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

As the hiring process gets 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 Yan Ying
Sarah Si

Since technology has automated and disrupted so many aspects of our day-to-day lives, it stands to reason that recruitment has not been exempt as well. In a time when applying for jobs just takes one click and is easier than ever before, top employers will often find themselves swamped with large volumes of applicants. Many have ended up turning to software to help make the process more manageable.

Now, almost all large and multinational corporations will 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 make them work for you!


gradsingapore.com article - What is an Applicant Tracking System (and How to Beat It)_What does an ATS do

What does an ATS do?

Typically, when you apply for a position online, your application or CV doesn’t go directly to a recruiter or hiring manager. Instead, it goes to an ATS for processing. There, keywords in the job description are matched to words typed out in your application or CV before it’s shortlisted for human review, or rejected outright.

Depending on the ATS the employer is using, some may ask you to type in your application and details manually into fields. Others may just ask you to upload a CV and/or cover letter, where text recognition software will scan the content of those documents and process them accordingly.

But it’s also important to know that ATS software is far from perfect! Their filtering criteria may only search for exact words, rejecting valid similar terms which they have not been programmed to recognise. Text recognition software is especially error-prone too, and may even fail to read entire documents at times.

While some newer ATS versions have mitigated these issues, many companies still use older systems with the above flaws. Because of that, top candidates have been known to slip through the cracks just because they didn’t give the software exactly what it wanted.

In other words, if you want to get noticed, you’ll need to know how to beat the bot! Fortunately, that’s not too hard – you just need to tweak and customise your application and CV to try and give the software exactly what it wants.


gradsingapore.com article - What is an Applicant Tracking System (and How to Beat It)-Format your CV properly

Format your CV properly

If you encounter an ATS that requires a CV upload, then simple formatting will be key. Having a creatively-formatted CV may impress a human recruiter, but ATS software looks out for simple (oftentimes boring) CVs that conform with their programming.

Use common fonts like Arial, Times New Roman, or Calibri. The ATS may attempt to forcibly convert your fonts if you use one it doesn’t recognise, which will completely mess up the rest of your formatting. Remove all logos and pictures as well. The ATS can’t read those, anyway.

Stay close to a standard chronological CV format. When choosing section headings, avoid uncommon terms like “Publications”, “Accomplishments”, or “Affiliations” – the ATS may not recognise those. Instead, use more common headings like “Professional Experience”, “Skills”, “Education”, and “Qualifications”, among others.

Finally, before submitting your CV, check if the system allows you to submit your file in Word doc format instead of just PDF. Although you should be sending PDFs to human recruiters, upload a Word doc to the ATS if you can instead. Text recognition software is especially prone to errors when trying to read PDFs!


gradsingapore.com article - What is an Applicant Tracking System (and How to Beat It)-Use relevant keywords and phrases

Use relevant key words and phrases

As a rule of thumb, when submitting an application through an ATS, you’ll want to try and mimic the language used in the job description as closely as possible.

Before you start, go through the job description carefully and highlight as many key words as possible. If possible, swing by the company’s own website to check if a more detailed version is available somewhere. You’ll want to pay special attention to words used to describe requirements, needed qualifications, and the actual scope of the job.

For instance, a job description may state that an “IT degree or related” and “fluent in C++” is required, and that the job will involve maintaining an e-commerce platform. Try and craft an application statement along the lines of “I am a fresh graduate with an IT degree in information systems, and am workably fluent in C++. My final year thesis was on the application of blockchain technology in growing and maintaining e-commerce platforms.

See what we did there? Use critical key words and phrases whenever you can so that you tick off the ATS software’s list of priority words. However, keep it as natural as possible. Try and incorporate as much of the language from the original job description as possible into your CV or application. And make sure you customise a new application for every role you submit through an ATS!

Oh, and if you’re feeling tempted to try and game the system, remember that your application will be reviewed by an actual 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. Don’t fixate on winning the battle only to lose the war!


gradsingapore.com article - What is an Applicant Tracking System (and How to Beat It)-Go around the ATS if you can

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 the application itself isn’t all there is! Prioritise building your professional network. Attend career events, employer info sessions, or webinars, and build your own list of recruiter contacts. Make talking to an actual human your first option whenever possible. And if you can send your application and CV directly to a recruiter’s inbox, then all the better.

Yes, even with personal contacts, you may still be bound by the company’s hiring practices and still have to apply online. However, you now have the advantage of letting the hiring manager know to expect your application somewhere up the pipeline. After all, having supporters inside the company rooting for you is never a bad thing!