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December 8, 2014
Job Seekers: Applicant Tracking Systems Are Not Your Enemy

It’s not a secret…most job seekers are mystified by applicant tracking systems and the role they play in the recruiting and hiring process. As the co-creator of an applicant tracking system, I have a few decades of experience in this area and want to shed light on what an applicant tracking system is and why it can be a viable tool for job seekers to help get the job they want.

Nowadays, whether you apply for a job at a corporation or respond to a position posted by a staffing agency on a job board, your information will go into their applicant tracking system (ATS), which is a searchable database or repository where your resume enters the recruiting and hiring process every time you apply for a job. When you apply, you’re self-matching to one or more open jobs in the ATS.

The recurring factor that creates confusion for job seekers is that no two applicant tracking systems are alike. There are a multitude of nuances that create distinctions between different ATS that require the successful job seeker to adapt accordingly. For example, the number of answers it takes to complete an online employment application can vary. Some systems will require you to answer screening questions in addition to posting your resume, and may require candidates to fill in each required field, while others will pre-populate fields by extracting information from an uploaded resume.

Some applicant tracking systems will identify on the application what document formats are acceptable for upload or for a cut and paste of the resume and cover letter. Observe the instructions carefully and use a format that is within the standards of what the ATS can accept. By not complying, you run the risk of your resume being rejected or placed into a holding area within the ATS that houses improperly formatted documents — and potentially your application may not being reviewed in a timely manner. Some ATS offer a spell check option, but if not, it’s advisable to cut and paste from a document that allows you to proof the text prior to inserting in the required field.

So with all the differences and nuances aside, when you submit your online application, resume, and cover letter, your goal is to do everything possible so that the recruiter, staffing professional, or hiring manager identifies your resume in their database because you compare favorably to the job requisition. Take the time to fully review the job description and make sure your resume matches the requirements listed in the description. Do not “spray and pray,” hoping that if you apply for enough jobs, the law of averages will kick in and your resume will be selected. It’s important to be specific as to why you’re the right person for the role.

Keep in mind: Some companies require a cover letter and others will not. If it appears on the online application, assume the company wants it to be included. Personalize your cover letter and avoid the impersonal “Dear Sir, I saw your ad on XYZ website.” Cover letters should be crafted in such a way that the person reading it can determine if you are a good fit for a particular job or not, so be mindful of what you say and the length of this document. Use the cover letter to make a grand entrance.

So how can you ensure that your resume can be found? Unfortunately, you can’t control everyone’s actions, but there are tactics you can use to increase the likelihood of your resume being found and seriously considered for the job.

Throughout the process, information you include in the entire online application is vital. This includes a fully completed employment application with a well-written, corroborating resume and cover letter. Consider your resume part of the application and keep the information concise and relevant to the job you want; if your resume too long and is a generic one-size-fits-all, don’t expect it to stand out.

The recruiter or hiring manager is going to look for key words that are easily identifiable in the resume. Keep in mind: How one recruiter conducts a search in the database will be different from how someone else conducts a search. Some recruiters may use a key-word specific or Boolean search, where others may use a conceptual search. No one search style is necessarily better than another; it really is a matter of choice and probably based on prior search successes. Good ATS vendors offer training on updates and enhancements and take the time and care to help recruiters properly use an ATS, but ultimately an interest in being current lies with the individual user.

Applicant tracking systems are designed to house tens of thousands of resumes, so doing what you can to make yours stand out from the crowd while keeping within the standards of what a given ATS can accept into its database is critical to ensure the recruiter can find you and see that you’re the best fit for the job.

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Doug Coull is the founder and CEO of APS, Inc., makers of SmartSearch talent acquisition and staffing management software. Doug founded APS in 1986 after a successful management career in the contract engineering industry. Envisioning a new approach to candidate management, APS, under Doug's leadership, pioneered resume scanning based systems. A leader in technology development for nearly 30 years, Doug brings a unique perspective to the development and user adoption of software and technology in the HR community.   

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