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Applicant Tracking Systems-How to Help Your Clients & What They Mean For Job Seekers?

November 05, 2014 6:32 PM | Cassie Olson

Today, up to 80 percent of résumés are scanned by Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) before a human being gets even one glance at them. If a résumé does not pass the ATS criteria, it is likely the résumé will never be read by a human being. In this article, I will explain what the ATS means for job seekers.

Human resource departments, hiring managers, and recruiters use applicant tracking systems to streamline and accelerate the recruiting process. By using automated, computer-based ATS technology, hiring managers can more easily and cost-effectively identify and hire the best-qualified job candidates. Since the advent of Resumix, the first-ever ATS introduced in 1988, the industry has been marked by enormous growth, technological advances, consolidations, the birth and death of entire companies dedicated to posting jobs and parsing résumés, and finally the dependence on ATS that we have today.

Why have applicant tracking systems emerged as a dominant force in the employment industry?

  • Monster Effect: With thousands of folks responding to every job posting, it is no longer possible to read every résumé for every open position.
  • Matching Ability: ATS can help the hiring manager find candidates that truly match the job requirements without expending hours reviewing irrelevant résumés.
  • Ability to Find Candidates: ATS can search LinkedIn profiles and other social media for matches to the job.
  • Regulations: The federal government requires employers to report hiring statistics and to ensure hiring policies follow EEO requirements. ATS makes this easier.
  • Automation: By automating the hiring process from the beginning and tying the ATS into the existing HRIS platform, companies increase efficiency and save significant costs.
Every ATS is different. That said, here is how applicant tracking systems work from the candidate’s point of view. First, the candidate selects a job to apply for. The candidate uploads a résumé online and may need to fill out company-specific forms and answer additional questions.

Second, at the company, the ATS “reads” and parses the candidate’s uploaded résumé. Based on how the software algorithm “reads” the résumé, information from the résumé is entered into set fields in the ATS database. Many ATS use clues from the résumé, such as standard headings, to determine where to put the information in the database. The résumé joins the LinkedIn Profile, other social network information, and application answers in the ATS.

Third, the ATS uses algorithms to score the candidate based on the job announcement. Many ATS either use keywords entered by the hiring manager or select algorithms based on the job announcement itself.

Finally, the ATS uses the scoring algorithm (equation) to determine how well the candidate fits the job requirements, based on keyword matching and/or answers the candidate made to the questions.

Ideally, the ATS will select the best candidate(s) to be referred to the human resources department, hiring manager or recruiter. Many hiring managers and recruiters will read only the résumés with the highest scores.

Drawbacks and Myths about ATS

Despite their advantages, applicant tracking systems screen out many well-qualified candidates. Most candidates submit résumés that are not optimized for ATS, with incorrect headings, formatting, characters, and wording. If a résumé is not formatted correctly, solid skills and achievements in the résumé may be ignored. In addition, a résumé that is good for one ATS may not be good for another.

If a keyword, phrase, or requirement is not listed on the résumé, a résumé may end up rejected, based on ATS algorithms and government requirements, even if it is formatted correctly. Many ATS use automatic algorithms to determine keywords. These keywords may not really make sense for candidates to use in their résumés. It is possible for an ATS to find no qualified candidates if the wrong keywords are used, especially if the recruiter or hiring manager entered keywords that are too specific.

Some ATS now are trying to use neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) techniques to overcome the lack of keywords in qualified candidate résumés, LinkedIn profiles, or other social media profiles. These systems, new to the market, still need development to work properly.

Myth: An applicant who networks can avoid ATS.
Reality: In 2012, 60 percent to 70 percent of all companies, big and small, used ATS according to Preptel (a reverse-engineering service to help résumés pass ATS; the company closed in 2013). Today that number is closer to 80 percent. ATS use is increasing. Recruiters scan paper résumés and place emailed résumés into ATS.

Myth: A candidate who uses ATS can avoid networking.
Reality: Hiring managers like to hire people they know or who are recommended. A survey by HR Daily Advisor (2012) revealed that referrals are still the #1 recruiting source. Networking allows the hiring manager to select the candidate once the résumé passes the ATS. In addition, if a hiring manager wants a particular candidate for a job, the hiring manager can change the job requirements and/or keywords to match the candidate’s background.

Myth: All ATS are the same.
Reality: ATS differ; there is no one-size-fits-all. Even ATS implementations differ within the same ATS technology. A hiring manager and/or company can choose to set different options in the system. Different versions of ATS software may act differently.

Myth: ATS can read all files, formats, and characters.
Reality: Some ATS can read only text or Word 2003 files. Many ATS cannot read tables or graphics. Some ATS cannot scan italicized or underlined words. Many ATS cannot read special characters (such as accent marks, curly quotes, and ampersands) and will replace them with meaningless characters.

Myth: ATS can figure out where to organize all the data on the résumé and can use all the information.
Reality: Many ATS need guidance, using headings, to determine where to put data. So good information gets misfiled and ignored. Many ATS use only information that matches their formatting rules.

Myth: It is better to have a 1- to 2-page résumé.
Reality: ATS-optimized résumés, often longer because they have more keywords, generally score higher.

Myth: Passing the ATS alone will get you the job.
Reality: A human being will read the résumé before selecting a candidate. Unless already known by the hiring manager, a candidate will need to be interviewed – probably several times – to get the job.

Myth: Companies are using ATS because they do not care about people.
Reality: Companies are overwhelmed, and the ATS is both effective and efficient in weeding out inappropriate candidates. In addition, if the ATS wrongly eliminates several good candidates for the job, companies are not worried as long as one good candidate remains. Moreover, the U.S. government requires companies to report EEO statistics, which the ATS compiles automatically.

How to Help a Résumé through the System

Now it’s time to discuss how to raise the chances that a résumé will be selected by the ATS and be read by a member of the human resources department, a hiring manager, or a recruiter.

The first and most important step to take is to conform to ATS requirements, starting with full contact information at the head of the page. Many ATS will select candidates only from the local area, and many will eliminate applicants who do not at least enter ZIP codes. I recommend candidates get a local address to apply for jobs online if they are not looking to be reimbursed for relocation expenses.

Use standard header names for each section: For the summary section at the beginning of the résumé, use the words Professional Profile or Summary. Include the job title and keywords from the announcement and add a skill list if you want. Just be sure that the summary is readable by humans as well. Of course, that’s true for the entire résumé.

For your experience list, use the Professional Experience heading. Use a reverse chronological format. You may want to add the word company after each company name. Enter in dates, including month and year. Enter the company's city and state. Write job descriptions and accomplishments with keywords and phrases from the announcement. Repeat the keywords as you describe each position to make the résumé score higher and show the depth of experience.

Spell out acronyms the first time you use them and put the acronym in parentheses following the full definition; for example, Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS). Thereafter, you can use just the acronym.

In the education section, use Education as your heading. Type the full name and abbreviation for each degree, major, school name, and location. Consider adding degree dates, grade point average (if recent and if high or relatively high), and honors (if any). Consider adding a course list to include even more keywords.

Other headings you should use if needed are Training, Certifications, and Skills.

Ensure both humans and the ATS can read a résumé. Candidates have limited control how a résumé will be used. In addition, in many cases the résumé that is read by the ATS is still stored in its original form in the ATS. The hiring manager may access that résumé rather than the mangled ATS format to read it.

Be careful with formatting and capitalization. Check the résumé for grammar and spelling. Avoid using fancy characters, graphics, and tables. Modify the résumé, as appropriate, for each job application.

Select the right job announcement: Use the job boards and/or network to find job announcements where the job seeker meets all the basic and most of the desired requirements and where they have experience in most of the job duties. In the U.S., many companies cannot hire a candidate for a job if they do not meet the advertised job requirements. Job seekers have the best chance to be selected for a job if they can address the job requirements and the job duties. If there is a questionnaire, they must be able to indicate that they are an expert in all the areas in the questionnaire and then justify their answers in the résumé.

Find keywords and keyword phrases and use them in a résumé. Read job announcements and select keywords and keyword phrases in the announcement, even those that may not make sense. If the ATS is using an automatic selection algorithm, those keywords and phrases will, most likely, be included in the announcement. To identify keywords that are not in the announcement but are likely in the ATS, analyze a group of announcements.

Robin Schlinger, a recognized Résumé Writing Expert, is a Master Career Director (MCD), Certified Professional Résumé Writer (CPRW), Certified Master Résumé Writer (CMRW), Certified Federal Résumé Writer (CFRW), Certified Electronic Career Coach (CECC), 360 Branding Analyst, and Job and Career Transition Coach (JCTC). Since 2001, Robin has been adding value to résumés and other career-marketing documents to win job interviews for her clients. In 2006, she started her own company, Robin’s Résumés® (www.robinrésumé, specializing in executive, technical, student, and federal résumés. Robin uses her previous experience as a senior chemical engineer, quality engineer, process engineer, planning analyst, and applications engineer to help her clients. Robin earned a BSChE with a concentration in Writing from MIT.

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