Everything you need to know about ATS and how to optimise your CV

Optimise your CV for ATS

Let’s talk about ATS for a moment. You may have heard about Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) and know a little about how these work, but do you know what it takes to make sure your CV is fully optimised to beat them?

I know it’s absolutely crushing to have a long track record of experience and submit countless job applications that you would be perfect for, and yet not hear a word back. Trust me, it’s not you that lacks the experience, it’s the ATS that can’t read it – this system is what’s standing between you and a job interview. This means that your CV is not doing you any favours.

I speak with countless job seekers every day, and I hear your frustrations.
So why are companies using them? Think about it this way – The relative ease of submitting an online job application these days (have you swiped left or right on Reed’s mobile app recently?) has created a real challenge for hiring companies. Each online job postings can elicit hundreds of applications, many of which are from unqualified job seekers who thought it was worth a shot. Now imagine what that can be like for a hiring manager working for a large company with a hefty turnover? Instead of sorting through a stack of CVs or a crowded inbox, recruiters and hiring managers use ATS to keep themselves organised and efficient.

Of course, many recruiters still choose to glance at every job application that comes through their ATS. In this case, most take a quick glance at the applicant’s past highlights, job titles, and companies. They can quickly make a decision about whether they want to learn more, or not, in about 6 seconds.

And before you ask, yes, ATS are here to stay – so you’re only going to beat them if you learn more about them and get a CV that is properly optimised to help get you past them.

In this article I’ve answered the top 5 questions to help you do just that.

What are Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS)?

Applicant tracking systems are now used by 98% of corporations to assist with recruitment and hiring processes. Each system offers a different combination and scope of features, but ATS are primarily used to reduce the manual effort and help hiring companies collect, organise, and filter applicants.

Among other features, some ATS also offer CRM-style tools to help streamline hiring pipelines, communication with applicants, distribution of job postings, and proof of government compliance.

If you’re applying to a large organization, chances are you’ll face an ATS. If you’re applying through any online form, you’re applying through an ATS. Even job sites like Indeed and LinkedIn have their own built in ATS.

Top Applicant Tracking Systems

There are dozens out there, so here are the most popular ATS:
• Taleo
• Workday
• SuccessFactors
• Greenhouse
• Brassring
• iCIMS
• Jobvite
• Lever
• SmartRecruiters
• JazzHR

What do you need to know about ATS?

Corporate recruiters can have their ATS automatically extract information from an applicant’s CV – this will then build a digital applicant profile that can be searched, filtered, and/or ranked. The goal is to quickly cull out anyone who is under-qualified, make the applicant pool smaller, and quickly identify the top candidates.

Some applicant tracking systems can automatically compare your resume to the job description. For example, Taleo calls this feature “Req Rank,” which ranks each applicant based on how well their resume scores based on the job description.

Instead of reviewing each and every application, the recruiter can focus squarely on candidates the ATS has identified as a great match.

Here’s an example of what the ranking system looks like

A common way recruiters filter CVs in an ATS is by searching for key skills and titles. For example, if a recruiter is hiring for an Administrative Assistant position out of 400 CVs, their first step will probably be a search for “Administrative Assistant”. This will isolate candidates that have done the exact job before. Anyone that doesn’t have that exact term in their CV is out of luck.

Unfortunately for job seekers, most ATS lack sophistication and are not able to search and filter candidates reliably. Some highly qualified candidates fall through the cracks and are wrongfully eliminated from the applicant pool because their CV has formatting issues or lacks the correct search keywords. This, however, is seen as a necessary trade-off for many hiring professionals with limited time and resources.

What does that mean for you? If you want to get noticed, you must optimise you CV for ATS. If your CV doesn’t contain the right search terms or is not optimally formatted, it could get “lost” in the system, seemingly ending up in a black hole. Even if you are highly qualified for the job, but don’t have the right keywords on your CV, you might not be found.

Top tip – the best way to ensure you have the correct search terms, and a high enough match rate to land at the top of the list, is to study the job description carefully and include the top keywords in your CV. And speak the language of the company – check if they have ‘clients’, or ‘customers’. Yes. Go to that level of detail!

Did you know that the format of your CV matters in ATS?

When you upload your CV into an ATS, the recruiter won’t necessarily view the file. Some ATS analyse the document and turn it into a digital profile, or ‘parse it’ to make things uniform and searchable.

Unfortunately, many of these ATS parsing algorithms are outdated and unintelligent, meaning they can distort your CV information, or worse, vital keywords or details might not be imported. Imagine your most important qualification slipping through the cracks!

Modern ATS are starting to get away from this practice, but I’d advise you to do your best to create an ATS-friendly CV so that the system finds all the information in needs as it does its data sweep.

Top tip – keep section headings simple, use consistent formatting for your work history and dates, avoid tables, and use a .docx or .pdf file format.

Female hand touching screen

How can you optimise your CV to rank highly on the ATS?

There is no universal trick to “beating” applicant tracking systems. Getting past an ATS and landing a job interview requires a well-written CV that is mindful of ATS algorithms as well as the people pushing the buttons.

Here are my top tips:

  • Carefully tailor your resume to the job description every single time you apply.
  • Optimise for ATS search and ranking algorithms by matching your CV keywords to the job description.
  • Use both the long-form and acronym version of keywords (e.g. “Master of Business Administration (MBA)” or “Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)”) for maximum searchability.
  • Use a chronological or hybrid CV format (avoid the functional CV format).
  • Don’t use tables as they often cause major parsing errors.
  • Use a traditional resume font like Arial, Helvetica, Garamond, or Georgia.
  • Don’t use headers or footers as the information might get lost or cause a parsing error.
  • Use standard section headings like “Work Experience” rather than things like “Where I’ve Been”.
  • Save your file as a .docx if possible.

Can you cheat the ATS?

The simple answer is don’t try to.

Optimising your keywords and formatting for applicant tracking systems is not the same as cheating the system.

In theory, you can trick ATS algorithms by stuffing your resume with keywords. Some do this by secretly adding additional keywords to their resumes using “invisible” white text or by unnaturally overusing keywords. I know some people do this to websites too.

These tricks might help you get a better initial score in the ATS, but they’re unlikely to fool recruiters. Instead of getting yourself blacklisted from the company, focus on crafting the best resume possible based on your actual skillset. And when in doubt, hire a professional.

If you would like to learn what a professional CV writer can do then drop me a line here. Better yet, schedule your free consultation here.

Suzy Sallam

I am a Career and Leadership Coach on a mission to help professionals just like you, experience the confidence and satisfaction that comes from being authentic to yourself and living in a fulfilling career.

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