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Applicant Tracking Systems, Your Friend or Foe?

Applicant Tracking Systems, Your Friend or Foe?

Most of you have probably heard about applicant tracking systems, but some of you may be wondering what I’m talking about. Applicant Tracking Systems or ATS are computer programs used by human resources offices to scan resumes and other documents for keywords and phrases. If the documents are positive for the specific keywords or phrases the hiring official has deemed pertinent, that candidate’s information will then be reviewed by human eyes. If the documents do not have those keywords, it will be discarded in order to save time.

While ATS used to be rather rare, you can now be sure at lease 50% of mid-size companies and almost all larger companies are using them. These systems help alleviate the backlog of resumes waiting for review. While they are meant to help identify ideal candidates by searching for particular keywords relative to the positions the company is currently recruiting for, ATS can often overlook candidates who may be ideal however have not optimized their resumes for such a scan. In this last scenario, both the company and the applicant miss out.

So, how can you avoid the trash bin and get your documents in front of an actual person? Here are some very simple, straightforward tips to make sure your resume passes the scan.


This may seem like it’s obvious, but some people ask me how exactly they should do this. One of the easiest ways is to scour the job announcement itself. Often employers will put the keywords and phrases they are looking for into the job announcement. This is definitely true of federal announcements, but civilian announcements will also have a list of skills or qualifications they are looking for. You could also use a keyword resource, for example, Wendy Enelow’s, “Best KeyWords for Resumes, Cover Letters, and Interviews: Powerful Communication Tools for Success”. In this book, Wendy lists best keywords for each career field and industry. It can be especially helpful for those starting out in a field who may not know exactly what terms might be sought after. One other resource is the Occupational Outlook Handbook issued by the Bureau for Labor Statistics. This little ditty lists every career and a description of what employees in these fields do on a daily basis. If you aren’t sure how to write about a job you performed, you may find this incredibly helpful.

* One trick you can use if you don’t have the exact qualifications the employer is seeking, is to list the desired but lacking keywords in your resume under an objective statement. This indicates that you are seeking a position offering you a chance to develop these skills. It is a bit sneaky, but at least you will get in front of a set of human eyes.


While it’s always impressive to offer charts and visuals on your resume that demonstrate an upward trend in profits or production, try to avoid these extras when submitting a resume online. The ATS won’t properly interpret tables and charts or the information inside them so it’s best to avoid using them. A simple layout is best to avoid confusing the scanners. To take this to the extreme you could use an ASCII version. This entails saving your document on notepad or another similar basic .txt format. While it’s not the most attractive format, it is sure to please the scanners.


For each of your sections on your resume, be sure to include a heading, such as Professional Profile, Education, Work History, etc. The scanners are programed to read these headings, but if you get too creative, the scanners may not be able to interpret your meaning.


Most ATS will read all fonts now, but it’s best to stick with the more common fonts. You don’t have to use Times New Roman, but you want to choose something professional and clean.


When you submit a cover letter with your resume, it will also be sent through the ATS. Be sure to optimize your cover letter with keywords and phrases as well.

If you keep these simple guidelines in mind when preparing to submit your resume, you don’t have to fear the ATS. It can be your friend if you learn to give it what it wants.