ATS: All The Secrets you need to know about Applicant Tracking Systems

A classic resume template. Photo from

As young professionals, the internship and job search process can be intimidating. It seems like a rotating cycle: you’ve discovered an open position at your dream company, you update your resume, submit your cover letter and wait patiently for an interview request.  After months of waiting to hear from the company, you figure the hiring manager must have selected someone else for the role.

What did you do wrong? Odds are–nothing! It’s possible that a human never actually saw your resume. But how is that possible?

Employers use what’s called an Applicant Tracking System (ATS) to scan, filter, rank and reject resumes and applications. While it’s a great software for huge companies who receive thousands of resumes, it’s becoming a common tool for businesses of all sizes. According to ApplicantStack, 98% of Fortune 500 companies, 66% of large companies and 35% of smaller companies use an ATS to streamline their recruiting process.    

An ATS looks for specific keywords to pass qualified candidates through to the hiring manager. While you could have the skills, education and experience the company is looking for, these ATS “robots” can’t always read your resume properly.  

Here’s four tips to ensure your resume will successfully pass through an ATS and gets into human hands:

Match keywords from the job posting to your resume

Make sure your skills and accomplishments listed on your resume match the necessary qualifications listed in the job posting. Use industry buzzwords that are specific to your experience, but don’t try to cheat the system.  Copying the entire job description and pasting it in white text will disqualify you from the pool of candidates!

Use the right format

Some companies will say what file types are acceptable when uploading your resume. If the company doesn’t require a specific file format, the most accurately read format type is .docx. (If you don’t have Microsoft Word, Google Docs can convert your file to .docx!) External resume builders like Zety or Canva will save your file as PDF or PNG, which can sometimes confuse the ATS. 

Keep it simple

Creative resumes are great for interviews or networking, however an ATS can’t always read certain elements including:

  • Images, graphics or logos
  • Columns or text boxes – An ATS reads from left to right!
  • Uncommon or downloaded fonts
  • Uncommon headings – An ATS will look for common headings like Education or Experience. It’s best to avoid uncommon headings like My Stomping Grounds or My Time. 
  • Some colors – ATS usually transfers resumes to black and white, so lighter colors can disappear once they are converted!

Your resume should be easy to scan–once it gets into human hands, hiring managers only skim through each resume for an average of 6 seconds!

Don’t apply for all the open positions at the same company

Applying for multiple positions that you may not be qualified for at one organization can get you “blacklisted” from the company, meaning the system can block your application from ever reaching the employer.  If there’s two or three roles you’re interested in, you can apply to all of them as long as you have the skills required and tailor your resume to each position.  Just don’t apply to all of their open positions, especially if they aren’t relevant to your experience and skills!

Keep in mind that every company is different and they could all have different Applicant Tracking Systems, if at all! Every industry and position requires different elements on a resume or application, and no one can tell you how to market your skills better than you! 

For questions or assistance regarding resumes or anything career-related, you can contact the Career and Professional Development Center or schedule an appointment through Handshake.

Published by: Mikaela Fitzpatrick