.”

Related video: 8 essential sites for researching your next employer

Before resumes can be searched, though, they have to be processed. “Older applicant tracking systems gather their information with ocular character recognition (OCR),” Polk explains. And if you’ve gone to the effort of changing words for every employer, you want to make sure those words get recognized. “Serif fonts could mess [the software] up,” he says. Because of the extra marks, the tools don’t always recognize an R as an R. So play it safe, Polk continues, and “use Calibri or a similar sans serif font.”

While you’re at it, you might want to make sure your bullet points are perfectly round. “Opt for the circular-shaped symbol or something similar,” says Amanda Augustine, career advice expert for resume writers TopResume. “Avoid using arrows or other intricate symbols for your bullet points, as many applicant tracking systems will translate those into a garbled mess.”

Augustine also recommends avoiding PDF, HTML, Open Office, and Apple Pages formats: “Save your resume as a Word document file.” But Polk and Tomaszewski disagree. They both recommend plain text (TXT), an ASCII-compatible format easier for OCR to read. Augustine, on the other hand, says to create your resume in Word, then convert it to a TXT file, then convert it back to Word for “a more polished, professional look.” This advice — and how it differs from Polk and Tomaszewski’s — goes to show how confusing outmaneuvering these systems can be, even within the industry.

To Augustine’s credit, her end goal is the end user. If you make it past the system, a person will read your resume and that person — not the system — is who inevitably decides whether you get hired. From adjusting bullet points to swapping out all those keywords, the CareerArc/Future Workplace survey contends the average applicant spends three to four hours applying for a position. But Augustine says the person who finally sees your resume will spend an average of 6.2 seconds reading it.

“If your [focus] is strictly on making it past the applicant tracking software, plain text works and is more ATS-friendly,” Augustine agrees. But with 6.2 seconds, you also need to make sure your resume is person-friendly. “Plain text files don't allow you to add elements such as bolding,” she continues, or other layout tricks that “highlight important information and draw the reader's eyes to particular selling points.” Word does, and while TXT is more system-friendly, she says, “The Word version is better for the human-screening element. Typically, I advise professionals to write their resume with both audiences in mind.”

For those seeking more system tips, Carisa Miklusak, CEO of screening startup Tilr, says to remove all headers and footers, to avoid using acronyms, and to pad your skills section with as many applicable keywords as possible. Resume headings that used to be standard, like certifications held or languages known, she continues, “should now be absorbed into the skill section.”

Of course, there’s only so much a person can do. As poor tracking software causes companies to miss more and more qualified applicants, job seekers can only hope employers will one day make changes on their end too. “The software’s never been good at reading resumes and matching people,” Bersin says. But Miklusak promises, “Applicant tracking systems are becoming more advanced every year.”

With the $400 billion Bersin estimates is annually spent on HR tech, they better be. If a company could design a tool with “a much more natural language interface and a smarter set of recommendations,” he adds, “I think they’re gonna take off like wildfire.”

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