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A job seeker's guide to Applicant Tracking Systems

Updated: Feb 9, 2021

When guiding clients on how to work with their new CV, one thing that often comes as a surprise is that their CV might not always read by a person, at least not initially.

ATS, or Applicant Tracking System, software is increasingly used by organisations to manage end-to-end candidate recruitment journeys and can include the screening of CV and application form content. When used in this way, ATS is able to rank candidates against the job description criteria to help the hiring manager reduce the pool of applicants to a manageable number.

It's important to understand how to give yourself the best chance to optimise your CV when ATS is at play; I've put together some thoughts and advice from my research and experience which I hope helps you navigate this aspect of the job seeking process.

The purpose of ATS

Let's not forget the purpose of ATS - it's not there to catch you out, it's there to help companies select the best hire for the role. Recruitment is a time-consuming and expensive exercise; companies don't want to make the wrong decisions and have to do it all over again. Put yourself in the hiring manager's shoes - you've got a vacancy to advertise, you put it out there and you're swamped with several hundred, possibly even thousands, of applications. Do you really have capacity to read all those CVs with a consistent level of energy and attention?!

Like so many other aspects of our lives, ATS simply provides an automated capability to make processes more efficient. It frees up the hiring manager to focus on the highest ranking candidates, i.e. those who meet the essential criteria and have the best matched skills to do the specific job that's been advertised.

Systems like Oracle Taleo, used by companies including Coop, Sainsburys, Accenture and some parts of the NHS, are programmed to rank and filter candidates, "parsing" the data in your application - put simply, it takes your written content, converts it into a form it can read and then extracts what it has been programmed to in order to rank applicants.

Within ATS, recruiters can also employ techniques such as Boolean searching (a mathematical term for a kind of advanced online search) to fine tune their search within the applicant pool. Even without ATS, recruiters use this kind of searching to combine or exclude certain words to make their search are accurate on other databases such as LinkedIn, resume databases or even just Google when sourcing candidates. So as we'll see, it is vital to make sure your CV is ATS-ready and mirrors the job description language whether you are sure ATS is being used or not.

How do I know if ATS is being used?

In short, you don't. But there are some clues....

  • If you're applying to a role in a large corporate organisation which uses enterprise systems then the chances are fairly high it'll be using ATS of some form

  • As you click through the process there may be discreet ATS branding, or have a look at the URL when you're in the application itself as that can give the game away

  • Have a look on the "our customers" pages of the major ATS providers such as Manatal, Taleo, iCIMS, Workday and Bullhorn where their clients are often listed

  • Companies to keep an eye out for include Panasonic, Manpower Group, Kelly, Unilever, Coca-Cola, EY, Accenture, Nike, Starbucks, TalkTalk, Sky, AstraZaneca, Virgin and Nissan - this list is by no means exhaustive!

So how can you give yourself the best opportunity as a candidate navigating ATS?

1. Presentation

The first step is making sure your CV can be read by ATS to start with. If it can't read it, it will reject it or not be able to draw out the content. It should be clearly formatted, easy to read and contain the expected sections with sensible titles.

  • Avoid tables, colour, images, symbols and white text on a dark background - so no colourful headers, photos or visual skill gauges

  • Bulleted columns are OK for your list of skills, but avoid an overall multi-column style of presentation as your sentences could become jumbled up

  • Use the same font throughout and stick to something plain like Arial, Calibri, Cambria, Helvetica, Tahoma Times New Roman (although I think this looks a bit old fashioned!) or Verdana, keeping the size to at least 10

  • Make sure your work experience is in reverse-chronological order (most recent first), use proper date format (06/2017 or June 2017 - not just 2017 or '17)

  • Make sure you submit it in Word (not PDF) using your name as the file name not just "CV 2021" or it could be easily lost

2. Keywords

Your CV should focus on hard skills: the technical tools and knowledge you have to perform the role, avoiding generic phrases like "team-player", "hard-working" and "enthusiastic". You MUST tailor your CV for each job application - this would be my single biggest bit of advice across all CV and job application writing!

Make sure your keywords match

This is where you need to take the job description, get a pencil and circle the keywords. This will tell you the person spec, specific skills and desired experience that is being sought, and to be ranked as a top candidate and called for interview you will need to match the set criteria in you CV or application. Check through, note the keywords and make sure they appear in your CV - for example, if the job is looking for someone who can "create sales plans" or "develop process improvements" then you need to use this precise language. If you already have a well written keyword-rich CV then this should be a relatively straight forward exercise but you'll need to tailor it for each different job application.

Be really specific

You can't always be sure about the level of sophistication of a particular ATS system and they do vary; if the keyword is "negotiating" then it may only match on that exact word, or it could be be programmed to identify "negotiated", "negotiates" or "negotiating" as variances and you'd still tick the box. Double check the fine print - are they looking for a product marketing specialist or a product-marketing expert? A Software Developer or a Software Engineer? A Project Manager or a Project Lead? If in doubt, use their language every time.

Check the technical requirements

Make sure you line up your credentials with the way these are expressed in the job description - check what the criteria is and amend your CV accordingly:

  • ATS isn't great with abbreviations, such as MCIPD, MBA or PMP, so include the full name and put the abbreviation in brackets to cover all basis, e.g. Certified Project Management Professional (PMP).

  • Skip registered trademark symbols on qualifications such as PRINCE2

  • Be clear on how to express your knowledge of technical tools too, for example if they're looking for "programming experience" and you put "Java" you might miss out

  • This is same with CRM / Salesforce or HCMS / Workday

  • If they're looking for "Microsoft Office" skills, then you don't need to list MS Word, MS Excel and MS PowerPoint

  • If the job advert requires a degree, make sure you put this into your education section, e.g. Degree: BA (Hons) Psychology, University of Nottingham, 2012

3. Don't try and be too clever

Remember that the purpose of ATS is to recruit the best candidates by getting high-matching applicants at the top of the ranking and through to the next stage as efficiently as possible. But stuffing keywords into your CV to manipulate the software isn't a good move either...

  • Don't lie on your CV - you need to include keywords but you also need to be able to substantiate your abilities if you pass through to the next stage

  • Don't leave things out with the hope of covering them later at interview - you probably won't get far with an AI system if you leave your achievements to interpretation

  • Don't hide keywords in white text as I've heard some people advise - you'll get found out and that's not a great way to start a relationship with a potential employer

  • Don't leave it late to apply - if the required number of top candidates is met early on in the process then the opportunity may close early

  • Don't use gimmicky approaches in the guise of creativity - don't say you're a "Sales Ninja" when you're applying for a Senior Sales Account Manager position or describe your work history section as "What I've Done" to be different

  • Consider two versions of your CV if you are in a creative industry - one that is ATS compatible and one that you can use when you're confident ATS isn't being used (Canva templates are great, and Pretty Little Marketer have some great content if you're in this field).

4. Keep ATS in perspective

Try to not overthink ATS and don't be afraid of it - the simple trick is to keep your formatting clean and simple, tailor your CV and match your keywords to the job description each and every time.

Make sure your CV reads well for a human too, as ultimately it will be a person who makes the call once ATS has done its job.

Remember that while ATS has a role to play, it's people who hire people!

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