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

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Learn helpful strategies to use when applying through an ATS.

[Featured Image] A man in a suit is on a video call and is looking at papers.

Most online job applications go through an applicant tracking system (ATS). Sometimes called CV 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 CV and determine how well you match the job description. If you seem like a firm fit, an ATS will flag your CV for further review.

Let's discuss how applicant tracking systems work, ways you can optimise your CV 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], and following the COVID lockdowns, the number of applicants per job role increased by 48 percent [2]. With that volume, companies need a way to collect, organise, and parse every application. Applicant tracking systems (ATS) are software programs that make the application process more efficient for 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 CVs 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.    

How to stand out in an ATS

There are specific strategies you can implement each time you apply to an ATS. Let’s review ways to tailor your materials and formatting and three increasingly common practices you should avoid.  

Tailor your content. 

Align your CV keywords with the job description. Spend time reviewing the job description for keywords you can naturally weave into how you describe your previous work experience and skills. Often, algorithms compare CVs 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 align with the role.

Connect your experience and skills to outcomes. An ATS algorithm helps narrow candidates initially, but a recruiter will eventually review your CV. Ensure your materials are written for an algorithm (using critical keywords from the job description) and for a human. Use action words to quantify your impact on 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 job for each position can help an algorithm understand your experience level (entry-level, associate, senior, manager, etc.). For this reason, it's best to use a chronological CV when applying via an ATS. Rather than try to hide any gaps, you can address those in your CV summary, which helps recruiters understand what you’re looking for and how you can benefit them.     

Synthesise your formatting. 

Avoid over-formatting and keep your CV scannable. It’s natural to want your CV to stand out using special colours, images, or formatting, but stick to a more standard CV 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 CV, make it as easy as possible for an ATS to read.   

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 of at least 11 points so recruiters can quickly review your CV. 

Spell out acronyms. Spell out acronyms first, then add the abbreviation in parentheses to capture both potential keywords. For example: Used Structured Query Language (SQL) to extract and analyse data. 

Practices to avoid 

Don’t stuff your CV with keywords. Using different keywords from the job description throughout your CV is a great strategy. Still, using too many—sometimes called over-optimisation or keyword stuffing—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 logos. An ATS might push you through, but once a recruiter reviews your CV, 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 can apply for the right roles when they become available.   

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

3 ways to connect with a person behind an ATS

You should be able to apply when you see a job that is a good fit. But it’s also helpful to proactively connect with people at different companies when there isn’t a relevant role. 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 can submit a referral or forward your CV 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 interest in their company. While only some recruiters will get back to you, it can be an excellent 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 [3]. Expand your network by connecting with relevant employees at companies that interest you. Use LinkedIn to find the best people—ideally, someone who does the type of work you’d like—and send them a message expressing 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 established professionals in your line of work. Ask questions to learn more about what they do daily and how they 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 CV 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. 

Article sources


Zippia. “How Many Applications Does It Take to Get a Job,” Accessed April 1, 2024. 

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