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What is an applicant tracking system?

Things you need to know about applicant tracking systems.

Mar 16, 2021 | 4 min read | Declan Igoe

Things you need to know about applicant tracking systems

Applicant tracking systems (ATS) are a slightly controversial tool used by human resources departments to sort of filter applicants based on different triggers or criteria. The idea is to filter the ones who might not be suitable for the role and only have the best-of-the-best get through to the shortlist. Now, as we know, AI algorithms are not always perfect and because of that - companies may not get the best options for them because they hit or missed a trigger word (for example). Regardless of whether we like them or not, they are here for the foreseeable future and we’re going to give you as much info as possible about these systems so that you are prepared to face them.

What is an applicant tracking system?

These are software tools that try to make recruiters lives easier by sorting the most suitable applicants for those who might not be best for the job. They also collect and organise resumes for future HR activities.

When you submit an application, it usually doesn’t go directly to a human. It’s probably first being processed by a tracking system. You may well never know if your application is ever seen by a human.

Why do employers use these systems?

The biggest companies in the world kind of have to use them. This is the short answer.

The long answer is that these companies are usually hiring for tens if not hundreds of positions at a time. And with so many positions, you can imagine how many applications need to be sifted through. That is simply not possible for even the largest HR teams.

Plus, a lot of people apply for a job that they are not fully qualified for because ‘Why not, let’s give it a try,’ so this enables the recruiters to essentially reject those people without having to do any work.

Alongside the sifting capabilities, ATS also keep all the CVs in a nice, neat order allowing the recruiters a little bit more power to do their jobs efficiently. Theoretically, applicant tracking systems save time by automating the process and displaying the most-qualified candidates at the top of the pile. In reality, they do help but some of the most qualified people do slip through and miss the chance.

It’s well known that many companies use this software and in fact, 98% of the Fortune 500 employ applicant tracking systems which should come as no surprise at all.

How do they work

O.K. now we’re getting to the good part, the part that should be most relevant to you the reader because if you know how these systems work then you can use them to your advantage.

Viewing Applications

Recruiters often choose to take a quick look at any CV that comes through the system although this is not a guarantee. A quick eye over the job highlights, titles and companies might be all they need to move your application onto the next stage. Make sure your qualifications and most important, relevant info is easily determined from the first page.

Automated ranking

Most ATS will somehow automatically compare your CV to the job description in the original post. Taleo, a software company that creates an applicant tracking solution, describes its features as a REQ Rank. This ranks all of the applicants based on how much their CV scores against the original job post.

Instead of having to look at all the applications, the recruiter can focus only on candidates the system has determined to be a great match.


One of the most common ways for a recruiter to filter CVs is by searching for key titles and skills. For example, if the recruiter is looking for a Systems Engineer out of 500 applications then they will firstly search for ‘Systems Engineer’ within the ATS. This will detect all of those who have done this job before and anyone who did not include that term...well...bad luck. A search could include multiple keywords though, they might also search for ‘Software Engineer’ or something like that to broaden the pool of potential employees.

If you’re looking to heighten your chances of being included in the ATS search results then you will want to try and predict the keywords it’s looking for. The best way to do this is just by scrutinising the original job post, picking out recurring words and hitting them in your application.

How can I beat the ATS?

There are plenty of tricks to note but it’s worth mentioning: don’t try and cheat the system. If you’re not fit for the job then it will just make your life and the recruiter’s life more difficult and waste both of your time.

Here are some things you can try to improve your chances with an applicant tracking system:

  • Customise your CV to the job post every time
  • Optimise it with keywords from the job post
  • Use acronyms AND longform titles (e.g. MEng and Master of Engineering)
  • Avoid complex tables in your CV which might not be properly processed
  • Use simple headers so the recruiter doesn’t have to work out any puzzles (e.g. Work Experience vs. ‘Where I have been’
  • Save your CV as a PDF which is understood in all systems

ATS are here forever

While older systems are still in place in some businesses, we see new systems being developed for the modern age every day. Employers are scrambling over one another for the best of the best and candidate experience is becoming more of an issue.

Whether we like it or not, applicant tracking systems are not going away. So instead of moaning about them, all we can do is learn, adapt and overcome.