Did you know that over half of applicant resumes are automatically discarded by applicant tracking systems (ATS) without a human ever seeing them? Worse still, some of those rejected applicants would have likely been ideal for the role advertised.
Countless articles have been written about how to ace the job interview, but this post is focused on making sure you make it past first base.
What you need to know about Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS)
ATS is an umbrella term for a diverse range of software applications designed to monitor and manage applicants' journeys through the recruitment process.
These applications are designed by software engineers to carry out several recruitment-based tasks. Core ATS functions will usually include:
- Screening applicants for eligibility
- Ranking applicants in terms of suitability
- Communicating with applicants regarding the various stages of the application process
- Scheduling interviews
Additional functions may include:
- Posting job ads to connected job boards
- Setting and marking pre-interview assessments
As a hopeful candidate looking for your dream IT industry position, you need to first understand how the resume screening process works, so that you can give yourself the best chance of making it over the first hurdle.
How does an ATS work in terms of applicant screening?
Every applicant tracking system is different, but there are common elements between them.
Many systems are modular in design. Assessing your basic eligibility is the function of the resume filtering or screening module. In its simplest form, this will generally consist of a database and a script that can match keywords read from a resume with a list of target keywords submitted by the recruiter. Modern filtering modules will use machine learning algorithms to detect words and phrases that are closely related to the target keywords.
Applicants are then ranked, often from one to 100, with their position based on how closely the keywords and phrases in their application form match those on the target list. The screening module may also include a visualisation tool in order to display candidate scores and rank order in a graph or table.
The precise algorithms used by each system to screen applicants will differ, but some ATS vendors have published YouTube videos with specific details on how they work.
Why do employers use applicant tracking systems?
There are several reasons why ATSs are popular with employers, including reducing the time to hire, improving the user journey, and avoiding inappropriate hiring.
An ATS can analyse and extract data from an application form much faster than a human, allowing a company to screen and process hundreds or even thousands of applications in a short period of time.
Employers are also becoming aware of the importance of giving candidates a positive user experience during their application. A state-of-the-art ATS can respond to queries promptly and ensure that the best candidates are progressed quickly towards the interview stage.
Theoretically, the ATS can select and order candidates on suitability for the role. While this is not necessarily the case, the screening software will usually eliminate the least suitable candidates, minimising the risk of the company recruiting poor hires.
However, it is not uncommon for highly suitable candidates to be incorrectly filtered out at the resume stage. Before we look at how you can avoid that fate, it's important to understand what happens when your resume meets the digital gatekeeper of an ATS.
What happens when your resume meets an ATS?
Exactly what happens when your resume is screened depends upon the design of the ATS algorithm and how the system has been configured by the recruiter. For example, some recruitment agencies and employers will set the system to scan just the first page of every resume, saving even more processing time.
The algorithm will generally compare the keywords and phrases in your resume with those specified by the recruiter or employer. This will include role-related keywords (including words related to essential qualifications, skills, traits, and experience), but could also include location-related keywords (e.g. Ottawa, Alberta, Canada, Chicago, New York, etc.), and even words related to the specific employer. This helps to weed out generic applications and those where the candidate has failed to research the company they want to work for.
Now that you have an idea of what the screening module does when interacting with your resume, it's time to look at how you can avoid being filtered out into the digital trash can.
How to beat the ATS and get your resume seen by human decision-makers
Always remember that you are not gaming the system in order to gain an unwarranted advantage, you're simply ensuring that your resume contains all your relevant qualifications, experiences, and skills, presented in the format expected by the ATS. Being turned back at the gate is in no one's interest if you are a good match for the role advertised.
There are three main things to think about when tailoring your resume for ATS screening: keyword research, keyword placement, and document formatting.
Before you can place relevant keywords into your document, you need to know what those keywords are likely to be. You will never know for sure, but there are some smart ways to make sure you are in the right ballpark.
First, grab a notebook, or virtual notepad, and scan through the job description. Note down any words and phrases that refer to qualifications, experience, skills, or traits. For example, you might note down, 'CompTIA Security +', '20 years development experience', '5G Software Developer', 'problem solver', etc. Pay particular attention to essential requirements as these will almost certainly be stored in the ATS database.
Next, look up industry professionals with similar roles on LinkedIn or other networking platforms. What do they put in their online resumes that match your skills, experience, traits, or qualifications? Add these to your list.
You can also jot down a few synonyms, because most ATSs will use natural language processing (NLP) algorithms to understand closely related terms
Once you have your keyword list, place the words and phrases naturally into your resume, following standard good practice for structuring your resume. Be extra careful with your spelling. You don't want to be screened out because of a simple typo.
As mentioned earlier, use geographical keywords where relevant, and include the company name at least once.
When formatting your resume, keep things simple. Avoid graphs, tables, and fancy fonts. Some resume filtering tools may be thrown by markup code, so don't take the risk. Make sure all of your keywords, including contact details, are in the body of the document, because an ATS may not scan headers and footers. Unless specified otherwise, using a Microsoft Word doc as other formats can cause problems.
A final tip is to think beyond your resume and raise your profile in the industry through networking. LinkedIn is a useful platform for getting your name known, and if you're spotted by an influential contact, you might get a shortcut straight through to an interview.
Some final advice:
Here are some more gems of wisdom to help you stay on the right side of both machines and humans:
- Don't overdo it! Remember that beating the tracking filters is only the first stage of the process. If your resume reads like a list of keywords, the first human to set eyes on it will probably delete it in disgust. Repeating keywords multiple times (keyword stuffing) is particularly frowned upon, and might be picked up by a smart ATS anyway.
- Only apply for positions you are qualified for. While you don't need to meet 100% of the desirable requirements of a role, you must hold any qualifications that are listed as essential. Adding these as keywords just to evade the screening programs is blatantly dishonest and will harm your reputation.
We're confident that the above information will be invaluable in your future applications, and the team at Myticas hopes to help you with your next career jump in the IT sector.