Five Tips For Navigating Applicant Tracking Systems

Have you wondered if anyone ever reads your online job applications? Do you feel like a rejection email came too quickly and that the only explanation could be your attempt was automatically rejected by an anonymous computer program?  Perhaps you’ve endured the frustrating experience of uploading your resume only to have to copy all your information into the application fields.

If so, you are not alone! I often get questions from clients asking how to stand out when submitting online job applications. The key is knowing how to navigate an applicant tracking software system (ATS), which many companies use to manage the hiring process and organize applicants. Think of them as virtual filing cabinets that store your application information, which hiring managers can pull up at any time, including if the same or similar job opens again. They are intended to make life easier for hiring managers. 

Any quick online search will pull up all kinds of comments about ATS that are misinformed at best or even fearmongering at worst. Some of the misconceptions are probably because there are so many of these systems, each functioning a little differently. But it’s not that complicated to cater to the common denominators.  

Here are five tips to help you navigate through any ATS and maximize the odds of being called in for an interview.

  • Answer all the “knock-out” questions. Contrary to what you may have heard, your resume will never be automatically rejected by ATS unless you don’t answer the “knock-out” or basic questions that are part of the application process. For example, “Are you authorized to work?” or “Do you have a driver’s license?” Your application might not be processed if you ignore these questions, or if your answer is different than what is being asked.
  • Tailor your resumes to the job. You always want to make it easy for the employer to see that you are a good match for the position. Use their vocabulary by including relevant keywords from your industry in your resume. You can find keywords in the “qualifications” and “responsibilities” sections of job postings. It’s important to use them in context, as part of your bullets, to demonstrate your relevant achievements.
  • Be careful with formatting. Unless you’re sending your resume directly to a person, it’s best not to use formatting tools like text boxes or graphics. ATS cannot read their content. They also can’t read headers or footers, so make sure that your contact information is not in one of those. Also, some of the ATS, especially the older ones, can confuse the order of text in columns and tables, so it’s best to avoid those too. This doesn’t mean your resume can’t be visually appealing! Incorporate shading, borders, and a little color when appropriate to add aesthetic appeal. Here’s a trick I use to test for ATS compatibility: save your resume as a plain text version. That will show you how your text will be read.
  • Apply early. Be aware that positions can appear open if an offer has not yet been accepted by a candidate, even when the employer is well into the hiring process. Don’t wait to apply if you see an interesting opportunity!
  • Write for humans. My most important tip is to write for people and not a software system. Relevant, readable content is the most important aspect of your resume … and don’t forget to check for typos and misspelled words!

Candice White is a Career Coach and Certified Resume Writer for the Ignite Career Center of JCS.

Whether you are new to the job market or a seasoned professional, the Ignite Career Center, a program of Jewish Community Services, can help you go farther and get there faster. Our highly experienced Career Coaches provide individuals of all backgrounds and abilities with the customized services and tools they need to stand out from the competition. For information, call 410-466-9200 or contact us through our website.

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