What is an Applicant Tracking System (and How to Beat It)

As the hiring process continues to get increasingly automated, you’ll want to ensure your application doesn’t get filtered out by a programme before it actually reaches human hands!
Sarah Si
Sarah Si
Editor, gradsingapore
What’s an Applicant Tracking System_featuredimg

With technology automating and disrupting so many aspects of our day-to-day lives, it stands to reason that even recruitment has not been exempted. In a time when applying for jobs is easier than ever before with just one click, top employers often find themselves swamped with large volumes of applications. Many have ended up turning to software to help make the process more manageable.

Now, almost all large and multinational corporations use software known as Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) to screen candidates, and a rising number of small- to medium-sized companies are doing the same.

As a graduate jobseeker, you’re bound to encounter quite a few of these in your job search. Here’s what you need to know about how they work, and – more importantly – how you can beat the bot and make it work for you!

What does an ATS do?

Typically, when you apply for a position online, your application doesn’t go directly to a recruiter or hiring manager – instead, it goes to an ATS. Depending on the ATS, you may have to manually type your application and details into fields, or just upload your resume and/or cover letter. Then, text recognition software will scan the contents and process them accordingly.

However, the ATS software is far from perfect. Their filtering criteria sometimes only searches for exact words, and text recognition software is quite prone to errors. It may even fail to read entire documents at times!

What’s an Applicant Tracking System 01_Beating an Applicant Tracking System


Format your resume properly

If you encounter an ATS that requires you to upload your resume, stick to simple formatting. Creatively-formatted resumes may impress human recruiters, but it won’t get past ATS. ATS may even forcibly convert uncommon fonts it doesn’t recognise, which will completely mess up your formatting.

Stay close to a standard chronological resume format. When choosing section headings, avoid uncommon words – the ATS may not recognise those. Instead, use more common ones like “Professional Experience”, “Skills”, “Education”, and “Qualifications”.

Finally, before submitting your resume, check if you can submit your file in Word doc instead of PDF. Although you should send PDFs to human recruiters, give ATS Word docs if you can instead. Text recognition software is especially prone to errors when trying to read PDFs!

What’s an Applicant Tracking System 02_How to format your resume properly

Use relevant keywords and phrases

When submitting an application through an ATS, try and mimic the language used in the job description as closely as possible. But if you’re tempted to try and game the system, remember that your application will be reviewed by a human recruiter once it gets past the ATS. Spamming keywords or copying the job description too closely will not win you any points once it reaches human eyes!

What’s an Applicant Tracking System 03_Use relevant keywords & phrases

Go around the ATS if you can

Frankly, the best way to beat an ATS is to cut out the middleman entirely and go directly to a human!

Applying for jobs may now be easier than ever, but remember that you can apply to jobs through other means. Attend career events, employer info sessions, or webinars, and build your own list of recruiter contacts.

Yes, even with personal contacts, you may still be bound by the company’s hiring practices and still have to apply online. But at least you’ll now have supporters inside the company rooting for you, and that always helps.

What’s an Applicant Tracking System 04_Avoid ATS