How Applicant Tracking Systems Work and How to Optimise Your CV for ATS
Jobscan's ATS research study revealed that 98.8% of the world's largest companies use applicant tracking systems.
Today's online recruiting environment and the current economic crisis have led to a large increase in applications.
As a result, companies often use applicant tracking systems (or ATS) to collect, filter and manage applications.
What does this mean for you?
When you're competing against a high volume of applicants, optimising your CV will help ensure it makes it past the ATS and into the hands of a human!
You don't need to be an expert on exactly how an ATS works, but you should know how to optimise your CV for ATS scans.
To do so, you'll need to leverage CV design and keyword optimisation principles effectively - especially when applying for jobs at large organisations.
If you don't have time to read this entire article, our ATS Optimisation Checklist below highlights the key principles you need to know!
How can I optimise my CV to beat applicant tracking systems?
You can optimise your CV by following these steps:
- Read through the job description and make sure to naturally incorporate relevant keywords into your CV (solid CV writers can help with that too!)
- Stick to conventional formatting and use a simple layout (no two-column or graphic CVs!)
- Make sure to clearly label your sections (Education, Work Experience, Qualifications, Relevant Skills, etc.)
- Use a chronological CV that lists your experience in order
- Avoid tables, charts and any graphics
Can I add additional relevant keywords in white text?
You may have come across "creative" ways of helping your CV beat ATS scans.
One of the most common approaches we hear about is adding additional keywords to your CV using white text.
Do not do this. Ever.
The idea behind this approach is to "stuff" the CV with additional keywords.
In theory, a recruiter won't be able to see them, but they can only benefit you from a keyword optimisation perspective.
However, an ATS pulls ALL text from your CV, regardless of colour.
When a recruiter sees your hidden white text in plain black and white, you'll end up coming across as sneaky and untrustworthy.
We wouldn't risk it.
Are there times when ATS optimisation is not essential?
If you are applying to jobs through a recruiter, you likely don't need to worry.
If someone within the company has referred you, your application will probably be looked at more closely as well.
The same holds true if you are applying for roles within a small company.
However, for roles at large organisations, optimising your CV for ATS is 100% worth paying attention to (especially at the entry and middle management levels).
How do I know if a company uses an applicant tracking system (ATS)?
We recommend assuming any application you submit online will be fed into an ATS, just to be on the safe side.
However, the best way to figure out whether a company uses an ATS is to look at the link in your browser when you are filling out an online application.
Usually, the name of the applicant tracking system will be embedded right into the URL!
For example, HSBC uses Taleo:
Unilever, on the other hand, uses Workday:
How do recruiters and hiring managers use applicant tracking systems (ATS)?
To get a better understanding of how your file moves through an ATS, let's look at the features of Taleo specifically.
To quickly narrow down the applicant pool in Taleo (read: eliminate candidates), recruiters use disqualification and pre-screening questions.
Disqualification and pre-screening questions prevent recruiters from wasting time on candidates who simply do not meet the minimum criteria required for a role.
When you're applying for jobs, you may come across a series of yes or no questions that you need to answer.
For example, you may be asked whether you have permission to work in the United Kingdom.
These types of questions are referred to as disqualification questions.
If you do not meet these hard requirements, you'll be automatically eliminated from the candidate pool.
However, these factors are out of your control, and there isn't much you can do to get around them.
Pre-screening questions may ask you to rate your level of Excel skills or to answer a series of yes or no questions (such as whether you are able to work on weekends, etc.).
Instead of serving as an automatic disqualifier, pre-screening questions contribute to a score that recruiters can later use to rank applicants.
Recruiters can also perform candidate searches to filter down the applicant pool.
Recruiters can use Taleo and other applicant tracking systems to conduct keyword searches on applications.
Unfortunately, there is simply no way to predict what terms a recruiter will search for or what they will filter by with 100% accuracy.
Elements recruiters can filter by include your:
- Travel Preferences
- Preferred Location
- Education (Institution, Program, Education Level, Graduation Date, GPA, etc.)
- Work Experience (Current Job, Employer, Job Functions)
As Taleo explains in its training materials, the search criteria allow recruiters to narrow their candidate pool.
This step "typically results in fewer but more pertinent results [for recruiters].... [Recruiter] search results will then contain fewer candidates."*
At large organisations, application volumes can be significant:
"The search engine can retrieve any number of candidate files although, for performance and management reasons, only 300 will be displayed."*
What does this mean for me?
When it comes to your application, much of the search criteria are based on hard facts that you have no control over.
However, you do have control over your CV and cover letter and should take steps to make sure that they are optimised to maximise your odds of "beating the system."
If a recruiter decides to filter for candidates with a master's degree in environmental engineering and you don't have one, you may be out of luck.
You can also get filtered out if you don't have the skills a recruiter is looking for listed on your CV.
By strategically incorporating them into your document, when possible, you'll improve your chances of landing interviews.
What are the top applicant tracking systems?
According to Jobscan's research, the most common ATS systems used by Fortune 500 companies are:
- SAP / SuccessFactors
ATS optimisation is important to be aware of, but don't overthink it!
As long as your CV and cover letter use a simple format and their content is tailored to each of the roles you apply for, you should be good to go.
We don't recommend using questionable tactics to "beat the system," as these can very easily backfire.
About CV Pilots
CV Pilots is an award-winning executive CV writing firm and a proud member of the Professional Association of Resume Writers and Career Coaches. Our previous clients include CEOs and senior executives at the world's leading companies.
As a professional services firm, we take your reputation seriously. We are committed to delivering writing excellence and superior service while operating with integrity and discretion. Recruitment firms we partner with also trust us to consistently deliver quality documents for their clients.
Our writers have studied at top-tier universities and have strong writing backgrounds coupled with industry experience.
Here's how we can help you:
CV, Cover Letter and LinkedIn Writing Services: If you are looking for end-to-end support, hire one of our professional CV writers to rewrite your documents from the ground up.
Executive CV Template Downloads: If you plan to prepare your own CV, consider using one of our classic, ATS-friendly CV templates for Microsoft Word.