Applying for Jobs Online? Here’s What You Must Know about Applicant Tracking Systems.

By Greg Whitesell, Marketing Director

Does this situation sound familar? You find a job online that you feel qualified for. Next, you customize your resume to the employer and role. Excitedly, you submit it, get confirmation, then you hear nothing.

What happened? Was “submit” actually an eject button that fired your resume directly into the sun? Was it stolen by an angry goblin? We’ve all been there. The joys of the online application process are sadly few. But the process is a necessary evil.

The most likely reason for application silence is that your resume landed in Applicant Tracking System (ATS) limbo. Could you have avoided this situation? Possibly, but how? It starts with understanding how an ATS works, and answering these 4 questions can help.

How does a job make it to the job board?

In most organizations, a hiring manager decides when talent needs to be acquired. They ponder what skills and experience the new hire will need. They decide a job title, a list of “must haves” in terms of education, skills and experience. Next, they communicate with either Human Resources or their chosen staffing partner(s). They finish by editing and formatting these details into a job posting and publishing it to an online job board.

By the time you view a posted job requisition, it’s been reviewed by multiple people and formatted to include keywords. These key terms outline the requirements of the job, hard skills and even soft skills like communication, personality, leadership and more.

As a job seeker, customizing your resume for a role should begin by studying the original posting and honing in on its keywords. Doing this helps decrease the odds that your resume will end up in ATS purgatory. But wait – there’s more.

How do applicants enter the ATS?

When you apply for a job online and get confirmation that your application was received, you enter an ATS. Just because you made it in, however, doesn’t mean your credentials will be viewed by a recruiter or hiring manager. It simply means your data is sitting there, just waiting to be discovered. Can you help an ATS “see” you? The answer to this lies in understanding how an ATS works and how it uses job posting keywords to determine candidate relevance.

What does an ATS do or not do and how does that affect me as a job seeker?

Although computers and the softwares driving them are getting smarter by the day, they aren’t human. ATS’s can’t “think” on their own, they can only follow instructions. A recruiter or hiring manager tells an ATS what to look for using keywords from the job posting. If your resume has more keyword “matches” than other applicants, that’s a good thing.

It is important to note that an ATS doesn’t tell a recruiter who best fits an opportunity. These systems simply present candidates who best utilized the keywords from the job posting to build their resume first. When you apply for roles through an ATS, the job posting must be your guide.

Does formatting matter?

Once you’ve discerned which keywords matter, you must organize your resume into a document that appeals to the ATS. How? Keep it simple. A resume with multiple fonts, special characters, bolding, tables, and more will set you apart, but not in a good way. Here’s why.

Just like it can’t form thoughts, an ATS often can’t do the following: read text formatted in boxes, view images or graphics, properly utilize data presented in columns (because it reads right to left) or tell the difference between bolded, underlined, italicized or regular text. Your best bet is to format your resume in a straightforward, plain text manner. The ATS is more likely to pick up relevant keywords when you follow this approach, increasing the likelihood that matches will be made.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a foolproof way to “beat” an ATS. You can, however, work to present the ATS with the information it is looking for. In doing so, you give the system the best chance of working for you rather than against you.


The Sherpa team has recruiters with years of experience helping candidates in their job search. With specializations that include Accounting and FinanceHuman ResourcesMarketingProject Management and Executive Support we work to connect talent to opportunity. To learn more about working with us as a candidate visit us online.

Connect with Greg at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/gregwhitesell

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Sherpa LLC

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