Dispelling the Myths and Misconceptions of Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) - Part one

Updated: Sep 9

Many myths and misconceptions are surrounding Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) that are causing job seekers to make ill-judged decisions on how they should present the best version of themselves online to a prospective employer.

The research will tell you that you need a second version of your CV for online applications, often referred to as an 'ATS friendly CV'. Indeed, this may be the case; however, many searchable CV templates are often bland in their appearance and overwhelming with dense sections of text and can look more like a legal manuscript than an eye-catching CV. With hiring managers and recruiters taking just 6-10 seconds to review a CV initially, I can guarantee that these versions of CV's won't get much viewing time.

During COVID-19, I have been delivering CV webinars to job seekers from all walks of life, and it matters to me that I provide accurate advice and advice with context when required. Over the last few months, I have started to see more and more alarming templates of 'ATS friendly CV's' being shared on LinkedIn, sparking me into action, and undertaking my own off-line research to unravel the facts around Applicant Tracking Systems to sharpen my knowledge and to share best practice with job seekers when applying for positions online.


The following information I am about to share with you has come from speaking directly to Bullhorn, one of the largest ATS software providers alongside conversations with internal recruiters from larger employers who use ATS. I will endeavour to keep this guide up-to-date as I have further testing taking place, but it is important to me to get the right information to you as quickly as possible.

What is an ATS (Applicant Tracking System)?


Organisations use ATS's to improve efficiencies in the hiring process and to track data. The primary purpose of an ATS is to help progress job applicants through the hiring process from application to interview to offer or rejection. An ATS will collect data from applications via a corporate website, and from job boards, it is a central database for a company's hiring efforts. Larger employers generally use an ATS, and is similar to a customer relationship management (CRM) system but are designed for recruitment tracking purposes. In some cases, ATS's can filter applications automatically based on given criteria such as keywords, skills, former employers, years of experience and educational establishments attended causing many job seekers to adapt their CVs by optimising keywords within their CV using techniques similar to those used in search engine optimisation (SEO).

This technology has massive benefits, but it doesn't come without its flaws. The most highly suitable candidate may slip through the net if their CV does not contain the 'right' keywords. Sadly, this isn't uncommon, and while viewed as 'unfair', you can overcome this barrier with an increased understanding of how to adjust your CV for online applications.


Do I need an ATS friendly CV?

No, not necessarily, however, there are some caveats.

As your CV parses (no, that isn't a spelling mistake) into an ATS, there are times when it may face automatic rejection. However, there are ONLY TWO reasons why this may happen (fewer times than you think).

  • If the document you are sending is too big. For example, if it includes additional documents such as examples of your work.

  • If the ATS sees your CV as an Image. For example, if you scan your CV and send it, it will read it as an image instead of a text document.

There is a misconception that the layout of your CV can result in rejection, but this is NOT the case. Your CV will always get through the ATS for consideration for the job you have applied.


However, it is worth knowing that your CV can distort as it parses through the ATS. According to Bullhorn, if your CV includes tables, multi-columns and images (including company logos), your CV may not appear in the ATS in the version you sent it. They recommend that you follow a simple formatting approach to avoid this from happening which does mean that you can include standard bullet points (although they can be risky) to break up dense paragraphs of text and to clarify, you can send your CV in a PDF or Word format, however, a Word format parses better.


Are there algorithms, artificial intelligence or keyword searches that reject you when applying for a job?

When you receive an automatic rejection email, you will likely have answered 'No' to a knock-out question where the desired answered was 'yes'. For example: Would you be able to work during the weekends? If you say no, they will reject your application as this will be a minimum requirement for the role. Killer questions are probably the biggest frustration for most job seekers when making online applications as they quickly eliminate candidates who do not meet the minimum qualifications or selection criteria. Companies may use these when they anticipate being overwhelmed with applications. However, despite perhaps being ruled-out of the hiring process, your details are likely to be retained on the ATS for future evaluation against other job openings.


Once you have met the minimum requirements, it is much more likely than you think that a human will be putting their two eyes on your CV to establish if you are a good fit. The amount of organisations using AI to screen CV's is more in the minority than the majority as recruiters and hiring managers are eager to ensure that they do not miss out on top talent. However, in light of a large number of applications now being received for roles, the recruiter or hirer may stop looking at CV's if they have enough of an applicant pool to start interviewing. While this may be frustrating to read, do bear in mind that the vast majority of applications a recruiter or hiring manager receives are unsuitable so try not to let that deter you from applying.


Recruiters do search databases such as LinkedIn and job boards for passive candidates which is why it is so important to optimise your CV with keywords so that you are easy to find.


Optimising your Keywords


For your CV to rank highly, you need to tailor the content of your CV to the keywords used in the job description; including plural words, abbreviations and numbers (e.g. take note if the company spells nonprofit or non-profit; 2 year's experience or two years' experience).


The technology is not as intuitive as humans, so you need to pay special attention to the following three points;

  1. Mirror the phrasing from the job description on your CV. If the advertised job requires 'CRM software', your CV must use those exact words. If you use a version of a CRM such as 'Salesforce', it will not recognise this as a match.

  2. It does not recognise abbreviations. For example, it won't necessarily understand that 'MBA' is the same as 'Masters of Business Administration'. Instead, use both the spelt-out version and the shortened one – Master of Business Administration (MBA).

  3. Always write out an entire year – 2019, not 19.

Also, hirers aren't silly. They can spot when you are trying to cheat the system. One common technique is 'keyword stuffing' or in other words repeating the same keyword. For example, if you are looking for a finance role repeating 'AAT AAT AAT' or changing one word to white so that it's not visible on the CV. Trying to cheat the system can create a poor impression of you to the hirer.


Create a Skills Section in your CV

To bring to the forefront your most notable competencies and areas of expertise, consider adding a skill section into your CV to list your hard and soft skills. Stick to simple bullet points, and when I say simple, I mean the solid circle. Avoid using any elaborate symbols as your essential selling points may not be picked up by the ATS due to incompatibility.


Always use Standard Job Titles

There are more and more variations of job titles entering the job market. 'Brand Evangelist' may sound cool, but your CV won't be found. So, use a more generic job title as the headline on your CV and adapt it to different applications.


Focus on Hard Skills

Hard skills are taught skills as opposed to soft skills are people skills, which are non-measurable and subjective and not specific to one job or career. Hard skills are easier for the Bots to screen, while soft skills are assessed later in the interview process.


While soft skills have less bearing on ranking higher, you certainly do not want to exclude them. These attributes define your character, thus crucial for the Hirer or Recruiter to be able to read.

Ensure you include all your skills that are necessary for the job. For example, did you manage a team? Have you presented at an industry conference? Do you have P&L responsibility?

Always Proof Read

One of the biggest frustrations for any Hiring Manager or Recruiter is spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. Simple mistakes make it seem like you don't pay much attention to detail or didn't spend much time on your application.


Not only do these errors create a bad impression an ATS also won't pick up on words that are incorrectly spelt. So, be sure to proofread your CV before submitting your application.

Or you could avoid the ATS altogether?

ATS's help Hiring Managers and Recruiters follow a more organised and timely hiring process. If you honestly believe that you are a perfect fit for a role, you could always fall back on your LinkedIn network and try to find a connection with a hiring manager. A credible recommendation from a human will trump a bunch of keywords any day!


The job market will always be competitive, and with new hiring technology continually emerging, it's more important than ever to ensure you remain educated. By doing so, you can adapt your job search strategy to maximise opportunities and experience fewer disappointments.

For additional support when creating your perfect CV, take a look at my other guides.


#ATS #applicanttrackingsystems #jobsearch #onlineapplications

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