What is an ATS (Applicant Tracking System) and Why Should I Care?

job search resumes
Woman Typing at Computer

If you are in the market for a job today, you are likely to hear that your resume should be optimized for an applicant tracking system (also called an ATS).  What exactly is an ATS, and how does it impact you as a candidate?

This post is going to walk you through the basics that you need to know so that you can adapt your job search strategy.

What is an Applicant Tracking System (ATS)?

In layman’s terms, an ATS is a piece of software that helps companies manage candidates.  Sometimes it is a stand-alone piece of software, and other times it may be integrated with a broader HR information management system.

It can serve several functions, including:

  • Automating the job posting process to job boards
  • Approval workflows to support internal company processes
  • Screening candidates
  • Tracking the status of candidates
  • Automating candidate outreach (emails)

Let’s look at each one to determine why the ATS is such a valuable resource for companies and recruiters (and even better, how you can use it to your advantage as a candidate).

Automating the job posting process to job boards

Posting a job to a job board is a pain.  You have to log into the job board via your recruiter account, enter all of the data so the system knows how to categorize and sort the job, and then paste in the job description.  And it never formats correctly.  Ever.  So you get to fiddle with that until it looks right.

Then, you get to log into the next job board and do the same thing.  Rinse and repeat.  It is a tedious task, especially if you are posting the job to several job boards.

Enter the ATS, which now lets you create the job once in the software, and with the click of a single button post to as many job boards as you like.  That’s it.

Approval workflows to support internal company processes

Large companies have a lot of people that need to sign off before a job gets posted.  Usually, it is the HR manager, the hiring manager, and the hiring manager’s boss at a minimum.  If it is a specialized or more senior role, then there could be more approvers in the chain.  Ugh.

How do you make sure all of the right people have signed off?  It was once a nightmare involving email (at best) or approval forms (at worst) requiring physical signatures.  Many times the various approvers aren’t in the same building…or even the same time zone!  The ATS makes this a breeze by auto-routing the position based on internal rules.  Once all the boxes have been checked, the recruiter can make it live.  It also sends gentle reminders to approvers when they get busy and forget.

Screening candidates

This is where your ears should perk up.  A recruiter often doesn’t have time to read every resume that comes in.  The good news is that they don’t need to.  The recruiter or hiring manager simply puts in their criteria when the job is created, and the ATS does the rest.  In fact, many systems will score a candidate based on the job description alone, even when a human does not provide any scoring criteria.

That means that having a single resume that you use to apply for all roles is likely to get you nowhere fast.  It must be optimized for each specific job.  Want to land a job at McDonald’s?  You’d better have a different resume for that open cashier position than you do for the vacant fry cook role that is your fallback.

Automating candidate outreach

Many of the emails you receive from recruiters may read like form letters.  That’s because they probably are.  Companies and individual users can create templates for the most common stages in the candidate workflow.  For example, when a candidate is marked as hired in the system, it has the option to send every other candidate the dreaded “Thank you for your interest” message.

Using the ATS to manage communication also allows the system to associate all messages with the candidate, making it much easier for a small team of recruiters to support each other.


This is who reads your resume first!

How does it decide who rates highest?

The answer is…it’s complicated.  However, I often like to use an analogy that most people understand.

Your candidate profile is like a website, and your resume is the home page.  You’ve designed your site to be found by recruiters and hiring managers in the fields that are of interest to you.

The ATS is like a search engine.  It looks at all of the websites (candidates) and all of the pages (resumes) on each site, and categorizes the information in a way that is likely to be useful to someone doing a web search.

So when the recruiter sits down in front of the ATS to review candidates, it’s like they are typing “find me the perfect purchasing manager” into Google.  The ATS, similar to a search engine, looks at all of the candidates and comes back with the most relevant results first.  The difference is that instead of typing in a search each time they look at candidates, they defined the search parameters when they created the job posting.

If you really were a web page, you would want to be on the first page of Google.  Being on page 18 of search results means that your website is unlikely to ever get a visit.  It doesn’t matter that it’s the best website on the internet…if other sites are following SEO best practices, then they are likely to outrank you.

How to make yourself attractive to the computer

They say that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”  That is certainly true when it comes to the ATS.  It cares about formatting, but not in the same way a human would.  Your resume format should think about what the parser (a fancy word for a tiny gnome that sorts out and organizes the content in your resume) wants to see.  They don’t like pictures, text boxes, or tables.  You know…all the stuff you added to make your resume look good!

A few simple rules will make your resume much more readable:

  • Make sure your resume tells a story that aligns with the job for which you are applying. Use (but don’t over-use) the same words as the posting when possible.
  • Text boxes and pictures are invisible to the computer. If you add them, make sure your resume can stand alone without them.
  • Avoid columns and tables. These confuse the ATS and it has to guess in what order to process the information (it will probably guess wrong).
  • Make sure your most important information is at the beginning of the document. Content up front is weighted higher than the stuff at the end.
  • Use common headings like “Professional Experience” and “Education”.

So what if you have a really killer resume that is beautiful but violates every rule above?  First, you might want to get a second opinion on your resume.  However, if you want something that has visual sizzle to win over an interviewer, then just make sure you have two copies of your resume.  One for the ATS, and one to hand out.

If you are qualified for the job, the ATS is your friend

Candidates that optimize their resumes and online applications for the ATS have an advantage over all of the applicants that are still doing things the old way.  If you have the right skills and qualifications, courtesy of the ATS scoring algorithm, you have a way to move yourself to the top of the list of candidates.

Remember that while the format is important, having good quality content that showcases your skills and achievements is critical.  While online resume builders may make pretty (by human standards) documents, that’s the route that most of your competitors for the job are taking.  There is no substitute for good old-fashioned know-how if you want to catch the attention of recruiters.

Good luck!