What Is an ATS? How Applicant Tracking Systems Work

Madison Baker
A man and a woman in professional clothing shake hands while a second man stands nearby and smiles
Reading Time: 4 minutes

When it comes to the hiring process, many employers and human resource managers may turn to an applicant tracking system (ATS) for help. As you might expect from its name, an ATS is a software application or program that facilitates job recruitment and hiring. Applications often go through a business’s ATS before they ever reach the hiring manager’s desk, and your resume may never make it to them if it’s not properly optimized for an ATS.

Smaller businesses may not need to invest in an ATS, but for larger organizations, they’re a necessity. In fact, 98 percent of Fortune 500 companies use an ATS to help manage their hiring process. Any organization that receives dozens or even hundreds of applications for a single open position, though, can benefit from an ATS.

If you’re currently looking for a job, you need to understand the importance of ATS processes, how they work, and why employers bother to use them in the first place. After all, it doesn’t matter whether you know you can nail the interview or have all the right qualifications if a hiring manager never sees your application in the first place. Whether you have no experience or are making a career change later in life, here’s what you need to know about applicant tracking systems before you send off another resume.

How ATS Work

How applicant tracking systems work is actually fairly simple, as it truly streamlines the entire hiring process from start to finish. When you submit an application to an open position online, it goes into the database of the ATS. Once an application is in the database, recruiters can search, sort through, and view whichever ones they like, though search and sort functions vary from program to program.

Recruiters can compare different candidates, disqualify candidates based on their chosen parameters, and search for applicants based on keywords; some systems even provide a way to test candidates. They can communicate with applicants, schedule job interviews, and even send out rejection or acceptance letters through an ATS. All of their data can then be transferred to the company’s payroll and HR system once a candidate is hired.

Why Employers Use ATS

Employers use ATS software to help simplify the entire process of recruiting, communicating with, deciding between, interviewing, and hiring new employees. And in a world where online applications are becoming the standard, applicant tracking systems are quickly becoming essential to the hiring process.

Glassdoor estimates that an average of 250 candidates apply for a single corporate job. No one has time to review every single one of those applications, but it’s impossible to make an informed hiring decision without doing so. ATS can filter applicants by keywords and qualifications, so they can see viable candidates without having to dig through those who are unqualified or aren’t the right fit.

This saves time and energy for both recruiters and applicants. If you’ve been unemployed for a while, you know just how discouraging it can be to apply for a job you’re excited about and then never hear back. It’s especially discouraging if this is due to an issue like the volume of applications. Because recruiters can communicate with applicants using an ATS, it’s easy to let you know whether or not you’ve been asked for an interview or not. Whether it’s positive or negative news, you can then focus on the next steps.

The Shortcomings of ATS

Of course, ATS isn’t perfect, and it shouldn’t be the only way employers make a decision about who to interview or hire. It’s still just a program, and even the best of them lack the nuance of a human hiring manager. Because they look at formatting and keywords, applicant tracking systems can easily miss qualified applications by mistake. An ATS may accidentally rule out candidates who are making a career change or have formatted their resume in a way that the system can’t read — in other words, people who may be a great fit might get ruled out due to ATS error.

In addition, ATS can also be fooled by candidates who are unqualified but still manage to get their applications through. Some people may choose to dishonestly tailor their applications specifically to get through the ATS to the hiring manager. While you should always tweak your application materials for each job you apply to, stuffing your application with keywords to make it through the ATS isn’t a great idea. Recruiters will be able to tell that you wrote your application to get past the machine, not because of your interest in the job. Ultimately, if you aren’t qualified, they’ll probably decide against bringing you in for an interview anyway.

Tips for Applicants

When applying to jobs, your application, resume, cover letter, and other submission materials will almost definitely go through an ATS at some point. You should always strive to show your qualifications, experience, and skills — but there are a few things you can do specifically to increase your chances of making it through an applicant tracking system and onto the desk of the hiring manager.

Be Thorough and Specific

Be as thorough as possible and follow all application directions to the letter. Don’t use the same application, resume, or cover letter for every job; instead, tailor all of your submission materials to fit the job you’re applying for. Even if you can make it through the ATS, most hiring managers will notice if your application is generic.

Use Keywords

Look at the job description, qualifications, and requirements, and take note of the specific words and language used to describe them. Use these keywords and phrases in your own application materials where applicable and appropriate. While humans can pick up on nuance more easily, ATS cannot.

Format Properly

Format your resume and cover letter properly. Try to use a simple, uniform format when possible, such as a pre-designed template. This will help ensure that different ATS can actually read your resume and that your application doesn’t accidentally get filtered out because it’s too complex.

Don’t Over-Optimize

Again, this can’t be stressed enough: don’t write your application for the tracking system. Don’t over-optimize it, don’t stuff it with relevant keywords, and don’t just write what you think the recruiter wants to hear. You’re wasting a valuable opportunity to show off your skills, personality, and experience.

Job-hunting isn’t the most enjoyable activity, and if you’re unfamiliar with applicant tracking systems, they might end up making the process even more difficult. However, if you can successfully navigate ATS, you have a much better chance of finding the right job for you.

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