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.

On a positive note, it's worth knowing that companies don't want to risk losing good candidates.

Despite the killer questions set up in the system, many of them still have recruiters manually review all applications and sometimes confirm with candidates if the details provided to the ATS are all accurate before rejecting an otherwise qualified applicant.

ATS are keyword-sensitive.

Applicant tracking systems work like search engines.

They store your application and feed your data into a company database.

Based on the keywords you used in your resume, recruiters and hiring managers can retrieve your application in the future if they look for professionals with a similar skillset. They do so by searching for certain keywords in the database search.

Optimizing a resume by listing the key skills and qualifications that relate to the keywords from the job description, rather than using creative wording, enhances the chances of your resume to be perceived as relevant - both by ATS and human readers (a recruiter and hiring manager).

Since ATS are keyword-sensitive, if you want to show your personality by being creative with your resume, an applicant tracking system won't recognize it. Instead, it may lead to getting your application rejected or lost in the database.

Some ATS automatically rate and rank candidates.

Example of an applicant tracking system ranking candidates based on % of keyword-match.

Not all ATS work the same.

Depending on ATS settings and how a company configures their applicant tracking system, employers may see a ranked list of job applications.

For example, candidates who answered all killer questions in a way that shows that they meet the basic requirements may be on top of the list. Or resumes in which a specific keyword from the job description appears repeatedly could be closer to the top.

However, ATS are still not sophisticated enough to provide a 100% accurate ranking, so companies don't blindly rely on those lists.

Instead, recruiters manually review all applications to identify the best candidates from the applicant pool.

Some companies may misuse ATS.

ATS is built to help employers better manage the hiring process, but since ATS are software used for the organization and optimization of the hiring process, their negative reputation could boil down to this -- some companies misuse this software.

ATS provide various automation functionalities that allow employers to save time, from scanning keywords to filtering and ranking applications.

However, some employers may misuse this new technology by only looking at an applicant's resume when it passes killer questions or ranks high in the list generated by ATS software without manually reviewing any other applications.

Skipping job applications that are not put forward by the applicant tracking system is definitely not a standard hiring practice -- nor a good one. However, we can't deny that some companies may do so to speed up the process.


What to write in a resume to pass the ATS?

If you take into consideration that your resume might be processed by keyword-sensitive software that looks for certain words in documents, there is only one logical step you should take when writing your resume: optimize your resume keywords.

Since an applicant tracking system (ATS) can't make sense of human language, it's up to the applicant to use keywords and phrases in their resume that will let them pass through the gates.

The most important keywords are soft and hard skills specified in the job listing. Using them in your resume will show that you possess the experience, knowledge, and skills that qualify you for the job.

Read on to learn how to identify and use relevant keywords to enhance your resume.


How to identify keywords for an ATS-friendly resume?

Using the right keywords in your resume is key to success.

There are two ways to identify keywords that will help your resume rank well in the applicant tracking system:

  • a. manually review the job ad to find repeated and ATS-relevant keywords

  • b. use a word cloud to identify keywords that are used throughout the job description.

1. Review job ads to find ATS-relevant keywords.

A job ad with a job description is the most apparent resource for keywords.

Most job descriptions will include a list of required qualifications for the job. This list includes experience, qualifications and hard and soft skills employers are looking for in candidates. These are your keywords!

Highlight skills, experience and knowledge that they are looking for. Identify words they have used repeatedly. You will get a list of ten to twenty words that will help you optimize your application for ATS.

Write them down and find a way to incorporate them into your resume.

2. Use word cloud generators to find keywords.

If you're struggling to pinpoint what skills and competencies an employer might be looking for in their candidate pool, use a word cloud generator to examine the language used throughout the job ad.

Word cloud generators, such as WordClouds, will quickly identify and reveal a word cloud of the most repeated words in a job opening.

The result may surprise you and give you some new ideas for keywords to include in your resume, or it could validate what's already there.

The most convenient part about a word cloud generator is its visual nature. The words appear larger, bolder and darker based on how often they've been used in your resume. In this way, you can easily spot those resume keywords that need some more attention.


How to use keywords to create an ATS-optimized resume?

Once you have identified the relevant keywords, include them in your resume summary and use them where appropriate throughout your job history section and other resume sections related to work experience -- in your personal statement, skills section, and most importantly, employment history.

If possible, try to incorporate the most important keywords through your resume 2-3 times each.

For example, if you have worked as an SEO content manager, 'SEO' as a keyword should be used in your personal overview at the beginning of your resume and in the skills section, not only in the work experience section.

However, don't forget the fact that your resume will also be seen by humans.

Therefore, stuffing your resume with keywords and using them as buzzwords just to beat the ATS is not enough.

So, use the relevant keywords in the context of your work experience where they naturally fit in.

Explaining your experience and providing specific information of your previous (yet relevant) responsibilities, while using relevant keywords and terminology, is how you win recruiters, hiring managers and ATS over.

Download an ATS-friendly resume template with a matching cover letter! ➝


How to format a resume so ATS can read it?

Besides using the right keywords in your resume, formatting your resume properly has a vital role in making your resume ATS compliant.

Depending on how a company uses an applicant tracking system to sift through the applications, a well-written resume with a wow design and optimized keywords could still get overlooked if the format of your resume is not ATS friendly and made to be searchable.

Read on for the most important dos' and don'ts to create an ATS resume.

Save time with a professionally designed resume template ➝

1. Avoid graphics.

Even though resumes that look like infographics can sometimes impress readers, if you fill your resume only with visual elements, you are missing a chance to include relevant keywords that help it rank better.

The thing is, ATS cannot read graphic elements.

If you include important information about your skills and experience in a chart or other visual form, you are making it invisible to the applicant tracking system. For ATS, it's like it's not even there.

But it's not only ATS that might have trouble reading graphics.

Since graphic elements are open to interpretation, a recruiter or hiring manager may struggle as well.

So, skip or minimize graphic elements. Focus on the content and relevant resume keywords. Make your resume worth reading, not only worth looking at.

2. Don't use text boxes.

Text boxes in Word or Mac Pages make formatting of your resume much easier. They are a drag-and-drop solution to placing your text in the document.

However, ATS sees text boxes as graphic elements (same as the point above).