Navigating Job Search Within and Without Applicant Tracking Systems

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by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.

In our article Have Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) “Ruined” Recruiting, Hiring, and Job Search?, we discuss the issue of large numbers of job-seekers being screened out by the Applicant Tracking System (ATS) software that many employers use — and the fact that applicants rarely know why they’ve been eliminated. They may simply not be qualified; they may not have used the right keywords in their resumes; their resumes may not be properly formatted for the ATS software — or they are dumped for entirely different, mysterious reasons.

In this article, we want to give you a road map of tips and resources both to help you fare better in submitting your resume to employers that use Applicant Tracking Systems, as well as avoid the ATS technology altogether. In a comprehensive job search, you will probably have to submit your resume via these systems some of the time, but you can also find opportunities to apply techniques beyond responding to job postings.

Understand Applicant Tracking Systems

The first step is to know what you’re up against. Read our articles:

Optimize Your Resume for Applicant Tracking Systems

Optimizing your resume to rank highly within these systems can be summed up in three caveats:

  1. Customize your resume for every position you apply for. This advice, circulating for a number of years, always had a bit of an optional air to it. Customization seemed desirable but not mandatory. Now it’s a must. Your resume will not rank well in an ATS if it’s one-size-fits-all. As Jacqui Barrett-Poindexter points out, every Applicant Tracking System is different, and “you will drive yourself crazy trying to program your resume for each and every corporate system out there.” Instead, she advises, focus on each target employer’s current situation — its needs and problems — and tell in your resume how you are equipped to address those.
  2. Include the right keywords in your resume. As David Wessel advises, “The trick is parroting all the words in the job description but not just copying and pasting the text, which leads the software to discard the application.” Read our articles Tapping the Power of Keywords to Enhance Your Resume and Applicant Tracking Systems 101: Understanding the ATS Technology That Dominates Online Job Search.
  3. Format your resume correctly. Read
  4. Optimizing and Formatting Your Resume for Applicant Tracking Systems and Preparing Job-Seeker Resumes for Applicant Tracking Systems: Checklist and Critical Do’s and Don’ts. Another helpful articles is 5 Insider Secrets for Beating Applicant Tracking Systems

Learn More Tips for Your Resume and Other Elements of Applicant Tracking Systems

  • Follow the employer’s instructions. Job-seekers are not well educated about how to properly prepare their resumes and complete other parts of the application so they can pass the ATS screening. Not every employer provides clear instructions (on the application itself or the employer’s career site), but always look for and follow instructions when provided.
  • Fill out online applications completely. Don’t skip items. Doing so could disqualify you.
  • Send your resume via postal mail as well as applying online. Not many candidates will do so, and you may stand out. A mailed submission also gives you an opportunity to submit an attractive, graphically pleasing print version of your resume. Resumes optimized for Applicant Tracking Systems have stripped-down formatting that is decidedly dull in appearance.
  • Consider a skills section atop your resume containing keywords tailored to the targeted job. Be sure to list any technologies and specialized skills listed in the job posting. List any skills mentioned in the job posting, especially those that appear to be the focus of the job, as many times as you legitimately can in your resume.
  • If you’ve had jobs that are essentially the same as the position you’re applying for, but the titles are different, list both your title and the title in the job posting. Candidates have been eliminated when titles didn’t match up.
  • Apply to jobs as early as possible after they are posted. “Recruiters admit that when they search an ATS for potential candidates, they stop after they find what they need,” writes Brie Weiler Reynolds. “If your resume isn’t one of the first to pop up, the odds are low that they’ll search long enough to find your application.” Set up job-search agents on job boards and career sites so you are alerted as soon as an opening that fits you is posted. Check posting dates; it’s probably not even worth applying to a job that has been posted for a couple of weeks or more unless you have an inside contact.
  • When possible, choose to complete online applications (into which you paste or upload your resume) rather than emailing your resume as an attachment. “An online form usually goes to a shared database where you can be found later by a specific search,” writes Mark Nelson. “An email is more likely to disappear into a resume graveyard.”
  • Don’t forget that at some point, humans will read your resume. They will read it if it’s not screened out by the system, and they will read it if the employer does not use an Applicant Tracking System, which as Barrett-Poindexter notes, not every employer does. “Your resume should be written for a human being’s eyes and ears,” Barrett-Poindexter advises. “Does it sing? Or, does it fall flat? … Does it advertise your value in a brilliant, enticing way?”
  • We’ve seen at least one new service spring up to help job-seekers deal with the ATS morass. For a fee, the firm will deliver your resume directly to the hiring manager, skirting the Applicant Tracking System. While we feel it’s unfortunately that job-seekers would have to pay for such a service, those struggling to find work may want to consider them. We don’t yet know anyone who has used such a service or enough about their effectiveness to recommend them, but if you’d like to investigate, conduct a search for “resume marketing.”

Expert Tips for Going Beyond Applying Through Applicant Tracking Systems

  • Instead of applying to vacancies posted online, make a list of employers you want to target and get referrals to those employers through online venues such as LinkedIn, as well as your offline network. “When you invest the bulk of your time only pursuing posted jobs,” writes Hannah Morgan of Career Sherpa, “you are missing out of the opportunity to meet with individuals inside companies that could potentially hire you and this is where the real opportunities lie!” Instead of applying to job postings, Morgan advises, use the postings to learn about current skills employers seek, job titles in your field, which industries are doing the most hiring, and names of recruiters hiring at targeted companies.
  • Having a list of targeted employers also enables you to submit a general resume to them so your document is in the system (if the employer offers that option). That way, if you choose to apply to a job posting, you can customize and apply.
  • Conduct informational interviews to make insider contacts and gather information on employer needs and problems.
  • Don’t give up on a desired job if the ATS rejects you. In How You Can Beat Computerized Applicant Screenings, Dylan Alford describes being instantly rejected after applying through an Applicant Tracking System but not giving up on the position. On LinkedIn, he tracked down the recruiter who posted the vacancy and sent her a cover letter, resume, work samples, and a business card via postal mail. She called him to arrange an interview.
  • Create opportunities instead of pursuing openings. See a collection of articles about how to create opportunity, along with this one by career expert and author Susan Whitcomb: Pumping Up the Interview Pipeline: The Difference between Openings and Opportunities.
  • Because LinkedIn is a major tool for recruiters and other hiring decision-makers, be sure your profile on that venue is complete and up to date.

Final Thoughts on Your Job Search Success

Finally, as we’ve advised every year in our Annual Reports on the State of Internet Job, you’ve got to network. Employers would much rather fill jobs through referrals than by posting them and subjecting themselves to a tsunami of resumes; thus, they post them when efforts to get referrals have failed (or they are legally required to post but already have a candidate targeted for the job). If you network with people inside the employer’s organization, you can find out about and pursue openings much earlier in the pipeline than when they appear on job boards or the employer’s career site.

Gain additional insights into how you can improve your resume and succeed with ATS using these free Applicant Tracking System Tools for Job-Seekers.

Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.

Katharine Hansen, PhD, Creative Director Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers, is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers, edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and blogs about storytelling in the job search at A Storied Career. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). Visit her personal Website or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at) Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.

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