Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS): overcoming misconceptions

Anyone who’s been in the market for a new job over the past few years is probably familiar with Applicant Tracking Systems and their less-than-stellar reputation among candidates. 

In many ways, the negative energy is understandable. Applying for jobs can be an emotional rollercoaster, and many applicants feel vulnerable to a system they may not understand. No one wants to feel like a number battling an algorithm when their professional dreams are on the line, and because ATS is often held responsible for less-than-positive job application experiences, it’s easy to see why job seekers feel so passionately about it.

It’s also understandable that concerned candidates would search for ways to overcome the limitations they feel ATS places on their job prospects. The discourse surrounding these systems has even given rise to how-to guides and services promising to help applicants “beat the ATS” and “ATS proof” their resumes—often for a sizable price. 

The presence of these services can reinforce misconceptions about Applicant Tracking Systems, often without providing candidates with the education and insight they truly need. 

Not to worry: to clear up some of the myths, we’re breaking down what these systems are, how they work and how candidates can address their ATS concerns. 

What is an Applicant Tracking System (ATS)?

At its most basic level, an Applicant Tracking System is software that automates many processes involved in recruiting and hiring. The simplest ATS may simply collect and store applicant data and screen candidates for positions. More robust ATS software may integrate with a company’s HRIS (Human Resource Management System) to completely automate the recruiting and hiring process, from candidate screening to sending offer letters to onboarding new employees. 

For candidates in the midst of a long job search, it can be scary to think that your resume will be overlooked by a computer program. Fortunately, Applicant Tracking Systems aren’t nearly as complex and mysterious as many job seekers believe they are. 

Below, we’ll break down some of the biggest misconceptions about ATS and how candidates can relieve some of their ATS-related concerns.

Common misconception #1: Applicant Tracking Systems reject resumes

Once information is reviewed by an ATS, someone from the organization’s hiring team must manually review the resume to see if it’s a good fit based on the job description and the company’s needs. 

Common misconception #2: ATS software rejects resumes based on font type, font size, underlining, bolded or italicized letters or colors

ATS programs don’t automatically reject resumes based on the visual features of the document. In fact, many systems will convert a resume into a document that looks similar to an early Notepad or Microsoft Word document, while attaching the original resume to the candidate’s profile for review. This makes it easier to review the information without distraction. 

Common misconception #3: ATS software rejects applications that are PDFs

In fact, most companies encourage PDFs because they have a cleaner appearance, and data often parses more easily in PDF format. However, any standard document (.doc, .docx, .pdf) is perfectly fine.

Common misconception #4: ATS programs arbitrarily reject resumes based on keyword matching

Many ATS programs have built-in functionality for “resume ranking” that uses algorithms to match phrases and specific keywords to the job description. However, it doesn’t allow the resume to be rejected based on lack of certain keywords. Of course, if an applicant is applying to a job that is outside of his field or if his qualifications don’t match up, the resume may receive a “lower” score, but it won’t be automatically rejected. 

How can candidates overcome ATS worries?

For job seekers who are concerned about getting “lost in the applicant pool” of an organization’s ATS software, here are a few helpful tips:

  • Be comprehensive with your work experience
  • Focus on both quantitative and qualitative accomplishments; try not rehash aspects of the job description
  • Keep your formatting universal; use a consistent font, font size and bullet point to make the resume easy for the hiring team to read 
  • Make your contact information easy to find and easy to read; always include name, email and phone number 
  • Follow each bullet point with concise and valuable information

For candidates, every new job posting is an opportunity to get on an organization’s radar. Even if the initial position isn’t a great fit, ATS programs allow companies to store and review strong talent profiles for consideration for future positions. 

At the end of the day, recruiting and hiring are all about finding the right candidate for the right opportunity. ATS and other software help create a streamlined approach to matching outstanding job seekers with the companies that value their skills and expertise. 

Dan Thompson is the managing director of Vaco’s technology services in Tampa, FL.


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