The Elite Career Blog

The Truth About Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS)

Adriana Modersitzki
Adriana Modersitzki
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July 5, 2021
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9 minute read

The topic of Applicant Tracking Systems, also known as ATS, comes up all the time in our corner of the internet. Whether its job seekers fearing they will put a toe wrong and their resume will instantly be rejected, or businesses who capitalise on this fear – we see it all.

The thing is, just like its name suggests, the ATS is a tracking system. Not a resume rejection system. That big, bad reputation has come about from a historical misunderstanding and an incorrect perception of how companies really use these systems.

So, let's set the Applicant Tracking System record straight!

What is an Applicant Tracking System?

In many businesses, technology has removed simple, repetitive tasks and therefore saves time and money.

Recruiting is no exception.

An Applicant Tracking System is a computer program used to track the lifecycle of a recruitment drive throughout the entire advertising, screening and offer process - and sometimes to facilitate the onboarding process for a successful applicant.

Just like the POS (point of sale) system is used by retail businesses to sell goods and services,  produce reports and track inventory, an ATS also has many purposes and applications throughout the recruitment process.    
Contrary to some common resume myths and job application misconceptions, ATS programs are not JUST resume screening tools, used to eliminate as many people as possible in the early recruitment stages.

These systems have many other features, including:

  • Scanning resumes, cover letters, selection criteria and online forms to collect information related to the advertised role and other positions
  • Automatically creating candidate profiles to allow the recruiter to track information and communications against a profile
  • Scheduling and communicating information for interviews, phone calls and testing
  • Coordinating mass email send-outs, such as informing unsuccessful applicants that their applications will not be progressed further – we ALL want to see more of this, right?
  • Capturing analytics for reporting and future planning purposes
  • Providing a visual view of the recruitment pipeline to manage multiple job postings
  • Ensuring privacy and data compliance across multiple countries
  • And much more, when organisations customise their software!

Why do companies use ATS?

The short answer is that ATS programs save businesses time and money when recruiting. But, one of the most significant misunderstandings we constantly face working with our clients is that not every business uses these systems.

That's important to keep in mind as you navigate the application process! There are some big names out there that do not use ATS, particularly in the Australian job market.

Don't buy into the myth that every organisation has cranky, opinionated resume screening robots, folks.

While working in recruitment for large Australian companies and organisations, members of Team Elite have had job openings that attracted over 1000 applications for a single position! Adding to this that some recruiters can manage up to 30 advertised roles at once, the number of job applications to keep on top of can become staggering.
This is a big part of why ATS are used.

Let's look at the 'why' for the companies that do use ATS.

Using a tracking system allows recruiters to see which jobs are open, the stage of recruitment each role is at, and what the pipeline looks like. This visual tracking system can be extremely helpful when managing the recruitment of multiple roles.    

An example of an ATS pipeline that applications move through for each position being recruited.

But I've heard that most companies use ATS, so why does The Elite Collective think differently?

As with most controversial topics, it depends on who you ask and where you get your information – not to mention how and why that information was collected. For example, there is some regularly mentioned research that states that 98% of Fortune 500 companies use ATS.

Just like any research you do, there are a few things to consider;

Firstly, where is the information from and is it useful? This particular information is specific to the American job market and references large Fortune 500 companies. It doesn't reflect the current state of Australian organisations, or consider small and medium businesses, or even government departments. From experience and some enlightening conversations, many of these categories do not have these systems, and if they do have them – they aren't always used the way it's made out.

Secondly, the motivation behind why research is conducted is essential. Just like studies that tell us that sugary drinks aren't bad for us can be sponsored by soft drink companies, this information was collected and shared by a business that offers services to help resumes be ATS compliant. They have a vested interest in this perception.

If you've been following Elite for a while, you'll know that I started out in agency recruitment. And I agree that using ATS systems speeds up the recruitment process. But, I also feel that there is a lot of misinformation and fear-mongering about these programs that just isn't necessary.

As a recruiter, using ATS made it easier for me to oversee the whole campaign and decide which applications to prioritise. But these systems never operated independently of my decision-making and just rejected applications. And most importantly, I could always access each and every application I ever received if needed.

Two things come to mind when I think back to my time using an ATS in agency recruitment.

Firstly, when the agency rolled out their new ATS system, I clearly remember the trainer taking me through the process of reviewing job applications and saying, "Adriana, to see the resume click that little blue arrow there. Don't bother looking at what the system has pulled out. It just makes a mess of it. Just click the arrow, and you'll see what the candidate sent in". So much for instant rejection if the resume wasn't ATS compliant, hmm?

The second thing? It was so incredibly helpful in tracking my workflow and seeing which job advertisements were bringing in the most aligned candidates. With the click of a button, I could see if one particular job ad was underperforming and I needed to re-write the copy, or if responses had gone wild and I needed to set aside extra screening time. 

These days, I regularly sit down to chat with other Australian recruiters, colleagues in career development and HR professionals. Conversation often turns to ATS, and I hear that many of them don't even have ATS programs, or have spoken to trusted sources from major organisations and departments don't use them either. Sheesh.

Confused? I get it.

Let's break down how these programs work so that we can take the fear factor out of your next application.

Technology and how businesses use it changes. Fast.  

ATS abilities and features have changed a lot in the last 15 years. The way the recruiters or hiring managers use the systems varies wildly depending on their individual preferences, training, and technical aptitude. And how companies use ATS programs has also changed as businesses better understand equal opportunity, diversity, and the potential for bias in the recruitment process.

Comparing the original ATS software and company processes to the systems of the 2020s is like comparing today's touchscreen smartphones with button-pressing phones from the early 2000s. Unfortunately, our perceptions of ATS programs have not changed with the advances in technology.

The first ATS programs had only a few features and followed strict programming rules. Often, the software was unable to find information in the resume unless it was presented exactly right. Add in that the organisations were still learning how to use this software as a part of the recruitment process, and perfectly suitable resumes were misread and automatically labelled as 'not meeting the role's requirements', leading to the application being rejected.  

But in the shiny, modern ATS programs of today, this is no longer the case.

Today's ATS software is smart enough to know that Career Experience means the same as Work History, that 'labour' and 'labor' are different spellings of the same word, and that telephone numbers can be in the 'xxxx xxx xxx' or 'xxx xxx xxxx' format. 

And more organisations are learning that people are their most valuable investment – and actually walking that walk. This means that while efficient recruitment is important, some companies will change their processes to ensure they are getting the best applications and hiring top performers, even if that decreases efficiency a bit.

Most interestingly to us here at Elite, is the growing pile of evidence and stories that even though ATS technology is growing and advancing, more and more organisations choose not to use these programs to scan resumes. And, that even if the organisation or government department uses ATS for this purpose as a first check, the recruiter or hiring manager still assesses applications manually and uses the ATS to manage their pipeline.

So, what kind of resume should I create?

If you're really worried, you can often see if a company uses an ATS by looking at the program logo at the bottom of the form you complete to submit your application, or by watching the loading link in the bottom left of the screen, when you click 'Apply Now'.

However, we don't advocate for turning yourself inside out to create an ATS compliant resume – there are far too many variables. You simply can't predict them all.

There are a few simple rules of thumb that you can use to help your resume progress smoothly through the system and still be human-friendly.         

  1. Check next to the 'Apply now' or 'Upload your resume' button to see which file formats are preferred before uploading. This will indicate the preferred document type for upload - .pdf, .docx or .txt       
  2. Limit tables and keep columns to two or three so that related wording is extracted together.
  3. Ensure all text is typed, as text in an image cannot be scanned.  
  4. Remove unnecessary graphics and images so that the document gets the recruiters attention but doesn't take up value text space and confuse the scanning process.   
  5. Use keywords from the job posting, but no need to overdo it! Most programs are smart enough to know that 'typing speed' and 'words per minute' are both information about your typing ability.

Most importantly, your resume also needs to be human friendly too! Remember my story above about being taught to open resumes using the little blue arrow? Yep. People will read your resume too. Your resume should cater for the people who make the decisions, not the computers that may or may not assist the process.  

There is no point cramming huge blocks of text with lots of keywords and no white space into a resume, creating frustration for a hiring manager who spends too long trying to find which company you last worked for. And don't get us started on the idea of keyword stuffing by putting white text in the margins. Please. Just don't.

Confused about ATS compliant and ATS friendly resumes?

Don't fret; this is a technical question even many professional recruiters struggle to answer! The short answer is formatting and document type.

An ATS compliant resume is formatted so that in .txt documents, the resume text is not altered or changed in any way. These documents are plain black and white, all text, and to be honest, can look a bit boring. These are complaint resumes because no features or formatting will disrupt a scan completed by the ATS software.

ATS friendly resumes, on the other hand, are what we write here at The Elite Collective. These CVs look good, have a bit of colour and are easy to read. We absolutely focus on keywords - speaking to the language used in the job ad is important. It's good writing practice, not a 'trick to beat the system'.

Could we write ATS compliant resumes? Sure. But our professional opinion – and that's what you come to us for – is that ATS friendly resumes strike a better balance between human and computer. They serve both. Which ultimately serves you.  

Worried your resume may not be suitable?

Our advice is to follow the tips above checklist to ensure that the content and format of your CV meets the capabilities of ATS programs. Or if you're stuck and feeling overwhelmed, look at hiring a professional resume writer.
We know what to create, that works for humans AND computers.
We follow best practise when writing documents because that's what we do. Not because we're worried about the robots.

Ready to write your resume?

Whether you are returning to the workforce after having kids, converting a service record for a civilian job, or are a teen searching for their first job, The Elite Collective has a variety of services available to suit your needs and budget that are ATS friendly.

Our DIY resume kit includes a template with helpful prompts and an explanatory video, or if you would like a professional touch, we can write your resume for you. We also have a complete list of our job application services and courses available now!

So what are you waiting for? Take the next step and start applying for your dream job today!

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One comment on “The Truth About Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS)”

  1. Such an informative, first-hand, experience-based article. Thank you for taking the time to share this information! There is so much out there regarding "beating the system" when really we need to focus on removing that fear and delivering a marketing document that actually connects with the relevant human readers. You've nailed it, AM!

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