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  • Writer's picturebeckywebber

On a mission to unravel the facts surrounding Applicant Tracking Systems - The next edition!

Updated: Jan 23, 2021

Over the last two months, following conflicting information shared about ATS's on LinkedIn and the fear that bots were screening most CV's, I decided to carry out some offline research.

I aimed to unravel the facts!

I have been fortunate enough to speak to many experts. I have had fascinating conversations about evolving technology and hiring behaviours. I have also tested various CV templates through parsing technology into an ATS to understand why heavily formatted CV's aren't encouraged.

I have spoken to representatives from ATS software providers for both recruiters and talent acquisition teams (they are different) namely #Bullhorn, #Rezoomo, #Traffit and #iCIMS. I've talked to Talent Acquisition experts who have worked across many corporate organisations and who are highly experienced using ATS's. I chatted to the founder of an outsourced hiring solution company, #Immersive, who has helped unpick the hiring process for large global enterprises such as Rolls-Royce and Symantec. I also spoke with an entrepreneur, who following her own agonising job seeker experience, co-founded a company ( to help every job seeker have a fair chance to be seen. We had a fascinating conversation about their software platform, which leverages machine intelligence for large scale talent acquisition and talent management processes. Also, how they have created 'playgrounds' to enable job seekers to virtually play with the platform to understand how it works and how their application 'parses' into the ATS. In addition to that, we talked about how the use of 'popups' (or iframes) could offer advice and support to job seekers as they use an ATS to apply for jobs online, providing guidance, tips and hints on how to present their best selves. While this isn't available yet, it may not be far away. Music to my ears and I am sure to the ears of job seekers too!

To all of those who have supported me with this quest, I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks. That also includes those who have leveraged their network to introduce me to influencers and the talented job seekers who allowed me to test their CV's.

Before I share my findings, there are a few caveats. Please bear in mind that technology is continually evolving, so the information I am providing now will change. Each ATS system has its nuances and capabilities, and therefore, there will be differences between one platform and another.

Online applications - What do job seekers need to consider?

There are three things to consider when applying online for jobs. Human hiring behaviours, technology and how you, as a job seeker, present yourself.

While you have no control over two out of three of them, educating yourself on them will help you to influence how you present yourself online to help potential employers find your CV or application.

While online applications should feature in a job search strategy, it should never be the only approach as success rates are not high. What has been evident through the 35+ CV webinars I have delivered is that there is a heavy reliance on applying online for jobs. In addition to online applications, I would strongly advise that job seekers follow a multi-channel approach by proactively attracting opportunities to them as opposed to the other way around. By leveraging your network and building relationships, you will not only strengthen your value by what you learn, but you will also help to open considerably more doors which may mean less competition and no online job application.

Do bots screen out the majority of job applications?

From my research, the answer is no (bear in mind that many companies do not have an ATS). While there is an appetite for improving the flaw-riddled hiring process, not all Talent Acquisition teams have found the 'holy grail' to source' top talent' through AI and automation.

While some larger companies with talent acquisition teams do use hiring algorithms to help shortlist applicants, they don't use bots to regret applicants. Many ATS (not necessarily legacy ATS) will automatically rank applicants against screening criteria, but this is purely to assist the Recruiter/Talent Acquisition Specialist in spending time reviewing applications of those who best fit the job requirements. In most cases, the Talent Acquisition Specialist/Recruiter decide on who is shortlisted, not a bot.

It is worth noting that there is a fear of bias to consider; hiring algorithms can prevent discrimination or amplify it. A few years ago, Amazon scrapped its secret AI recruiting tool because it showed a more significant bias to women. Amazon was looking for the 'holy grail' whereby out of 100 applications, the machine would select five top hires, but it proved not to be as simple as that. Since then there have unquestionably been considerable advances in technology. However, many Talent Acquisition/Recruiter teams do not preference hiring algorithms. Instead, they adopt a more manual approach.

Scenario one - The early applicant

If you are an early applicant and are well-suited to the role, you are likely to be in a stronger position than someone applying late in the process. Why? Talent Acquisition specialists/Recruiters, in normal circumstances, could be managing between 10-40 roles at any one time. They will know that they need 3-10 applicants to shortlist to provide a choice for the hiring manager to initially screen and will work their ratios back from there. Once they have sorted through the suitable applicants, and they have found their top shortlisted applicant list, it is unlikely they will have the capacity to keep searching. That said, in these current times, many job seekers are chancing their luck by applying for roles that do not match their skills, so try not to let that put you off applying for roles if you have the necessary skills required for the job.

Scenario two - The curse of the killer question

An immense frustration for many job seekers. Killer questions screen out applicants who do not meet the minimum criteria for the position. While some systems still do not prevent you from continuing to apply, as soon as the results land with the Talent Acquisition Team or Recruiter, this is where you are likely to receive an auto-generated regret email.

Scenario three - Using algorithms to shortlist applicants

Where Talent Acquisition teams/Recruiters do use algorithms to shortlist suitable applicants, it is worth bearing in mind that your CV may be screened not only for keywords but also the companies you have worked for and how long you have been there. The algorithms will determine the length of your experience, so ensure you write 'years' in full - i.e. 2018 not 18. It will also rank your more recent experience higher.

Scenario four - How easy is your CV to find?

Talent Acquisition specialists/Recruiters use manually chosen keyword searching tools (using Boolean logic). Keywords will be more relevant to your hard skills as opposed to your soft skills. If you are well suited to the role, and your CV mirrors the language displayed in the job advertisement, you have a good chance of being shortlisted. Sticking to standard job titles is also essential so amend any obscure job titles so that you are easy to find. I have also discovered that where some ATS's will ask you to populate their system through a job application process rather than just sending your CV (frustrating I know). It is worth noting that the keywords that you use in the online application again can sometimes rank more highly than your CV, due to the assumption that more recent information will feature in the application form rather than the CV. So, be patient and take your time if you are completing an application process.

Scenario five - Heavily formatted CV's

We already know that ATS's do not like formatted CV's. But why? Formatted CV's confuse an ATS (some more than others). Once your CV uploads into an ATS, your CV travels through 'parsing technology' and converts the document into a format that can be searched or transcribed into a uniform digital profile.

Unfortunately, most ATS are not good at this, and I proved this in varying degrees, with the four CV templates I tested. It won't mean that the ATS will reject your CV (it will only reject if the file is too big - most won't be, or if you are applying with a scanned CV where the ATS sees it as an image instead of text).

With formatting, there is a strong likelihood that your CV will distort. As an example, the most striking and aesthetically pleasing CV tested contained multi-columns, tables and a dark section on the CV with white writing. It was unrecognisable when it parsed into the ATS. The columns jumbled up the text and lengthened the CV by turning each column into a page, and the dark background disappeared, and the white font appeared on a white background and became unreadable. I also found that the CV's parsed better in MS Word format as opposed to a PDF, so I would recommend sticking to MS Word.

The good news is that while the text will typically be searchable, a poorly parsed CV that doesn't make any sense may be off-putting and this is where the behaviour of the recruiter or talent acquisition specialist becomes paramount. Will they see it as too time-consuming and move on? Consider the volumes of applications they need to sift through.

My advice is, simple is best, this means no tables, multi-columns, text boxes, dark backgrounds with white font and use simple bullet points only (even they may come with a risk). If you do have tables or text boxes, the contents within each of the cells may not be easy to read by the ATS. Instead of tables, you can utilise the tab and justification functionality to make it look better.

However, do not despair creative CV's have their place. If you use the simple formatted CV for online job applications where you know you are likely to apply through an ATS, why not try and find out the hiring managers name and approach them directly? The clue to who they are is often in the job advert. Look for the hiring managers job title and find them up on Linked In. I have heard of several successes where job seekers have proactively sent a personalised 'value-adding' introductory video with their more creative CV and secured an interview. Done well, it could work for you too?

How can you tell if your application is through an ATS?

For you to see if you are applying through an ATS look at the company careers page and seek out the breadcrumbs in the URL. As an example, HSBC & B&Q use Taleo. If you go to their Careers Page and click into a specific job, you will see that the URL changes to feature the name of their ATS, see below.

You may not find clues in all URL's however, it is best to assume that larger organisations will use an ATS. Similarly, if you are applying through a job board and the name of the company is unknown, you may be safer to assume that an ATS may be involved and opt for your more simply formatted CV.

I tested my CV template from my website successfully; you can download a copy from the 'Quick Tips and Guides' tab on my website.

So, in summary, while technology can make our day-to-day lives easier, the recruitment and hiring industry has a significant way to go. It's not for want of trying. Those who are passionate about the industry (me included) are determined to make the candidate journey better and to give every applicant a fair chance of being considered. As technology continues to improve, we have our part to play, by educating job seekers on theirs hopefully, with each step, we will be progressing in the right direction.


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