Applicant Tracking Systems: What Every Job Seeker Needs to Know

woman interviewing

contrastwerkstatt / AdobeStock

AnnaMarie Houlis
AnnaMarie Houlis
For the first time, software is helping recruiters and hiring managers find, track, reject and hire candidates via an automated process that cuts time and money. And, at the heart of the technological revolution is the Applicant Tracking System.
It's important that job hunters understand what an Applicant Tracking System is and how it works, so they can make sure that their resumes don't slip through the system without having reached an actual human.

What is an applicant tracking system?

In short, applicant tracking systems help companies find, sort through, eliminate, track and recruit employees. They process resumes submitted by applicants, and they sometimes also use social media to recruit prospective employees. Essentially, they're a massive time- and money-saver for a lot of companies, big or small.
"Applicant tracking systems were first used by large corporations that receive thousands of applications, but smaller businesses are now using them just as frequently," according to Jobscan. "Just as companies use software applications to keep track of relevant information on their customers, using similar software to organize information on prospective employees makes sense for employers."

How do applicant tracking systems work?

When applicants apply for a job online, all of their essential contact information, relevant experiences, educational backgrounds, resumes and cover letters are uploaded into the preferred system's database and, from there, can then be transferred from one part of the system to another if the candidate does indeed move along through the hiring process.

They streamline the process.

An ATS can sort through thousands of resumes on a recruiter's behalf, flagging potential fits based on specified criteria and keywords, including ones a human might have overlooked. This saves human professionals countless hours of work. It also allows businesses to post jobs on multiple boards simultaneously.

They track the process.

Applicant tracking systems enable companies to track where candidates found their job posting, whether it be on a job board, directly from a company website or through a referral or another source. This information is vital to companies to know where they should focus their recruitment efforts to find their most desirable candidates going forward. The data can help them reduce or eliminate time-sucking and costly efforts on platforms and through sources that show little success.

Advice for candidates.

While Applicant Tracking Systems can help employers, they can be intimidating for job applicants who might not know how to get around them. Nearly 40 percent of employers use an Applicant Tracking System, which means that “most companies have thousands of resumes sitting in a database that they’ve never looked at," and 75 percent of resumes are never seen by a real person, Josh Bersin, principal at HR consulting firm Bersin by Deloitte told CIO

Moreover, 62 percent of companies using Applicant Tracking Systems admit “some qualified candidates are likely being automatically filtered out of the vetting process by mistake,” according to a joint CareerArc/Future Workplace survey.

Despite the odds, job hunters can do their best to work with Applicant Tracking Systems so that they make sure their resumes are the ones making it through to human eyes. They only need to adjust their Applicant Tracking System resume.

What is an Applicant Tracking System resume?

An Applicant Tracking System resume is a well-written resume that's been optimized to meet the demands of the software that collects, sorts, scans and ranks all job applications. This resume is packed with keywords, uses clear fonts and symbols and is overall clean and easy to follow.

How to make your resume ATS-friendly.

• Employ a simple structure.
Resumes need to be easy to read in all regards. There should be an easy-to-follow structure, and the resume should have standardized formatting and a clear layout.
• Use sans-serif fonts.
"Some applicant tracking systems have trouble reading serif fonts such as Times New Roman or Cambria," Oracle Resumes President Dustin Polk told CIO. For example, Serif fonts have small marks added to their letters, while the recommended Times New Roman R. Sans serif fonts don’t.
• Use bullet points.
Beyond fonts, any aesthetic touches to a resume should be easy to follow.
Amanda Augustine, career advice expert for resume writers TopResume, told CIO that bullet points should be perfectly round. “Opt for the circular-shaped symbol or something similar,” she said. “Avoid using arrows or other intricate symbols for your bullet points, as many applicant tracking systems will translate those into a garbled mess.”
• Mirror keywords in the job description.
Likewise, when an Applicant Tracking System searches the skills and experiences sections of a resume for specific keywords, it's looking for exact matches. That's why's applicants are urged to mirror the keywords in a job listing in their resume.
• Tailor your resume to the job description.
Applicants are encouraged to carefully, thoughtfully and deliberately tailor their resumes to specific job openings for which they're applying. In fact, applicants should be rewriting their resumes every time they apply for a new job, lifting the words and phrases from each job post's expectations and requirements.


AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at by night.