Job Seeker’s Guide to Navigating an Applicant Tracking System (ATS) 

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Learn more about helpful strategies to use when applying through an ATS.

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The vast majority of online job applications first go through an applicant tracking system (ATS). Sometimes called resume scanners, these programs are designed to help companies manage the volume of applications they receive for a job posting and identify the best possible candidates. Before a human ever looks over your materials, an ATS has likely used an algorithm to “read” your resume and determine how well you match the job description. If you seem like a strong fit, an ATS will flag your resume for further review.

Let's discuss how applicant tracking systems work, ways you can optimize your resume before submitting it, and tips for proactively networking with key people behind an ATS.  

How does an applicant tracking system work? 

The average corporate job posting receives 250 applicants [1]. With that kind of volume, companies need a way to collect, organize, and parse every application. Applicant tracking systems (ATS) are software programs that make the application process more efficient for both applicants and companies. 

Most applicant tracking systems double as job boards, allowing you to easily see new and relevant openings. When you apply to a job posting through an ATS, the program collects your application materials, such as resumes and cover letters, and creates a candidate profile. 

Behind the scenes, it filters applicants who seem like a good fit based on the job description and allows employees to communicate with one another about potential candidates, leaving notes that may be useful during various interview stages. It can also help companies schedule interviews with candidates and directly message them with additional requests.    

Learn more: Zoom Interview Tips: A Guide for Your Online Interview

How to stand out in an ATS

There are certain strategies you can implement each time you submit an application through an ATS. Let’s go over ways you can tailor your materials and formatting, and three increasingly common practices you should avoid.  

Tailor your content. 

Align your resume keywords with the job description. Spend time reviewing the job description for keywords you can naturally weave into the way you describe your previous work experience and skills. Oftentimes, algorithms compare resumes to the job description and rank candidates based on the number of overlapping keywords. 

For example: If you're a content strategist (or someone who writes for UX design), and you see that the job description mentions "copy" rather than "content," you may want to update your language to better align with the role.

Connect your experience and skills to outcomes. An ATS algorithm helps narrow down candidates initially, but eventually, a recruiter will likely review your resume. Make sure your materials are written both for an algorithm (using critical keywords from the job description) and for a human. Use action words to quantify your impact for recruiters by including any data, statistics, or metrics that measure your past success. 

List the dates of your employment. Including the month and year of your employment for each position can help an algorithm understand the level of your experience (entry-level, associate, senior, manager, etc.). For this reason, it's best to use a chronological resume when applying via an ATS. Rather than try to hide any gaps, you can address those in your resume objective, which helps recruiters understand what you’re looking for.     

Learn more: Types of Resumes: Choosing the Right Format for Your Needs

Synthesize your formatting. 

Avoid over-formatting and keep your resume scannable. It’s natural to want your resume to stand out by using special colors, images, or formatting. But stick to a more standard resume format when submitting your materials to an ATS. Upload a Word document or PDF with at least one-inch margins. Since an algorithm will be the first “eyes” on your resume, make it as easy as possible for an ATS to read your resume.   

Choose a standard font. You may want to use a unique font to get a recruiter’s attention, but stick to standard fonts such as Times New Roman, Arial, Calibri, Helvetica, or Georgia. Use a font that’s at least 11 points so recruiters can easily review your resume. 

Spell out acronyms. Where possible, spell out acronyms at first and then add the acronym in parentheses so you capture both potential keywords. For example: Used Structured Query Language (SQL) to extract and analyze data. 

Learn more: 10 Ways to Enhance Your Resume

Practices to avoid 

Don’t stuff your resume with keywords. Using different keywords from the job description throughout your resume is a great strategy, but when you use too many—sometimes called over-optimization or keyword stuffing—it makes it harder for a recruiter to understand your experience.

For example: Oversaw graphic design team which designed graphics for multiple channels, including graphic design images and graphic design logos. An ATS might push you through, but once a recruiter reviews your resume, they'll spot the trick.

Avoid applying for too many roles at the same company. Recruiters and hiring managers can see your application history in an ATS. While you should feel comfortable applying for a few relevant roles at the same company, applying to too many jobs that don’t fit your experience doesn’t always send the right message. Instead, try securing informational interviews to learn more about different career paths so you’re prepared to apply for the right roles when they become available.   

Don’t game the system. There are numerous tricks you can employ to get past an ATS, including keyword stuffing or hiding keywords in white font to rank higher. But many applicant tracking systems end up translating your uploaded resume into a plain text file for recruiters who would eventually spot those unnecessary additions.  

3 ways to connect with a person behind an ATS

When you see a job that seems like a good fit, you should apply. But it’s also helpful to proactively connect with people at different companies when there isn’t a relevant role just yet. That way, you’re in a strong position the next time something opens up. You’ll likely still have to apply via an ATS, but you can notify your connections, who may be able to submit a referral or forward your resume to the hiring manager. 

1. Connect with a recruiter on LinkedIn.

Recruiters spend their days looking for the best candidates to fill open roles. You can often connect with a recruiter on LinkedIn, sending them a short message about your career goals and your interest in their company. While not every recruiter will get back to you, it can be a good way to establish a connection and alert them to your experience and interest.  

2. Build a network for potential employee referrals. 

Companies actively solicit employee referrals for good reason—an employee referral is four times more likely to be hired than someone who applies to a job without knowing anyone [2]. Expand your network by connecting with relevant employees who work at companies that interest you. Use LinkedIn to find the best people—ideally someone who does the type of work you’d like to—and send them a message expressing your interest in growing your professional or industry network. 

3. Seek out informational interviews. 

Informational interviews can be an excellent way to learn more about a role you’d potentially like to do. Reach out to employees at companies where you’d potentially like to work one day, or find professionals who are established in your line of work. Ask questions to learn more about what they do on a daily basis and how they got started. Participating in informational interviews can help you establish valuable connections that may benefit you the next time a relevant role opens up. 

Explore further 

Strengthen your resume by building in-demand skills for careers in project management, UX design, data science, marketing analytics, and sales. Earn a Professional Certificate from leading companies like Google, Meta, and IBM, all available on Coursera. 

Related articles 

Article sources

1. Zippia. “How Many Applications Does It Take to Get a Job,” Accessed August 2, 2022. 

2. LinkedIn. "Employee Referral Statistics You Need to Know for 2020 (Infographic)," Accessed August 2, 2022.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

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