Applicant Tracking Systems and How to Beat Them

Job Search

For anyone looking for a new job, today’s process can be reminiscent of Groundhog Day.

  • Attach a resume
  • Attach a cover letter
  • Provide links to previous work
  • Confirm the highest level of education
  • State times available for interviews
  • Submit the application
  • Repeat

Today’s job-seeking routine seems so repetitive because most companies use an Applicant Tracking System (ATS). An ATS is a software application that handles the drudgery of recruiting qualified job applicants. There are different types and levels of the ATS, but all perform the same basic task: kick your resume out before a person can seriously consider you for a job.

The design of an ATS is not to make your job hunt more effective. It intends to make it easier for companies to weed out unqualified job applicants. 

But, as any committed job seeker knows, there are numerous jobs for which you are perfect. If you could book an interview and have a face-to-face conversation, you know you’d get the job. 

But an ATS prevents that sort of application process progression. If you want to apply to a company that spends more time considering you than disqualifying you, you have to find a way to get past the ATS.

Here are some tips for doing just that.


To beat the robot, don’t be a robot

Remember, your task is to get through the Applicant Tracking System. Somewhat surprisingly, you can’t do that if you play by the ATS rules.

That is not to say you are trying to trick the ATS. Don’t exaggerate your willingness to relocate or inflate your experience for the job. What you should do, however, is individualize the process.

  • Don’t send the same resume to every job posting. 

You are likely searching for various positions within your chosen field of expertise. Create a resume that speaks to the specific job for which you are applying. Highlight different features of your resume depending on the position you are seeking. It might amount to no more than a cut-and-paste effort, but it will break your resume out of the ATS rejection routine.

  • Individualize your cover letter. 

You should never send the same cover letter to two different jobs, no matter how similar the job descriptions are. The ATS recognizes the identical nature of your applications. So, a rejection from one role could easily lead to denial at another job simply because you sent the same cover letter.

  • Be straightforward. 

In the past, when job seekers personally handed in resumes on paper, they would do whatever possible to make their physical resume stand out. Uniquely colored paper, with seldom-seen fonts; unusual design features like boxed work experience or vertical presentations were all the rage. Today, when a computer screen displays a resume, it does not help to include any of those distracting and sometimes confusing features. 


And now, about those keywords

Include essential keywords in your resume and your cover letter, but beware of overdoing it. This practice can cause the ATS to ping your material. And not in a positive way. 

If you read a job description carefully, you can identify the keywords the employer is looking for in your text. But, that does not mean you need to include those keywords in every sentence you write.

You need to use essential keywords in your text in a way that matters. And use them in the proper context. Your sentences need to make sense to the reader. Remember that while every cover letter must include keywords, the letter itself must be different from your others.

Have you ever read a sentence online and cringed because it was so obviously a chaotic jumble of keywords? Don’t do that. Use the crucial words, but do so with a purpose.

Be judicial about your applications

New or desperate job seekers tend to apply to every job for which they have the slightest possibility of matching the job requirements. 

However, ATS software recognizes when a job seeker applies to a position for which they have minimal relevant work experience or education. If you want to remain in the same field of work as your current or most recent post, then apply only to those jobs for which you have the necessary skills.

That is not to say you must check off every bullet point. Many electronic applications list job requirements as “must-have” and “would be helpful” or something to that effect. Don’t worry too much about that second list. Nail the first few bullet points, and you have a better chance at getting in. 

If you are looking to change careers completely, you have less of a chance at progressing past an ATS. In that case, check out job fairs to connect with employers. Or apply to those holding open casting calls. Those job postings still exist.


Don’t play the game

Companies that use ATS software are trying to cut down on expenses by only considering qualified candidates. But, depending on the design of the ATS software, many qualified candidates get brushed aside by the automated process. 

In order to make the best case for yourself and your application, you must offer a completely unique presentation each time. Remember, the ATS catches blatant similarities, so you want to disguise yourself from the system’s detection. And that’s not at all too hard to do.

Just put in a little more time and a little more effort. Be less robotic about applying to jobs, and a robot is less likely to exclude you from the process. Your dream job is well within reach!