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Applicant Tracking Systems: how to beat them in 2021

Amanda Datchens // January 8 // 8 Comments

Have you ever applied for a job at the same time as a less experienced colleague and they got an interview – and you got rejected? Then you may have been the victim of an ATS or Applicant Tracking System.


Thanks to so many stories circulating about Applicant Tracking Systems blocking resumes submitted for online jobs, many jobseekers feel angry, frustrated and helpless. 

Wouldn't it be good if there was a way to ensure your resume sailed through them, and actually got read by a human?

The good news is - there is. Once you understand what they do and why they are used, you can actually make them work for you rather than against you.

Once you understand what they do and why they are used, you can actually make them work for you rather than against you.

I'm going to give you what you need to know and show you how to do it with this ultimate guide to beating those online bots.

What are ATS or Applicant Tracking Systems?

Applicant Tracking Systems, or ATS, are used by employers and recruitment agencies to manage job opportunities across their organisations by screening incoming resumes from job seekers.

They were first used by large corporations that received thousands of applications, but smaller businesses are now using them just as frequently.

You may be asking yourself why? Why now? Recruiters and HR didn’t use them in the past so why do they all use them now?

The answer is simple – online job boards. It is so easy for job seekers to submit multiple applications simultaneously.

And, because it is so easy, so many people apply for so many jobs that they really are not qualified for. It’s the culture of “may as well, you never know’.

Of course, sometimes that works but the result is that 50% of online job applications do not meet the criteria stated in job advertisements.

ATS are used because 50% of online job applications do not meet the criteria stated in job advertisements

You can see this type of behaviour on LinkedIn where jobs are posted, with full instructions on how to apply, but people just write ‘Interested’ and attach their resume.

This is incredibly frustrating for recruiters and HR but even more frustrating for you, the real candidate who is qualified for the position and serious about their applications.

There had to be a solution to handle this huge volume of applicants and an efficient way to screen for those that deserve an interview - and the answer was ATS.

What Applicant Tracking Systems do to your resume

When you apply for a position online, this software has 3 jobs to perform.

1. Parse your information into a database

'Parse' is the technical term for being able to read and scan the information on your resume. It is looking for basic things such as your name, address, contact details, work history, qualifications, and referees.

At this stage it is not judging, just collecting. So, pretty simple right? What could possibly go wrong here? Unfortunately, many people fall at this first, simple hurdle.

If Applicant Tracking Systems cannot find this basic information, it is going to reject you. Not because of your skills and experience, but because your resume was not formatted correctly.

In fact, it is estimated that a whopping 75% of resumes are rejected for online applications simply due to the way they are formatted.

75% of resumes are rejected for online applications simply due to the way they are formatted.

2. Grade your resume against a job opportunity

Next ATS bots will look for key phrases and information from the job description and also keywords and phrases set by HR or recruiters.

Put simply, the software scores your resume in order to determine which candidates are most qualified to join a shortlist that a human will review.

Yes, that’s right. Still no human involvement!

The good news is that Applicant Tracking Systems use algorithms – and all algorithms can be deconstructed.

As Albert Einstein said

“You have to learn the rules of the game. And then, you have to play better than anyone else”

There is a real science, or rather technology, behind the vast majority of online applications – and a definite way of playing it to get better results, which is what we will go into below but before that, take note of this last job on the ATS bot’s to do list.

3. Filter your application against knockout criteria set by HR and recruiters

Specific criteria are often used to ensure only those worthy of making an interview shortlist actually get there. If you are unwilling, unable or simply can’t be bothered to follow instructions, then rejection can still happen even if you have the right skills and experience.

These can be right at the beginning of your application when you are asked questions such as whether you are eligible to work in a country, or towards the end where they ask for something specific to complete your application.

Some of these things you have no choice in avoiding because they will not allow you to submit your application without the information. Other times not. Never think that you have ‘got away with it’ though – it is very likely that a bot will reject you if you haven’t provided what has been asked for.

16 ways you can get your resume past ATS bots

First, a word of caution. 

Given all this information, you may now be tempted to run your resume through one of the many online ‘ATS software scanners’ out there to see how you stack up, and this could indeed be useful. However, you need to bear in mind that it is only useful for the specific Applicant Tracking System they will be using.

There are so many types of ATS being used with varying degrees of complexity and sensitivity. Getting through one doesn’t mean you will get through them all, and vice versa.

As a jobseeker you are naturally going to feel frustrated that a bot could be standing between you and your perfect opportunity, but the truth is that recruiters and HR often feel the same.

Many times I have had conversations with other recruiters about how the perfect candidates can slip through the system for reasons other than their skills and experience.

You can be desperate to fill a position but lose the right candidate to a competitor who has a different ATS to yours.

So what’s the answer then?

Well it certainly isn’t binning ATS and going back to the good old days where you dealt with humans and understood what to do.

The best thing you can do is to eliminate all the known problems that all ATS have in common when they try to read your resume and screen it against a position to increase your chances of getting an interview next time you apply online for a position.

Getting through one ATS checker is not the answer. The best thing you can do is eliminate all the known problems that all ATS have in common when they try to read your resume and screen it against a position. 

16 Practical tips to get your resume past ATS


Remove fancy headers and footers

Resist the temptation to use a fancy template. Most ATS have trouble recognising them and any information contained within them. If that is where you are putting your contact information, it’s most likely going to be lost.


Remove graphics, logos and tables

ATS cannot read graphics and they often misread tables. Instead of reading tables left to right, as a person would, ATS read them up and down. Remember, those online bots have no feelings. If they don’t get what they want, they just reject.

I know it looks great having company logos next to each job but don’t do it.


Choose your font wisely

Use sans-serif fonts — like Verdana, Tahoma or Calibri — instead of serif fonts like Times New Roman or Cambria that have little marks added to their letters that some screening software will actually reject.

While we are on this subject, you should also never use script type fonts and don’t use anything smaller than an 11 point in size.


Always give a physical address

If an ATS cannot find a field of information, the chances are high that your application will be rejected or a message will come up to HR or the recruiter to ‘input manually’.

Bearing in mind that they receive a high volume of applications every day, there is more chance of them deleting you rather than taking the time to contact you regarding your address.


Also, locations can be used as screening words – see later.


Take care with your bullet points

It is a great idea to use bullet points as ATS have no problem with them and humans like them too but don’t go crazy with little icons instead of the basic points.

Those special arrows, ticks and images may look nicer but they will confuse ATS and work against you.


Don’t put your qualifications next to your name in the header

This can confuse ATS systems and prevent them from seeing your real name as it adds everything into the name field. I literally had this problem yesterday when I was using ours.

I was looking for a candidate called Mark Winters. He just wasn’t coming up but then I searched further by key skills and found a Mark B.Eng on the database. It put his surname as his middle name and his qualification as his surname.

Don’t rely on a recruiter or HR to have the time to do this as it is a very competitive market out there.


Don’t Start your Work Experience with dates

To ensure ATS reads and imports your work experience properly, always start it with your job title, followed by your employers’ name, followed by the dates you held that title.

Most Applicant Tracking Systems look for job titles and company names first so don’t change this order.


Call your Work History “Work History”

Tell it as it is.

It is a computer and does not understand the subtleties of the English language.

Sometimes job seekers refer to their work experience on their resume as their “Professional Experience” or “Career Achievements” (or some other variation on that theme) and often the computer will completely skip over their work experience because they didn’t label it as such so it could not find it.


Repeat important keywords for the job you are applying for

The ATS will be looking to match and grade you on these words so ensure that your key skills are repeated so that they are picked up multiple times to gain points – but don’t go overboard and stuff keywords everywhere.

If you get through, and that’s the whole point of this exercise, a human will read your resume and they won’t be impressed if you have overused this tactic.

Recruiters and ATS are savvy about tricks some job seekers use to game the system (such as typing false qualifications in a white font just so ATS picks them up)


Don’t just use acronyms

Use both acronyms and their spelt-out forms on your resume

Whether its titles, processes, certifications, or companies, do this because you don’t know what the ATS is programmed to search for.

eg  use both HSE Specialist and Health Safety & Environment Specialist


Qualify and develop your key skills

Include your basic skills but also include specific and advanced skills plus the depth of experience you have.

Use a different resume for each application so you can describe on a deeper level the areas that matter most and are highlighted in the job description or advert.


Don’t worry about submitting a long resume

You are dealing with an ATS system, not a human who may get bored!

It will scan your resume regardless of whether it’s two pages or ten.

In fact, submitting a longer resume that allows you to pack in more relevant experience and keywords and phrases increases your chances of ranking higher in the system.

Please note. Humans also don’t get bored reading a longer resume as long as it is relevant and presented correctly.


Don’t forget your Social Resume

Social recruiting software bots crawl the web for applicants’ names so you need to have a social media profile that will complement and enhance your job applications.

Some ATS actually show your profile directly within your application, so it is readily available to recruiters and HR.

Letting the ATS easily find your social profile can be beneficial and the best site for this is, of course, LinkedIn.

Ensure that your Social Resume is not in direct contrast to your resumes that you use for online applications.


Check for spelling mistakes

Human beings can at least figure out what you mean but an ATS will reject you immediately because it will have no idea what you’re talking about.

So double, triple, and quadruple check your resume before sending it in. Have someone else do the same.

There really is no excuse for getting this wrong.


Don't send your resume as a PDF

Many ATS lack a standard way to structure PDF documents and therefore they can easily be misread which means you will be rejected.

The only exception to this rule though is if the site specifically asks for a PDF version.


And finally… don’t get caught out by knockout criteria

When you are applying for a job online, there are often screening questions and instructions to complete and follow.

You may be asked to confirm eligibility to work in a country, your level of competency in key areas, or more open-ended questions regarding your background or reasons for applying for the job.

You must take these seriously and make the effort to answer them as thoroughly as possible.

Many jobseekers complain when they seemingly have to repeat information that is already on their resume and mistakenly write “see resume”

Remember, everything is searchable and assessable when it comes to ATS bots

Not providing critical information will get you rejected immediately.

Not providing desirable information will get you rejected later down the line.

Beat the Bots with this Mini Course...

Enrol now for step by step videos on how to write your resume to get past Applicant Tracking Systems


It will take a bit of effort on your part but all of these things are relatively easy to implement and well worth the effort.

There is a lot of information in this post so here is a quick recap of the 4 most important takeaways

Change Your Resume Format

Format your resume using these top design tips to enable ATS to collect the basic information it needs. If you don’t you might be rejected even if you are a perfect fit for the job.


Optimise Every Job Application

Target each and every job application you make by using the keywords and skills from the job description of the position you are applying for so that your resume can score higher in the screening and grading process– but obviously, don’t lie!


Google Yourself

What do you find? Would you employ you? Set up, or review and improve your social resume that ATS bots might pick up and add to your application profile.

asking for help

Help HR by doing what they ask

Respect any additional application instructions or information HR and recruiters require from you and give it to them. These might be knock out criteria and if you don’t – well, you get the point

Still not sure whether you can be bothered to do all this? Then let me leave you with this last thought...

We know that 75% of resumes submitted for online applications get rejected by ATS because of poor formatting. This means that if you submit with the right format, you’ll be straight through to the top 25%.

Would you like a free resume template to help guide you? Do you have any questions? Just leave a comment for me in the box below and I will be happy to help.

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About the Author

A career coach, headhunter, and entrepreneur, Amanda has founded and been involved in developing multiple companies known for innovative HR and recruitment solutions. Originally from London but now in Queensland, Australia, she is the co-founder of Real Life Career Advice and Hi Vis Jobs

What are your thoughts?

Leave a comment or ask a question.

  • Thank you for an informative article. This has provided sufficient information to identify just what I have been doing wrong.

  • One ought to not used the contemptible damned ATS systems. Taleo sucks and is a time-waster. I decided to buckle down and not do the woe-is-me this job search, and paced 1,200+ applications in 4 weeks easy the simpler 1-2-3 click submission sites, scouring job announcements. 4 months of doing this and nothing. Earlier I wasted a lot of time on long-form Taleo-based job sites that waste time. Statistical odds of getting a mere interview from a job application is less than 8%. Why waste so much time worrying about ATS systems? To hell with them. If enough job seekers stop using them, they’ll be rendered impractical and their usage will subside.

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