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Applicant Tracking Systems

By Matt Lowney

If you don't know what an Applicant Tracking System (ATS) is, chances are you have used one.  Applicant Tracking Systems are used by most mid to large sized companies to accept and screen applicants.  If you've ever applied for a position and were sent through an electronic system that asked that you input information, then you have used an ATS.  From an applicant's perspective these systems can be tedious and time consuming.  For an employer these systems make the hiring process much more streamlined and take a lot of the negative human element out of the equation.  Some of these systems are much more complex than others.  Some basically just gather and organize candidate information, while others will ask a series of behavior-based questions to get a “feel” for an applicant, then score their responses.  How then can you work with an Applicant Tracking System to land a job?  The keys below will help make your resume more Applicant Tracking System friendly. 

Key Words Searches.  Applicant Tracking Systems use a myriad of techniques to help weed through resumes all with the end goal of saving the employer time and money in the hiring process.  Many systems emphasize a frequency of key words as a way to look at resumes, so need to make sure that your resume best reflects the job description listed for the position.  Include these key words and phrases as many times as reasonable.  Make sure that your current skills are listed at the top of your resume as well. 

Organization.  Some of these systems will read your resume from top to bottom with the assumption that your most recent employment history will be at the top, so make sure your previous employers appear in reverse chronological order.  I've begun seeing a lot of resumes that utilize a functional format.  Basically these resumes put an emphasis on listing skills over employment history, so the only listing of previous jobs is a job title, company, and dates of employment.  Most applicant tracking systems don't handle these types of resumes well, so try to use the more traditional format of reverse chronological order.

Working Around an ATS.  Larger companies will insist that you apply through their Applicant Tracking System because of company and federal equal employment policies, but you can work around the system or use the system to your benefit.  Once you apply online it usually takes a day or two for your resume to get filtered to the hiring manager.  While this filtering occurs, you should try to find the hiring managers name and number so you can leave her a voicemail.  This call ensures that the hiring manager should know who you are once she receives your resume.  For many positions the manager will get dozens of applicants funneled her way, so will probably be one of the few names with which she is familiar.  Like any job search the more proactive you are in getting your name and resume in front of hiring manager the more successful you will be.  The technology of an ATS is really just a tool to help efficiency, so you shouldn't see it as a barrier to finding a job.


Matt Lowney is a corporate recruiter, radio host, and career consultant specializing in the areas of healthcare and information technology.  He can be reached at for additional questions.