Understanding the Applicant Tracking System (ATS)

The integrated applicant tracking systems were designed to make life easier for recruiters and HR professionals by streamlining the recruiting and hiring process while saving significants amount of money and time. But over the years, there have been some misunderstandings about how applicant tracking systems are really used to find ideal candidates.

When you apply for a job through a company's website, the information you enter (e.g. resume, cover letter, work experience, education background) is transferred from one component of the system to another as you move through the hiring process. However, there are a couple of main drawbacks.

The Drawbacks

Keyword Search: The most popular aspect of the applicant tracking systems is that they are designed to search for specific keywords and backgrounds for advertised positions. This has led to the launch of numerous free online resume tools that compare and rank your resume based on a job description. This has also lead to more job seekers being more concerned about filling their resumes with "keywords" instead of developing a quality resume.

First, these free online keyword tools can help speed up the resume writing or editing process. They also make sure you analyze the job posting to make sure you're highlight specific, relevant skills. However, most of these free online tools will highlight random words in the job post that would never be used to search for and filter out resumes.

Next, FAR too much emphasis is placed on having high match rate ( an 80% or higher score). What job candidates should know is that many of the qualifications and skills listed in a job posting are simply "wish list" items. There is no perfect candidate for a job - no one person will possess every single item on that wish list.

This emphasis on the Match Rate isn’t innovative. Yes, getting through the ATS is the first step in the hiring process, but writing a resume that attracts the interest and attention of the reader is equally important. Recruiters and HR professionals reading your resume will know if you simply copied-and-pasted your resume from the job posting, and the excessive repetition of keywords will be unnatural to read. Focusing more on the keywords and not naturally incorporating them into your unique story is a huge mistake.

Later on, I go into more detail about how employers use the ATS' Boolean search feature to filter out resumes. But for now, use the free online tools and keyword comparisons as a guide rather than the standard and focus more on other details (e.g. relevant professional accomplishments) that will matter to a human reader.

Overlooked Candidates: Because ATS' are designed to scan for keywords, this can pose a problem for career changers who are otherwise good candidates but may slip through the cracks unnoticed. For this reason, it's critical for individuals seeking a new career direction to make sure their resumes highlight relevant transferrable skills.

The ATS Boolean Search

Boolean search is a structured search process that lets users insert words or phrases with specific operations to limit, broaden and define the search results. Recruiters and HR professionals can use the Boolean Search feature in the ATS to narrow down the pool of candidates they are presented with by specifically looking for what is required in that role.

The typical criteria for an effective candidate search is:

  • Skills:  Essential qualifications and required abilities to be successful in the job.

  • Experience: The amount of time a candidate worked in a particular field or skills.  Utilizing keywords, such as “manager”, “lead”, or “senior” can help determine the amount of experience a candidate has.

  • Location: Filtering resumes by the state, city, or zip code listed on the resumes.

Boolean search allows for the combination of five different operations to conduct a search, utilizing the ATS search engine to its fullest potential:

“And” or “+”

Delivers resumes containing the words “marketing” and “management”.

  • “Marketing” AND “Management”

  • “Marketing” + “Management”


Delivers resumes containing either terms.

  • “Server” or “Waiter”

“Not” or “-”

Delivers resumes containing engineer but omits results with software.

  • “Engineer” NOT “Software”

  • “Engineer” - “Software”

Quotation Marks “”

Search delivers resumes containing exactly “Technical Writer” - Not “Technical” and “Writer” separately.

  • “Technical Writer”

Parentheses ()

Delivers resumes containing either Customer Support or Customer Success that also contain the word Manager

  • (“Customer Support” OR “Customer Success”) AND “Manager”

Asterisk *

Delivers results that start with the same letters as recruit (e.g. recruiting, recruiter, recruitment, etc.).

  • “Recruit*”

Proximity “~”

Delivers resumes with any instances of the words Senior and Developer with 3 or less words between them - this can be made more or less strict.

  • “Senior Developer” ~ 3

Example of Conducting a Successful Boolean Search

An HR Manager is tasked with finding a Marketing professional for her company located in NYC. The ideal candidate must have at least 5 years of marketing experience. Using the boolean search of an applicant tracking system, the HR Manager's initial may look like this: (Marketing OR Advertising) AND “New York”

  • “Marketing” AND “New York”

  • “Advertising” AND “New York”

The search looks within the parenthesis and sees two different skills separated by “OR”, producing two separate searches. If the candidate must have management or leadership experience, the HR Manager may use the following: (Marketing OR Advertising) AND (Lead OR Manager) AND New York

  • “Marketing” AND “Lead” AND “New York”

  • “Marketing” AND “Manager” AND “New York”

  • “Advertising” AND “Lead” AND “New York”

  • “Advertising” AND “Manager” AND “New York”

If the HR Manager wants to make sure Account Managers do NOT appear in the search results:

(Marketing OR Advertising) AND (Lead OR Manager) AND New York NOT Account Manager

  • “Marketing AND “Lead” AND “New York” NOT “Account Manager”

  • “Marketing” AND “Manager” AND “New York” NOT “Account Manager”

  • “Advertising” AND “Lead” AND “New York” NOT “Account Manager”

  • “Advertising” AND “Manager” AND “New York” NOT “Account Manager”

Helpful Hints to Optimizing Your Application

  • Use keywords that relate to the job's requirements; and to make sure your resume is filtered properly, use the exact keywords from the job announcement. For example, don't use "Microsoft Office" if the ad says "Microsoft Excel".

  • Follow the application instructions. If the instructions say to upload your resume and cover letter in Word docx, don't upload a PDF. Yes, this will require regular minor revisions every time you want to apply for the job.

  • Keep it simple. Now is not the time to get fancy with graphics, 2-column layouts, images, etc. You want to make sure the information in your resume is transferred completely and accurately. Save the fancy layouts for in-person interviews or job fairs.

  • Focus on your accomplishments. If your resume passes through the ATS, it won't mean much if it doesn't "wow" the person actually reading your resume. Separate yourself from the competition by highlighting relevant key achievements that demonstrate what you can bring to the table.

Unfortunately, there isn't a one-step tool or resource that will land you your dream job. A resume written by a professional (or even certified) resume writer will not work for every job you apply for despite their promises. And a free online tool (e.g. Jobscan or ResumeWorded) won’t write the perfect resume for you. You can increase your interviews if you understand that writing a resume is a balancing act between writing for an applicant tracking system and for human readers.

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