Applicant Tracking Systems: Getting Past the Myths

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What, exactly, is an ATS?

The latest challenge in resume writing: getting your resume past the robots and into the hands of HR!

Almost all large organizations, along with some medium-sized and small ones, rely on Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) to assist with scanning, screening and ranking resumes. If you’re job hunting, you’ll definitely want to make sure your resume is optimized for ATS. If it’s not, it could be bypassed by the system and never reach the Human Resources Specialist or Hiring Manager who might think you’re perfect for the job. Sure, this system of resume screening and scoring helps Human Resources Managers, Recruiters, and Hiring Managers save time reviewing irrelevant and unqualified candidates. However, it also means your resume could be missed if you don’t have the right keywords, formatting or other details that the ATS is scanning for.

But how exactly do you optimize your resume for ATS? Unfortunately, there are a lot of misconceptions and misinformation about how to structure your resume for ATS. I’ve talked to a lot of people about this issue and have come across a lot of conflicting information. This leaves job seekers more confused than ever and uncertain about how their resumes should look.

Misconception #1: ATS Formatting (Or Lack Thereof)

applicant tracking system ATSI’ve heard a lot of conflicting information in regards to formatting resumes for ATS. Some people think the formatting doesn’t even matter and adding extra “flair” to their resume in the sense of colours, borders and text boxes can help it be detected by the system (unfortunately, that’s not true). Others think that there should be no extra formatting at all, including bullet points, lines, bold or italics. Also, untrue. (Thankfully so, because bullet points are my favorite way to easily summarize content!) So what’s the confusion here?

The bottom line: It IS confusing! There’s no standard, one-fits-all “format” for every Applicant Tracking System out there. However, it’s definitely a fact that software can get confused by extra characters and unusual formats that include text boxes, shading, symbols, and pictures. The recommended solution for this? Keep it simple. This means using a resume format that sticks with simple, clear formatting along with familiar fonts (such as Calibri or Arial), standard bullets (the typical “circle” or “square”), no pictures and minimal “enhancements” (the odd border or line to separate sections or highlight your name at the top of the resume is acceptable). Stick to common section headings such as “Professional Experience,” and “Education.”

You don’t have to go overboard on simplicity by removing all lines, bullets, fonts, borders and everything else, though. First of all, a small amount of formatting won’t prevent the resume from being detected by ATS. For example, a simple but elegant line separating two sections or a minimalist square bullet highlighting your key achievements. Keep in mind that your resume will ultimately be seen by a human too, so it should still appeal to human eyes.

Misconception #2: Load Up on Keywords

Don’t get me wrong: Keywords are extremely important when it comes to an ATS! The system will be scanning your resume to ensure that it contains the keywords that HR has identified as important for the position. It’s true that you need to make sure that you include important keywords, but this needs to be done in a strategic way. This doesn’t mean loading up on jargon and multiple identical keywords pulled straight from the job description. Your resume could end up sounding wordy and ultra-repetitive.

What you should do: Customize important sections of your resume to the actual job description (such as Summary and Qualifications – more information on those in Misconception #3.) This takes a little bit of extra work (although, not a lot) and it can improve your chances of getting an interview greatly. Here’s an example: let’s say you are a Program Manager at a large company, and you want to apply for a Project Manager position at another firm. However, your resume describes your skills in program management, not project management, and your title is shown as Program Manager. You should try to incorporate the words Project Manager into your resume instead. The company’s ATS may only be searching for “Project Manager,” (not Program Manager) but your skills and experience could be the same or better than a competing candidate. Make sure you customize your wording to fit the job in question to ensure the system identifies you as a potential candidate.

The bottom line: Use keywords, but don’t go overboard! Remember, a human will still be reading your resume at the end of the day, and if your resume is loaded with jargon, repetition, and unnatural sounding keywords, it won’t appeal to Human Resources or a Hiring Manager at the end of the day.

Misconception #3: Stick with All Traditional Formats, such as Objectives

A number of traditional resume inclusions, such as Objectives and References, are never used anymore. They’re pretty much irrelevant, as Objectives speak to what you are looking for in a role. (Hint: employers are more interested in the skills and experience that you can offer them!) References aren’t needed at the initial stage of the employment process and will rarely be contacted until you’ve actually had an interview, so you can save those for later. And neither of them will help with an ATS, and may actually hinder the process, as they’re taking up limited space on your resume and tend to add little value in terms of keywords.

What you should do: Include a Summary that highlights your most important skills for the role, along with a Qualifications section showcasing a number of key skills you possess that are required for the job. These sections can be easily customized to align with the job description, so you may not have to change many details to align your resume with your ideal role. Make sure that these sections appear at the top of your resume underneath your contact information.

Keep This In Mind

No matter what format or keywords you try to use, ultimately your resume will be viewed by a human. Applicant Tracking System will screen your resume and rank it, but they won’t make the final decision. The techniques above are great, but make sure that your resume will look good when it’s viewed (or even printed out) by a Recruiter or Hiring Manager. At the end of the day, they’ll be making the final call on who makes the cut for an interview.

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