Beat the Robots – Applicant Tracking Systems Explained

Getting an interview can seem like a daunting task in today's world of ATS systems. Learn how to beat the odds!
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Understanding the roadblocks to the interview.

Often in the recruiting field we hear stories of job seekers spending hours online researching employers and polishing their résumés before hitting send on an application. Then, they spend days or weeks waiting for feedback that never comes.

You may be surprised to find out that some of these applications will never actually reach a human due to some increasingly powerful gatekeepers – applicant-screening and tracking systems. After scanning résumés to find key words, these systems hurl many applicants deemed as ‘not a fit’ into a digital black hole.

We understand – it’s hard enough to look for a job without being rejected by a robot.

On the employer side, these systems save time and money when swamped by online applicants and could potentially reduce bias in hiring. But the tools can also risk magnifying employers’ existing prejudices and rejecting worthy applicants. The most vulnerable also are usually the most active job seekers, such as recent college grads looking for entry-level positions or older workers idled by layoffs.

However, the algorithms are quite beatable if you know how to work around their filters. Here are some of the best ways to avoid getting cut out by the applicant tracking systems.

Keywords are (nearly) everything

The first step in beating the job-search algorithms is understanding how they work — and it’s not as complicated as you might think.

The system searches résumés for keywords mentioned in a job posting, then tallies up those keywords and determines which applicants have the most relevant skills and experience. But applicants cannot simply regurgitate important terms repeatedly.

Keyword bingo doesn’t exist anymore because products have gotten more intelligent, the algorithms not only value quantity but quality.

We recommend applicants use keywords that appear in the job posting as well as acronyms or synonyms that communicate the skillset. For example, if you’re applying for a job as a computer programmer, ‘computer programmer’ should show up in your résumé as well as related titles such as coder and developer. Another example is referring to Cascading Style Sheets by the full name as well as the abbreviation, CSS.

Another tip: use the words precisely, the algorithms can read phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. But again, don’t repeat them too much. The usual rule of thumb is three times.

Keep it simple

Algorithms aren’t perfect. Sometimes, résumés saved as PDFs or with headers and footers will cause them to get finicky. Other flourishes that can trip them up include playful fonts, photos, logos, colored paper, and text boxes. Any of these can prevent the ATS from properly scanning an application.

When submitting your résumé online, its always best to keep it as simple as possible. The best way to do that is a résumé in good old-fashioned Microsoft Word format.

Don't lie

While these keyword and formatting tricks can help get past the bots, don’t let them mask the ultimate goal: getting an application in front of a real-life human. Once you enter the information into the system and it selects candidates, a human being on the other end won’t just take the applicant tracking system for its word, the recruiter or hiring manager on the other end will be the deciding factor every time.

In other words, if you say you have a skill set for the sake of keywords, you better actually have those skills. In addition to technical skills, the soft skills of communication and cultural fit inevitably come into play. Those skills can shine in a well-written cover letter, as well as in the interview likely to come if your application makes it to the top of the heap.

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