Applicant Tracking System (ATS)—A Friend or a Foe? (Part One)

“Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, who is the fairest one of all?”
--The Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

By Pierre G. Daunic, PhD - A Senior Writer for

As you may recall, the mirror in this famous Disney classic always told the Queen that she was the fairest, until one day the mirror responded that Snow White was now the fairest.

In a sense, the fairy tale Queen’s mirror is today’s Applicant Tracking System. Just as with the mirror, an ATS’s job is to impartially select the very best applicant for a job. And in many ways, it does exactly that … and in other ways, it doesn’t.

My purpose here is to outline both the good and bad points about ATS and show how you, the jobseeker, armed with this knowledge, can increase your chances of getting a job interview.

What is an Applicant Tracking System?

Today large and small companies use Applicant Tracking Systems software to scan, store, organize, and sort information on prospective employees from what could be thousands of email or mail-in job applications – all at a much lower cost than before. They can then, relying heavily on job-related keywords, format standards, and other benchmarks, produce a prioritized list of those candidates whose profiles are most related to the job openings they are trying to fill. Only then will human eyes decide which candidates are indeed the best to interview.

How well does an ATS work?

Very well … up to a point. It is certainly cost-effective and thus has become a key component of many Human Resource Information Systems for companies and agency recruiters who would otherwise be overwhelmed by countless submittals. But its effectiveness depends on the quality of the parameters it sets for each position search and the quality of the resumes it receives. If the keywords and parameters it sets are too stringent or incorrect, the pool of candidates will be proportionally smaller and perhaps of poorer quality.

In a way, companies and recruiters don’t care. Even if up to 75% were automatically deleted from consideration because they didn’t meet the company’s parameters, seekers of talent would still have 25% or more to peruse. And they, of course, can change their parameters if not satisfied with their results.

The Problem for Jobseekers

All very well and good for the companies and recruiters, but what about the jobseeker who is ignorant of ATS and/or how it works? If the jobseeker doesn’t understand the importance of keywords or formatting, such a jobseeker will be at a severe disadvantage when competing against those who do understand ATS. Here’s an example:

Jack (not his real name) was a national sales and marketing executive in the pharmaceutical industry. Knowing that his company was about to be sold, he launched an aggressive campaign for a new position, but despite an excellent track record with well-known firms, struck out again and again—he couldn’t land an interview. Even a company for which he used to work, one that he’d left on good terms, seemingly ignored him when he answered an ad posted on their website.

Frustrated, he contacted one of that company’s HR managers, explained that he was a former employee, and asked if she could pull up his resume and let him know why he hadn’t been chosen for an interview. She did and acknowledged that he probably should have been chosen, but explained that they had outsourced their talent search to a national ATS firm and had to rely on that firm’s search results. That ATS firm should have picked him, but didn’t—why not?

The Jobseeker’s Responsibility

Jack didn’t make the cut because he didn’t understand or comply with ATS practices and procedures. If you the jobseeker are to have an ATS decide that you are worthy of being interviewed, here’s what you must do:

  1. Have a superlative, professionally written resume, one that you’d happily show someone while networking or during an interview. I know this may sound self-serving because I’m a professional resume writer, but the fact is that most jobseekers don’t write well and, even if they do, don’t write resumes well, either in general or in keeping with ATS expectations.
  2. Convert your professionally written resume to an ATS version, which you’ll use when answering ads or approaching companies and recruiters online. It will be much the same resume, but carefully stripped of special formatting such as italics or bullets, in an acceptable font with a point size of at least 10. It will be “plain vanilla”, but as such, won’t be ranked poorly by ATS simply because it didn’t follow ATS guidelines.
  3. Test your ATS draft. To do so, use a resume screening software filter such as Jobscan (my preference), Résunate or Rezscore, which compare the language and words in your resume to that in a job ad that you’d like to answer, then give you a surprisingly detailed report on how relevant your resume is to the ad and rank you accordingly. It will base its findings on three primary areas: keywords, measurable achievements, and formatting.

Keywords. One of the best ways to get an Applicant Tracking System to notice your resume is to anticipate which keywords the ATS and recruiters will be trying to find. Studies have shown that recruiters choose on average only 5-6 keywords and rarely more than 9. But which keywords? An ATS filter will tell you the most likely based on the ad and then tell you how few or many you have on your resume.

Measurable Achievements. To compare well against your competition, your resume must contain numbers and numerical achievements. Bland generalizations about your accomplishments will cut down your relevancy score. You must insert numbers that either define the range of your responsibilities (e.g., the number of people you supervised or the size of the budgets you controlled) or by what dollar amount or percentage you saved or made your company money directly or indirectly.

Formatting. Most well written resumes will include appropriate keywords and measurable achievements, but too few will recognize the importance of format in avoiding low relevancy scores by an ATS. All too often they will opt for fancy layouts, unusual fonts, and artistic touches to impress readers with the creativity of the writer. Unfortunately, such excesses tend to clog up an ATS. To have the best chance of a high relevancy score, follow the “do’s and don’ts” of ATS conversions outlined in Part 2 of this article.

For a free critique/price quote, email Career Resumes®.

Peter Newfield is President of®, one of the premier resume writing services in the United States. He is The Resume Expert,,, and the former Resume Expert for, Spencer Stuart Talent Network and the Career Center on AOL. View samples at: