Jobseeker’s Guide to Applicant Tracking Systems: Part 3


Success in navigating an applicant tracking system isn’t simply about the volume of keywords and phrases — it’s the right keywords — and, in particular, how unique those keywords are. Most jobseekers include the “obvious” keywords, but many applicant tracking systems put value on related keywords, not those specific terms.

Applicant tracking systems see some keywords and phrases as more “valuable” than others. Many systems also allow the hiring manager or recruiter to “weight” criteria — applying greater significance to certain terms or qualifications. Hiring managers can also apply filters to further refine the candidate pool — for example, geographic or educational criteria. They can also specify keywords as either “desired” or “required,” which affects rankings.

In many cases, however, the system itself determines the most relevant keywords and phrases, as outlined in the job posting.

Companies that create applicant tracking systems continue to refine their processes and algorithms — and the systems are becoming less expensive as more providers enter the market. And jobseekers continue to learn to adapt their career communication documents (especially résumés and cover letters) to meet the needs of both humans and computers.

Newer ATS software doesn’t simply identify keywords and apply a score based on how many times that keyword appeared. (Older systems were subject to manipulation by jobseekers who would simply “keyword stuff” their documents, using white text or a tiny font to include the same keywords over and over again to trick the ATS into assigning a higher ranking to the document based simply on the number of times the keyword appeared.)

Context is the new part of this. It’s not enough to have the right keyword in the résumé — nor have it appear more than once (i.e., in a “keyword” section). Instead, the system looks for relevance of the keyword to your work history and/or education. Those keywords are analyzed and weighed in the context of the entire résumé. Also considered in context is how recent the desired skill has been used, and the depth of knowledge the candidate possesses of the topic (by assessing whether relevant and related terms are also present in the résumé in relation to the keyword or phrase).

Résumé effectiveness goes beyond the ATS, however. Once your résumé pops up in the ATS search results, it needs to reflect what the recruiter or hiring manager expects from a candidate with the qualifications they desire.

Think about when you’re conducting a search on Google. You type in your search criteria, and a list of results appears. You begin clicking on results and can tell within a matter of seconds if the item fits what you were looking for. If it does, you’ll read further. If it doesn’t, you’ll click onto the next result. The same is true with the ATS.

For résumés analyzed by an ATS, it is important to include as much relevant information as possible. Inadvertent omission of key data can be the difference between having your résumé appear in a list of candidates meeting search criteria — and not making the cut.

For example, if you are pursuing a degree or certification, it should be included in your résumé (labeling it as “in progress” or “pending completion”), because a hiring manager may search for a specific type of degree or keywords contained in an area of study.

If the missing information is keyword-rich (i.e., a relevant job, educational credential, or certification), that can negatively impact the résumé’s rating — and, therefore, the likelihood of being selected for an interview.

Keywords can be nouns, adjectives, or short phrases — and describe unique skills, abilities, knowledge/education/training, and/or experience.

How can you find the keywords or search terms that are likely going to be used to query the ATS?
Also look for synonyms to the keywords you identify.

The easiest way to ensure your résumé will be accepted by an ATS is to submit a résumé that is both ATS-friendly and human-reader ready. The two are not mutually exclusive; however, ATS-friendly résumés are formatted much more simply, while human-reader résumés may contain graphic elements that make the document easier to read and more attractive to the reader.

Because the ultimate goal is to have the résumé reviewed by a human, even an ATS-friendly résumé needs to be readable — and attractive — to human eyes.

Full series:
Part onetwo and three.