How to Leverage Applicant Tracking Systems in Your Job Search

Contributed by Alan Rohlfing
 
Ahhh, the online job application. Been there, done that. From the advent of the Web to social to mobile, technology has made quite the impact…and perhaps no more so than on the recruiting and selection process for today’s workforce.
Have you ever completed an online job application and received “NO” feedback? Not even a “Thanks, but no thanks”? Because I know that most of you are nodding your heads in agreement, I’m going to spend the next few minutes talking about the primary source of our frustration – the Applicant Tracking System, or ATS. Of course, this information & these comments serve as a general reference and do not apply systemically to all ATS programs or to all companies.
Before I continue, you need to know that much credit for the substance of this post goes to my good friend, Frank Alaniz. Frank is an Air Force Veteran, colleague, mentor, and friend, and he’s helped literally thousands of job-seekers over the last twenty years find gainful employment as a trainer for the Missouri Division of Workforce Development. Between his grasp of technology and his tremendous network of employers, he’s been able to stay current on the latest hiring practices and pass that knowledge along to his clients and workshop attendees. You can connect with Frank on LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com/in/frankalaniz).
Early on. Way back in the day, the explosion of online job boards created a global platform for advertising job openings and forced the recruiter to look to an electronic recruitment system to help automate the processing of all the candidates. The early ATS companies appeared on the scene in the late 1990s and, at the turn of the century, many recruiters weren’t convinced that the Internet would ever become relevant for mainstream recruiting…your average retail clerk or plumber or sales rep would never apply for a job online.
E-recruitment and Applicant Tracking Systems started off as clunky, bureaucratic processes that frustrated everyone. But now…now they’re so much more. Those systems are integrated, cloud-based software suites that encompass the entire employee lifecycle. There are hundreds of Applicant Tracking Systems out there from which a company can choose, and in the employee selection ‘space’ an ATS enables users to manage hiring processes like job distribution, screening, interviewing, and sending out offers.
The good. What used to be the exclusive domain of large organizations, the ATS solution is now available for employers of all sizes, thanks in large part to the potential unleashed by cloud-based computing. An ATS can be implemented or accessed online at an enterprise or small business level, depending on the needs of the company. There’s also free and open source ATS software available. And what can an ATS do for the overburdened HR staff? Well, it can analyze resumes and present the data they contain in a standardized format where it can be quickly reviewed; it can make comparing resumes fast and simple; it can collect, organize, and show job candidates in the same way LinkedIn or Facebook show your contacts or friends; it can post to a wide range of free and paid job boards with a single submission; and it offers the facility to automatically filter dud applications from true job candidates. The right applicant tracking software is a major step towards creating a repeatable, systematic hiring process, from posting a job to having an offer letter accepted.
The bad. It’s estimated that about 95% of businesses use software programs to handle their recruitment process. The ATS searches resumes – sometimes thousands of them – for keywords that match the job description in order to help determine the human “best fit” for the position. But while that helps with efficiency, experts also claim that a full 90% or more of resumes submitted online are never seen by human eyes.
In some of our workshops, we jokingly(?) call the Applicant Tracking System a “weapon of mass rejection.” Here are some numbers for you: up to 80% of those resumes scored by ATS programs are determined unqualified within the first 10 minutes of the application process (i.e., before actual submission); up to 75% of the remaining job applicants are unqualified immediately after hitting the submit button; and some experts estimate that at least 85% of those resumes rejected were done so because they contained the wrong words or used the wrong format.
Simply put, an ATS maps and gathers info from your resume, scores each resume based on how well it matches the job description (think keywords), and then ranks the candidates. Potential employees with the highest scores move to the next step in the recruitment process, while others are left in the dust. Your carefully-crafted, hand-tailored, aesthetically-pleasing resume is getting reviewed and graded by… a bot.
Make sure your application entries and/or resume contain the keywords that the job posting uses to avoid the ATS “black hole” …that situation where you never hear from anyone at any time about any of the jobs for which you’ve applied. Keywords are those…well, words…that employers and recruiters use to find appropriate and relevant resumes. Regardless of how well-qualified you are, if your resume doesn’t contain the words they’ve coded into the ATS for that position, the system will not find your resume.
The ATS looks for a specific match, ranking the resumes with the most keyword matches higher than the rest. Those keywords typically come from the job description you’re applying for, so don’t use generic “buzz words” you found online.
Speaking of keywords and the ATS, here’s a tip: avoid keyword stuffing at all costs. What’s that, you say? It’s literally stuffing hidden keywords into a resume in order to game the system, done by repeatedly typing keywords into the resume then making the text white so that it’s invisible to human eyes. The idea is that it will help the candidate rank higher in an ATS review.
Unfortunately, keyword stuffing with hidden text is easily spotted and one of the quickest ways to burn a bridge with a recruiter. Instead, focus on resume keyword optimization, which isn’t about “tricking” or “beating” the system; it’s about working in sync with recruiters and hiring managers and the technology they use. One way to optimize is to use any number of online apps to help you analyze a job description compared to your resume. Do so, and that comparison will reveal all the keywords that are missing from your resume so you can deliberately work them in.
There are other legitimate ways to increase your resume “ranking”, like tailoring the content to the exact way the job description is written. And yes, that will mean a different version of your resume for each job application. Focus your resume on hard skills; many soft skill terms we use (like ‘dynamic’, ‘team player’, and ‘critical thinker’) are not quantifiable. Pay attention to how words are written in that job description: watch for plural vs. singular, abbreviations, and numbers. Did the job description read “nonprofit” or “non-profit”? Did it read “3 years” or “three years”? In ATS-land, those details matter…
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again…there are certain things that you might just want to go ahead and embrace, rather than fight every step of the way. Applicant tracking systems are one of those things. Learn them, figure out how to use them to your advantage, and stay connected with folks like Frank who can help you keep up with all the latest techniques. Best of luck working within YOUR system!
 
Do you have any experiences you’d like to share about your job search or military-to-civilian transition? Anything that might benefit others in our military community, facing the same challenges? If so, tell us your story and email Kris@militaryconnection.com!