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Applicant Tracking Systems – Your Best Friend or Worst Enemy?

Applicant Tracking Systems

Are you good at your profession?

Do you believe you’re one of the top applicants whenever you apply for a job?

Do you think that too many unqualified people apply for the same jobs that you do?

If you answered yes to any of these, then you’re going to want to read this blog post.

Because we’re going to rip apart the claim that Applicant Tracking Systems decide whether or not your application is seen by a human eye.

And if you’re someone who thinks that these systems are your enemy, we’re here to tell you why you couldn’t be more wrong (and that’s a good thing!).

But first things first.

Remind Me – What’s an Applicant Tracking System?

Everyone thinks they know what an applicant tracking system – or ATS – does. They screen online applications, scan for keywords, and auto-reject people who don’t fit. Because they’re not human, and people don’t understand how they work, ATS often miss great applicants. Not only that, some people cheat the system through tricks like mass applying through AI or pasting the job description in white font inside the resume to falsely boost keyword match. So ATS are inherently flawed.


Actually… no.

Yes, ATS are companies’ digital job application gatekeepers. They come in various shapes and sizes, from basic application organizers to high-tech programs that scan your resume for keywords and integrate with the company’s HR system.

So there’s no one-size-fits-all ATS.

But regardless of their sophistication or capabilities, all ATS share one thing in common: they help companies manage tsunamis of applications for any given job, which can sometimes make Noah’s ark seem like a canoe.

Once you hit that “Submit” button, your resume starts its own adventure within the company’s ATS. Depending on the particular brand and type of ATS, your resume will be digitally assigned to the file of the job you’re applying for. Your key information – contact details, work experience, education, and so on – will be pulled from your original document to create a candidate profile in the ATS.

It’s at this stage where recruiters typically review your application. They may or may not look at your original resume (for example, if the candidate profile text has parsed weirdly, they may go back and look at what you originally wrote. More on how to avoid this later.).

Now, some ATS do have the ability to scan for keywords, and rank your application accordingly. But the vast majority of ATS simply parse your resume, assign it to the correct job, create or update a candidate profile on the system for you, and sort these for the recruiter. Some also auto-reject based on your responses to screening questions that may be set at the beginning. Others organise and rank applications based on how closely they meet certain criteria.

Truth be told, it’s not always easy to figure out what ATS they’re using, or how extensive its capabilities are.

But that shouldn’t matter. What does matter is ensuring you’re applying for jobs you’re a strong fit for, and that your resume reflects this. Because that’s what will give you the best chance of success. Not the ATS.

Because let’s not forget that behind every ATS is a real, live human being. Yes, robots haven’t taken over the world just yet. Humans still go through applications and make the final judgement call. So no need to worry about a robot uprising if you’re a close fit– at least not in the HR department.

Busting the Keyword Myth

Contrary to internet rumors, ATS don’t have a secret mission to scan resumes for keywords and spit out those that don’t meet the criteria.

While some systems do indeed scan for keywords, and rank your application according to how closely it matches certain job description criteria, the ATS itself likely won’t reject you on the basis of keywords alone.

Instead, they use this information to sort and rank your application, alongside other factors (such as pre-screening question responses, length of experience, and so on).

While we’re on the subject of keywords, let’s do away with another myth. We’re seeing a lot of so-called career influencers and even some job boards claiming that soft skill keywords (i.e. subjective abilities or qualities) are almost as important to include in your resume as hard skills (i.e. job-related objective competencies or skills such as project management or team leadership).

No. While these might be great to mention in a cover letter, you can be sure that no recruiter searches resumes based on keywords such as ‘interpersonal skills’ or ‘adaptability’.

Why? Because they’re incredibly subjective. And not words that a lot of job seekers would think to include in an accountant or graphic designer resume (or any resume for that matter).

Instead, recruiters look for hard skills – skills that the best-suited applicants will have included in their application.

So if you think ATS are rejecting you because you forgot to mention ‘flexibility’ or ‘critical thinking’ in your resume, forget it. If they’re scanning for keywords, you can be assured it will be for job-related hard skills only. It’s when people don’t include these that the ATS and human recruiter can pass you over.

Pre-set Screening Questions – They’re More Important Than You Think

If you’ve applied to jobs online, you’ll almost certainly have come across pre-set screening (or knock-out) questions.

These are usually questions about salary expectations, work authorization, current location, and available start date.

While they might seem annoying, or even a bit intrusive, recruiters set these for a reason. The simple truth of the matter is, if your responses to these questions are not in line with their needs, then your application won’t be accepted, no matter how great you are.

And yes, at this stage, some ATS will auto-reject you. This leads applicants to think that the system has unfairly rejected a well-matched application, stopping yours from being reviewed by a human eye.

No. If it’s rejected at this stage, it’s almost certainly because of those pre-screening responses.

What else can help or hinder my chances with the ATS?

A lot of job seekers get angry at the technology, blaming it for their ultimate rejection by the hiring manager.

But here’s the thing: No matter how great a fit you are, you may miss out on that interview if you don’t pay attention to a few basic rules (which apply even for human recruiters, BTW).

Assuming ATS or recruiters will take the time to read between the lines and guess you have skills or other criteria that you haven’t mentioned, or expecting them to make an exception if you answer a pre-screening question in a way that’s outside their current requirements, is unfair.

If you’re a strong fit, and you meet the requirements, and your pre-screening responses are in line with what they’re looking for, you are guaranteed to be towards the top of the pile. The ATS will ensure that.

Aside from pre-screening responses and keywords, here are a few other tips to help your application be favorably sorted by the ATS:

  1. Use an ATS-friendly resume template. Avoid creative templates that include columns, graphics, text boxes, or uncommon fonts (ATS can’t read them). ATS parse text line-by-line and use this to create your candidate profile. If elements are unreadable or confusing, the recruiter will be irritated by the gobbledegook. They may or may not look at your original resume to sort out the mess
  2. Ensure your resume sections use common labels (e.g. Work History or Professional Experience instead of List of Jobs). ATS detect these when parsing your resume, and pull information for different sections of your candidate profile onto their system. If it misunderstands which text belongs to which section, this can lead to confusion
  3. Upload the right file format (many online jobs state the preferred file format, e.g. Word or PDF). If in doubt, use Word, as it’s easier for ATS to accurately parse
  4. Include months as well as years in your job descriptions. Many ATS calculate your experience in months and years as another way to sort your application according to what the recruiter wants (and to compare you with other similar applicants) If you don’t include months, the ATS may underestimate your actual total experience. You don’t want that.


By now, you’ve realized that the ATS is NOT your enemy.

If you’re a strong applicant who has the skills and qualifications, and your pre-screening question responses are in line with what the recruiter is looking for, AND you’ve taken the time to ensure your resume reflects this, then the ATS is your strongest ally.

It will ensure that your application is sorted towards the top of the pile, and will filter out those which don’t meet the criteria.

Which means, your application is more likely to be seen that it might otherwise had been, if recruiters stuck to the traditional stack of printed resumes to sort through.

Just as cream floats at the top of milk, so too will your resume, thanks to the ATS.

Video: Are All ATS The Same?

Most companies these days use an applicant tracking system or ATS to screen incoming applications. But do they all work the same way? No! In this video tip, we share our top tips for the smooth reading of your application by any ATS, no matter which type the company uses.

For more insights, tips and strategies related to this topic, be sure to read our other articles: Cracking the Code of ATS - 10 Tips to Optimize Your Resume

Related questions

How can I optimize my resume for an ATS?

To optimize your resume for an ATS, use a simple, clean format without columns or graphics. Include relevant keywords from the job description and use standard headings like "Work Experience" and "Education." Ensure your resume is in a format that the ATS can easily read, such as a Word document, and avoid using special characters or intricate designs that may hinder parsing.

Do ATS systems reject resumes without keywords?

While ATS systems often use keywords to rank resumes, they typically do not reject resumes solely based on the absence of keywords. Keywords help ATS categorize and prioritize applications, but other factors like work experience, education, and pre-screening question responses also play significant roles in the evaluation process.

What role do pre-screening questions play in ATS evaluations?

Pre-screening questions are critical in ATS evaluations as they help filter out candidates who do not meet basic job requirements. These questions can cover salary expectations, work authorization, location, and availability. Incorrect or unfavorable responses to these questions can result in automatic rejection, regardless of the resume's content.

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