Applicant Tracking System and Keywords: What You Need to Know

Applicant Tracking System and Keywords: What You Need to Know

Like virtually every aspect of our personal and professional lives, technology and automation have helped make manual tasks much easier. The same is true with Talent Acquisition. In the old days of recruiting, job seekers had to mail (gasp!) resumes to an employer. That employer would then have to store the resumes in folders and track, via spreadsheets, the progress of candidates. This process was automated with the widespread use of Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS). As the name implies, it is a tool to track job applicants. It integrates with a company’s web page to allow jobs to be posted on the site as well as on numerous job boards. On the candidate end, it has allowed candidates to apply easily, often in a few steps. Candidate can also get updates on their progress via automated messages sent from the system.

Features of Applicant Tracking Systems

Applicant Tracking Systems purveyors have systems for small businesses as well as large international corporations. Most ATS’s can be configurable to meet a company’s needs. The major components of an ATS are the following:

  1. Job Posting

  2. Screening Questions/Testing

  3. Tracking Candidates Through The Hiring Process

  4. Managing Interviews

  5. Email Automation

  6. Reporting

Additionally, ATS’s can also help with the following:

  1. Talent Sourcing

  2. Automated Scheduling of Interviews

  3. Language Translation

  4. Social Media Sharing

  5. Onboarding

Like with many technologies, there can be upsides and downsides for applicants. Upsides are that job openings are easier to find and applications do not get lost. The process of onboarding can also be seamless. The downside is that technology can make all the effort you put into making a resume for naught if you do not know how to get past the technology so a real person reads your resume.


The advent of Applicant Tracking Systems has made the administrative burden for Recruiters and Talent Acquisition professionals easier. It has also made the ability for job seekers to apply to positions much easier. That means that Human Resource departments have been inundated with applications of people marginally or even totally unqualified for a given position. Because of this, many ATS purveyors have added screening features that individual companies have enabled in their hiring process. An ATS can screen for certain words on a resume. These are known as “keywords” and used to help talent acquisition professionals find candidates meeting certain experience requirements, knowledge or skills.

As an example, some systems might look at the words in a job posting and compare those words to what is found on a resume and provide a ranking. Those resumes that are “the best match” will show higher on a recruiter’s dashboard than others, giving the recruiter guidance on prioritizing applicants. Most Applicant Tracking Systems also allow the recruiter to search resumes based on important terms. As an example, if knowing Python is important for a position, the resumes of applicants can be searched for that term or a combination of important terms. Some systems are even set up to “knock out” applications that do not meet certain criteria, such as years of experience or a college degree. If this feature is enabled, a recruiter may never even have the ability to see your resume.

Keyword Optimization

So how do you get the software to say you are a good candidate for a particular position? You have to strategically optimize the words in your resume. That is why it is so important to not have one generic resume that you send to each employer. You have to edit your resume to optimize the keywords for that particular job. Yes, it is more work, but the payoff can be huge.

Read the job description several times. Are there key industry terms featured? How about soft or hard skills, such as project management or Cognos Reporting? What words are emphasized or appear more than once? Take note of those.  A good way to figure out the important terms or key requirements of a position is to take several similar job postings and put the words in a word cloud to visually see the most common ones. These should be in your resume. It is suggested that those words should appear two to three times in your resume. Another tool to use is Jobscan. It allows you to put the job posting into their software which will then compare it to your resume and give you a matching score and suggestions to edit your resume. A word of warning: do not artificially cram your resume with keywords to get past the software. At the end of the day, you want a human to read your resume. Believe me, a recruiter will know if your resume is a fabrication, so keep it real and don’t put in skills that you do not possess. Another tip is to try to highlight your hard and soft skills in your experience section.  For a recruiter, that will lend more credence than just making a list of them in a Skill section.

A tip for job seekers is to write out all acronyms and have the acronym in parenthesis afterward, ex.  Search Engine Optimization (SEO). The software may be looking for Search Engine Optimization and if you only put SEO, it might not recognize the term.

Also, when looking at a job description, what is the tense of a word? This might seem like a little thing, but remember the software is doing an exact match to the search term or the job description.  Whether you use “negotiates”, “negotiated” or “negotiation” could be important to your match or ranking.

Resume Formatting

As a former recruiter, I can tell you that ATS parsing software can be a bit wonky. Not everything shows up in a recruiter’s view as you meant it to be seen. That is why I suggest you try to format your resume as simply as possible. I have seen resumes with a lot of graphics get garbled in the resume upload.  PDFs are great for keeping your formatting intact but sometimes the ATS won’t read them correctly. Make sure the ATS specifically will take PDF formatted resumes. Microsoft Word formatted resumes are the most common and most ATS systems have no problem reading them, but some do not like headers and footers. Do not put important information, like contact information, in headers. Also, some people think they can put keywords in a footer in white type. Well, the ATS may not be able to read it anyway and if a recruiter discovers what you have done, s/he will definitely not be happy.

Bottom Line

If a company uses an ATS, it does not mean that it is having the software screen candidates. Many recruiters will manually read all the resumes that are submitted. But as Human Resource departments are being asked, like many areas of business, to do more with less, ATS screening is increasingly becoming more common to save time. With the ease of applying and automated scheduling also comes the chance you will be screened out before a human sees your resume. Just be smart. Know what to do and put the effort into customizing your resume for each position. You should get a better result which means more interviews!

Is This My Dream Job?

Is This My Dream Job?

Why Leave Money On The Table? Negotiate On Total Compensation.

Why Leave Money On The Table? Negotiate On Total Compensation.

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