The Truth About Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS)

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Over the years, we’ve seen a great many questions posed by job candidates about Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS). Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions and erroneous beliefs as to how ATS actually work, how they review and qualify candidates, and what benefits they provide to both the candidate and the employer.

Let’s take a look at the some basics every job applicant should understand and then clear up some assumptions and misinformation about this very important component to the job application process.

1. What is an ATS?

Simply put, an ATS is an online software application that accepts and stores information that job candidates input. It’s designed specifically for recruitment tracking purposes. Once collected, the data provided by candidates for each position may be easily reviewed by the employer’s recruiter(s) and others involved in the hiring process. The ATS can sift through the applications and help hiring companies determine which candidates may be the most qualified for a given position based on criteria set by the employer.

Figure 1 - The other side What the recruiter sees

 

Figure 1 – The other side: What the recruiter sees.

This is how an ATS may make applications available to a recruiter (not all ATS look or behave the same). Clicking on the candidate’s name will bring up all the data input into the ATS. The recruiter may also sift and filter the applications manually based on his or her criteria.

2. Why do businesses use them?

A properly-configured ATS may help employers of every size more efficiently and accurately identify qualified candidates, saving them time and money. Once an applicant inputs data into an ATS, it is readily available to all the employer’s individuals who are involved in the hiring process.

An ATS also delivers a highly-organized accumulation of all data, so recruiters, hiring managers and others can review the same information, communicate with each other, coordinate and schedule interviews, and keep the process flowing. Just as companies use software applications to keep track of relevant information on their customers, using similar software to organize information on prospective employees makes sense for employers.

Information submitted by candidates who are not chosen for one position remain available and can be reviewed at a later date for other positions that become available within the organization.

3. How does an ATS work?

Applicants may enter their data into the ATS front-end located on the hiring company’s website, or it may be extracted from applicants’ information he or she has uploaded to job boards. Popular job boards have also created abbreviated application systems including Monster’s “Apply with Monster” and LinkedIn’s “Quick Apply.”

Once a candidate has completed inputting his or her information into an ATS, the data is stored within a database. A recruiter may then search all the applications for germane keywords for a particular job opening, including job skills, former employers, years of experience and schools attended. An ATS may also be configured to automatically perform this process.

An organization is given numerous options when configuring their ATS. For example, they may elect to add “knock-out questions to quickly eliminate candidates who don’t meet minimum qualifications, as described below. Organizations that work with an ATS company to properly configure their system may enjoy a superior experience in terms of that system’s speed and efficiency.

Also based on configuration, an ATS may score applications and rank more qualified candidates based on the employer’s criteria; a resume containing more designated keywords will be ranked higher.

The recruiter may even have the ATS search the company’s entire database including applicants for other positions to identify candidates that meet that specific criteria.

The ATS enables the recruiter to schedule interviews with candidates, pass along qualified candidates’ information to hiring managers, retain the data for future openings, and perform other functions that can make the hiring function smoother and faster.

Fact vs. Fiction

Here are some common beliefs concerning ATS and the reality.

True or False:  ATS searches for keywords, dates and job titles in your resume.

This may be true, depending on how a company configures its ATS. A company may also program the ATS to use knock-out questions (“Do you have at least three years’ experience as a marketing manager?”) and pre-qualifiers to weed out applications that don’t meet minimum criteria. Candidates who do not meet these criteria may be eliminated or their data placed into a “knock-out pile” for future consideration.

True or False: ATS can read resumes in any format.

ATS can misread resumes that are not optimized for ATS. Graphics (including bullets), incorrect headings, formatting, characters, and wording may not be properly read by an ATS. Even then, information from a resume may appear to the recruiter as a solid, unformatted paragraph. Some ATS now are trying to use neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) techniques to overcome the lack of keywords in qualified candidate resumes, LinkedIn profiles, or other social media profiles.

True or False: It’s better to use a PDF when submitting your resume to an ATS.

Word or PDF format are most easily read by most ATS. And most recruiters will review the actual resume you’ve attached to your application rather than depend solely on the resume you’ve input into the ATS. Since many ATS cannot read tables or graphics, and have difficulty with italicized or special characters such and ampersands and accent marks, it’s best to avoid using them.

Figure 2 – The resume

Figure 2 – The resume

An ATS may not be able to read graphics including bullets, condensing your resume into a single paragraph.

True or False: If the keywords are not found, you’ll be immediately rejected.

This is dependent on the hiring company’s configuring of the ATS. Companies may program their ATS to score applications and place applications that don’t meet a minimum into a separate “holding database” for possible later consideration.

True or False: All ATS work the same.

ATS differ. They offer different functionality and complexity. An ATS from one company may be customized with different options so it operates differently from another ATS from the same company. Different Applicant Tracking Systems also provide different reporting functions.

True or False: Every ATS scores resumes; if you don’t get a minimum number of points, you’ll be disqualified.

Fact: Most ATS can score applications if the hiring company activated this feature. Recruiters can also manually make the ATS weigh applications based on relevant terms the recruiter specifies and then review the results.

True or False: ATS can figure out where to organize all the data on the resume and can use all the information.

Many ATS need guidance, using headings, to determine where to put data. So good information gets misfiled and ignored. Many ATS use only information that matches their formatting rules.

True or False: An ATS may reject a resume longer than two pages.

Length does not matter. But if the ATS has been programmed to search for specific terms, resumes that contain more of those keywords – which may be longer – may actually score higher.

True or False: Companies are using ATS because they do not care about people.

Companies may be overwhelmed by the volume of applications, and the ATS is both effective and efficient in identifying unqualified candidates. It keeps applicant data organized and retains applications for future evaluation when other openings occur. Moreover, the U.S. government requires companies to report EEO statistics, to which the ATS can compile automatically. ATS also provides reporting functionality i.e. how many interviews, candidates. In addition, ATS also posts jobs publicly enabling job aggregators such as Glassdoor, Indeed and Linkup to pull from.

True or False: I have a resume on LinkedIn, so I don’t need to put my resume into the ATS.

If you are on LinkedIn, you can apply for a job using the website’s “Quick Apply” function which forwards a candidate’s LinkedIn profile and resume to the hiring company. Other sites including Indeed, CareerBuilder, and Monster offer similar shortened means to apply for jobs. Applicants may also opt for a longer and more complete job submission from job sites which actually takes them directly to the front-end of the hiring company’s ATS.

True or False: An ATS won’t let me know if I’m disqualified.

Candidates may be notified if the employer has set up their ATS to perform this function.

Applicant Tracking Systems 101 [eBook]
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Six questions you should consider when deciding whether an ATS is right for your organization’s needs & tips to help you get started.

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Lewis Lustman

Lewis Lustman is a content marketer who enjoys developing materials that engage, inform, challenge, and hopefully entertain my audience. Lewis is a former journalist for Los Angeles Magazine and the Los Angeles Times, and has worked for a number of leading advertising, marketing, technology, and PR firms over the years. Interested in a topic that he hasn't yet tackled? Drop him a line in the comments section!

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