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ATS: Playing to the Common Denominator

11 Feb 2021 7:39 PM | Deleted user

By Marie Zimenoff 

Career Thought Leaders & Resume Writing Academy

and Cheryl Minnick 


When you apply online, your resume is likely not going directly to the recruiter. It will be processed through an applicant tracking system—an ATS. 

ATS is an integrated platform used to streamline talent sourcing and HR management processes, handle volumes of applications, and search for criteria for each job. It keeps resumes in one place and helps recruiters or hiring managers stay organized and compliant with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

ATS rank candidates and can help recruiters narrow the applicant pool. Many recruiters do look at every resume, and the point of ATS is to help separate the qualified candidates out for recruiters to focus on as they determine who to interview.

We consistently share the latest on ATS advances in the Career Thought Leaders newsletter. Sign up to get it in your inbox!

Why do we need to care about ATS?

As of 2020, there are now 476 Fortune 500 companies that use ATS. Talent acquisition is a $120 billion global market and 95% of Fortune 500 companies use an ATS to centralize recruitment. Almost all companies configure their ATS according to their needs and what kind of talent they are looking for. 

We have to understand how the job boards work, how applications interface with the ATS, and how recruiters use ATS in sourcing in partnership with social media such as LinkedIn and Facebook. When your resume goes inside an ATS, it is completely text inside. Your profile information is the default data. The parsing function populates the education and employment history from the resume. And, the original resume does still exist and is used by many recruiters to pass on to hiring managers. 

If you have a network inside the company, does it increase your chances to land an interview? The Federal Reserve Bank of New York, in its study, found that candidates that were referred from the inside were twice as likely to be interviewed than all other applicants. But, they still reviewed and stored resumes for compliance with equal opportunity. If you have a referral, you might move to the top, but you still have to meet the minimum qualifications by your resume.

Why do resumes slip through the cracks?

Most of the time when the resume is deemed to not meet the qualifications, it is because the candidate failed to demonstrate their qualifications that align with the employer needs in the content of the resume. The other common reason is not following the directions or responding to the application questions in a way that leads to an automatic rejection.

The best way to make sure your resume demonstrates the qualifications in the resume is to start with the end in mind. Get focused on the types of jobs you will target and the types of companies. Seek out job descriptions and identify the top qualifications. Then, collect your professional stories, degrees, certifications, and other information that shows you meet the qualifications.

If your profile information does not meet minimum job qualifications, it can be automatically disqualified. iCIMS automatically sends emails stating, “did not meet one or more of the minimum qualifications,” through their recruiting portal.

Content and formatting errors can keep an applicant from rising to the top of the list for recruiters to review. These errors include the following: 

-        Keywords: ATS can be set to source one keyword (e.g., Admin Assistant) or search for multiple terms or combination of terms (e.g., Administrative Assistant AND payroll AND data entry AND Excel). Verb phrases and skills in the job description are probably the same keywords and phrases the hiring manager programmed the ATS to scan for. Use both acronym and spelled-out form of acronym, (Certified Public Accountant for CPA). Repeat a keyword in different sections but never keyword stuff. Make sure to use the words in context, not just in a list, and many systems (and all human readers!) score the document higher if you demonstrate your use of the skill.

-       Address: Some ATS allow recruiters to provide geographic radius requirements (iCIMS uses city names to search candidates, while Taleo uses zip codes). Recruiters are advised to use the Boolean “AND” operator to search for candidates who have both the required and desired skills, along with a specific area denoted by zip codes. 

-       Header or footer: Not every ATS can read information in a header or footer. Avoid putting contact information in the 1st-page header. Although it is not likely that this will cause your resume to automatically be rejected, it does make it easier for the recruiter if your contact information loads into the ATS automatically.

-       Text boxes and graphics: As the resume is scanned, scored and ranked, text boxes and graphics disappear within the system as if they are not even there. They usually don’t prevent the other text from being scored, but any text within the box or graphic is not scored.

-       Font: Because ATS changes the resume into plain text, not all the systems can change all the fonts into the plain text. Most ATS can only read San Serif and almost never third-party installed fonts (like Disney) because they are not supported by Microsoft. The common denominators are Calibri, Helvetica, Verdana, and Arial.  

-       PDF: A resume might disappear because it was uploaded in PDF, HTML, Open Office, or Apple Pages rather than Word. A PDF goes into the system fine, but in some systems the score is automatically zero. ATS are getting better at reading PDFs, but not all can, so play to the common denominator—WORD.

-       Incomplete: Not filling out all the questions in the job application can really block you in the system. Not following the directions is most more likely the problem than the actual resume itself.

How about using bullets, lines and shading?

Whether the bullets are in circle, square or diamond, it may turn into funny characters on the other side. It does not matter because they still function as bullets and don’t prevent the system from scoring the resume content. Lines, shading, and color do not matter in ATS. 

You can get support in writing your resume and cover letter from an expert or specialist to be sure you can make it through the ATS.

How to know what ATS the company is using?

You can find the ATS as a branded logo. If you mouse over the apply and submit button, the URL might pop up. You can look in the URL at the top, and type the word (e.g., iCIMs or UltiPro) in a Google search and at the bottom of the page, and it will say “powered by” and list the ATS. If you know, then you add a comma, then “training manual” or “font” (example: “UltiPro, training manual, font”). Sometimes, you will get a YouTube video or other training materials. 

The chart shows as of 2020, Workday is the #1 ATS with 22.6% of 476 Fortune 500 companies, shortly followed by Taleo with 22.4%.

Do acronyms and synonyms matter?

The system is looking for the actual word, so spell out the acronym before using it in another reference. Not all systems are muscular enough to look for us in them. It is Boolean logic and not artificial intelligence. We need to play to the most common denominator and use the exact keyword or keyword phrase. 

For synonymous words (for example developed and developing), there is no one straight answer if ATS would consider synonyms or only exact keywords. It is better to use both words separately. 

How do we tell soft skills in a resume?

The hard skills are likely what is programmed into an ATS. Can you imagine how many hits would happen if they programmed in “excellent communication skills” … only for most of the candidates to not actually have them? The best way to display your soft skills is through a great interview and a tight and wonderfully written resume and cover letter without grammar errors. 

For example, for a nanny for our newborn baby, they wanted someone with infant CPR, so we would put an “infant CPR” as the qualifier. Yes, they want the nanny to be friendly, warm and loving, but they want “infant CPR.”

And, of course there are some soft skills that may be used in the ATS to look for qualified candidates. If you see the same soft skills showing up in the job descriptions you analyze as you are writing your resume, consider how you can work those into statements that demonstrate the value of that skill. Did your “excellent communication skills” lead to sales? Increase customer satisfaction rate? When tied into an example these skills help you not only get through the ATS, but stand out among other candidates.

How can people stay up to date with ATS?

There are many ways to learn about ATS. Go on Youtube and type “applicant tracking system” to watch company tutorials about how it works. Search “applicant tracking system” and go to the company website to read about it. Blogs are also a good source of information.

You can join LinkedIn resume writing groups. You can also take webinars or find a resume specialist from career associations. Keep up on what is going on and keep talking to each other. Keep asking questions such as: What and where did that come from? How did you find that? Where did you find that so that we can determine what is applicable to our clients?

Ready to have a more effective resume? Find A Certified Resume Writer!

Are you a professional resume writer? Learn more about writing for ATS and search engine optimization

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