top of page

ATS Resume Guide: The Complete Guide to Applicant Tracking Systems

Updated: Oct 23, 2021

If you've been actively looking for a job, you've probably stumbled upon the term 'ATS' or Applicant Tracking System - software used by employers to receive, organize and sort job applications.

But with all the conflicting information out there, you still may wonder how an applicant tracking system works and how to actually write an ATS-optimized resume.

With the help of this complete guide on applicant tracking systems, you will be able to create a perfect ATS resume and start landing interviews faster than ever before by ensuring your resume gets past the first filter.

In the next 10 minutes, you will learn:

Read on to learn everything you need to know about applicant tracking systems and ATS-optimized resumes to get ahead in your job search and be successful in today's job market.

Let's start with basics.

What are applicant tracking systems?

Applicant tracking systems are frequently presented as AI gatekeepers that check, review and stop resumes at the virtual entrance to the company.

There are many myths around how applicant tracking systems work.

Based on the online information, many job seekers think that:

  • ATS rejects their job applications without allowing recruiters or hiring managers to see them

  • ATS independently makes the decision who will pass to interview stage and who won't

  • ATS auto-rejects all resumes that aren't designed in a certain way

However, ATS is much more well-intended business software used for organization of the recruitment process.

ATS is business software used for organization of the hiring process.

ATS works on a pretty simple principle. It collects, organizes, and stores job applications, helping recruiters manage the recruitment process more efficiently. While doing so, it also allows them to communicate with job seekers, share their applications with hiring managers, send bulk messages, invite them to interviews through the system, and so much more.


Why do companies use ATS?

A few decades ago, people landed jobs differently.

Many got jobs based on referrals and recommendations. Some submitted job applications in person, handing their resumes on a piece of paper. Considering that, companies were receiving a manageable number of applications.

Nowadays, everything is digital.

Resumes are rarely printed, job applications are submitted online, and almost the entire hiring process is virtual.

Since job seekers can now submit their applications to any company with just a few clicks, companies started receiving dozens or hundreds of applications per day. Reportedly, Google receives 50,000 job applications, while Amazon gets 75,000 -- per week.

To handle the increased number of applications, companies needed a tool to help them manage all candidates in a user-friendly way while saving time and money.

That's why applicant tracking systems (ATS) were developed.

Due to the changes in the hiring landscape and an increase in the volume of applications, applicant tracking systems became a necessary tool in almost any business.


How to know if a company uses ATS?

Companies that receive hundreds or thousands of job applications per year need a tool to screen and sort candidates. From their perspective, applicant tracking systems (ATS) simplify hiring and its organization.

Jobscan* and Kelly OCG research found that ATS is used by:

  • 98% of Fortune 500 companies

  • 66% of large companies

  • 35% of small companies

It's safe to say that most companies nowadays use some sort of a recruitment and screening tool to process applications.

Companies that use an applicant tracking system typically have an online form that needs to be filled in when submitting a job application. From a candidate's perspective, seeing an online form is the easiest way to recognize that the company is using an ATS.

So, it's safe to assume that the applicant tracking system is processing your application if you do one of the following things:

  • apply for a job in a large organization

  • fill in an online form as you're submitting your application

  • apply through LinkedIn, Monster or Indeed as they have built-in ATS

It's safe to assume that the applicant tracking system is processing your application if you apply for a job in a large organization, fill in an online form as you're submitting your application or apply through LinkedIn, Monster or Indeed as they have built-in ATS.

Considering the above, the chances are that you've already submitted multiple applications to and through an applicant tracking system without even knowing it.


How did ATS earn its notorious reputation?

Even though applicant tracking systems are simply organizing tools used to improve efficiency of the hiring process, somewhere along the way they earned a notorious reputation -- so notorious and prevalent across the Internet that job seekers have started dreading job applications, and even hiring professionals have started doubting their understanding of the ATS.

Thinking about how applicant tracking systems work, there are a few functionalities that could be to blame for their reputation, such as:

  • rejecting candidates based on killer questions

  • being keyword-sensitive

  • rating and sorting candidates automatically

ATS may reject candidates based on killer questions.

Example of an applicant tracking system ranking candidates based on the number of 'killer questions' they answered correctly.

The ATS and, more importantly, people behind it are only interested in qualified job seekers that have the specific skills required for this particular position.

To speed up the process of finding the best candidates, ATS may use a series of killer questions to pre-filter unqualified applications.

Killer questions allow recruiters to screen out unwanted applicants based on their eligibility for work, skills, qualifications and experience level.

For example, if you're applying for a digital marketing manager job in the UK, and the company is looking for someone with three years of marketing experience and a Google Analytics certificate, some of the killer questions could be:

  • Do you have the legal right to work in the UK?

  • Do you have three years of experience in marketing?

  • Do you have a Google Analytics certificate?

If you give a negative answer to any of these questions, your application could be rejected instantly.

This means that you must answer all of the questionnaire's questions as employers expect it to move your application forward in the hiring process.

However, even though applicant tracking systems use killer questions to screen out unqualified applicants, they don't do it automatically on their own.

These questions are configured for each job opening by a recruiter in agreement with a hiring manager based on the job requirements.

So, it's not just a computer program that automatically rejects you. It’s software that follows a set of rules set by the hiring team.

It's not just a computer program that automatically rejects you. It’s software that follows a set of rules set by the hiring team.