How Do Applicant Tracking Systems Work? 3 ATS Myths Answered

by | Finding A Job, Resumes & LinkedIn

Applicant tracking systems (ATS) are one of the most misunderstood aspects of a modern-day job search. As a job search expert and career coach specializing in high tech and Silicon Valley, I field more questions about navigating ATS than nearly any other aspect of the job search.

If you’re like many job seekers, you likely feel as if your resume is going into a “black hole,” never to be seen again. This can lead you to stuff your resume with keywords to “trick the ATS” and “get past the bots.”

In this article, I debunk 3 top ATS myths. I also answer common questions about ATS, including how to know whether a company uses one, why your resume isn’t considered “ATS-friendly,” and how to not get rejected by an ATS.

3 Common ATS Myths Debunked 

Below are some of the most popular ATS myths, all of which you can ignore.

Myth: My resume went into a black hole and never made it to a human… because of bots.

Fact: A human likely read your resume.

If you’re like many seekers, you worry that you’ll spend time optimizing your resume only to have it end up in a black hole. Thankfully, this is one of the most common misconceptions about ATS.

Yes, even at the big tech companies like Meta, Google, and Amazon, dedicated sourcers or recruiters are reading the resumes they receive. Therefore, you want to approach each resume submission with the mindset that a human will read it — because they most likely will.

[Read: 6 Ways To Make Writing Your Resume Less Challenging]

Myth: Keyword stuffing is the best way to beat the applicant tracking system.

Fact: Focus on making recruiters’ jobs easier.

Since a living, breathing human will likely read your resume, you want to avoid stuffing your resume with keywords to try to trick the ATS.

Instead, you want to nimbly connect the dots between your target job posting and your experience.

For example, if the job posting mandates a PMP certification, be sure you quickly call yours out at the top of your resume.

In other words, remember that your role as a job seeker is to make it as easy as possible for the recruiter to invite you for an interview.

Myth: Bots rejected my resume before a human could even give me a chance.

Fact: A human rejected your resume.

This is what you need to know: An ATS is merely a digital file cabinet for job applications and resumes. Applicant tracking systems are unable to think on their own.

Ultimately, any actions an ATS makes are the result of humans. Period.

Even if you receive a rejection at 2 AM, for instance, it may have been because of how you answered a knock-out question like, “How many years of experience do you have working in the tech industry?”

CaffeinatedKyle.com ATS Sample Knockout Questions

A recruiter or someone else at the company likely programmed the ATS to automatically reject all candidates without X years of experience in the tech industry. Alternatively, a sourcer or recruiter may have been working in the early hours and simply passed on your job application.

[Read: Work-Life Balance In Tech: Is It Really Possible?]

How Do I Know If A Company Is Using An ATS?

You might be tempted to avoid applying for roles if a company uses an ATS. However, if you’re looking for a job online, they’re likely using an ATS since most employers use one, except for perhaps some very early-stage startups.

You can often tell that a company is using an ATS if you are required to fill in select fields, such as dates of employment and responsibilities for each role you’ve held, when submitting your application and uploading your resume to the online system.

Another indication a company is using an ATS is that there’s a logo for one of the major ATS providers like Workday, Oracle’s Taleo, or Greenhouse somewhere in the applicant portal.

Again, ATS are merely digital file cabinets that hold and sort job applications, so if you find that a company uses one, don’t be turned off. Employers simply need a way to organize the hundreds, or thousands, of applications they receive for each open role, so they turn to ATS.

Why Is My Resume Not ATS Compatible?

Your resume’s format is the likely culprit if the ATS is having a difficult time parsing your resume. If you placed text in a header or footer, used columns, or added images or graphics when you designed your resume, it might not be able to read it properly.

These ATS compatibility issues are most common when you opt for a graphical resume from a website like Canva. While ATS is continually improving, you want to be mindful that there are limitations. Plus, these graphical resumes take the reader’s attention away from what really matters — your career accomplishments.

Simple formatting is your friend when attempting to submit your resume to an ATS.

You can get a general sense of how your resume will be parsed by an ATS by saving your document as a .txt file, then viewing the output:

  • If the text reads fine, then you’re unlikely to run into issues when submitting your resume.
  • If the text is jumbled, you’ll want to correct any formatting errors before uploading your resume.

CaffeinatedKyle.com Save Resume As txt for AI Resume Screener

Now, if a reverse recruiter, professional resume writer, career coach, or other service provider tells you your resume is not “ATS-friendly,” you need to clarify what they mean. Remember, an ATS is simply parsing your document and placing it in a digital file cabinet of sorts, and some scammers will scare unknowing job seekers by telling them their resume is incompatible with ATS.

[Read: Free AI Resume Reviews: A Word Of Caution]

How Do I Not Get Rejected By ATS?

The ATS is not rejecting your resume. A human programmed it, so the response you’re getting was based on a human — either in the moment or based on their criteria (e.g. only applicants with at least X years of experience, in these zip codes, or who answered “yes” to a specific question).

That said, here are a few strategies to improve the chances of securing a recruiter phone screen:

  • Include your target position at the top of the resume. If you haven’t held the position previously, you can write, “Target Role: [Target Position].”
  • Customize your resume for each application using keywords from the job posting.
  • Quantify and contextualize your career accomplishments.

How Do I Get Past The AI Resume Screening?

Let’s summarize. You want to use simple formatting, tailor your resume to the specific job posting, and use keywords to make it easy for a prospective employer to understand how your skills are relevant.

While submitting applications can quickly become tiring, you want to avoid responding, “Please refer to my resume” to any application questions, as this will prevent you from being easily searchable by recruiters in the ATS.

Final Thoughts

Learning to navigate a modern-day job search requires far more than just a captivating resume and knowledge of ATS. You also need an optimized LinkedIn profile, a comprehensive job search strategy, and a willingness to network and put yourself out there if you want to land a new role. Please feel free to contact me or schedule a consultation if you have any questions. I’m here for you! You’ve got this!

About Dr. Kyle Elliott

About Dr. Kyle Elliott

Dr. Kyle Elliott is the founder and career coach behind CaffeinatedKyle.com. His expertise is in Silicon Valley and high-tech. As a result of working with Dr. Elliott, senior managers and executives have landed jobs at Meta, Amazon, Google, and nearly every other tech giant you can imagine.

A trusted career expert, Dr. Elliott’s words have been featured on Business Insider, CNBC, CNN, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, Fortune, Harvard Business Review, and The New York Times, among dozens of other leading publications. He has been recognized as a Best Career & Interview Coach, Best Resume Writer for Silicon Valley/Tech Managers & Executives, and LinkedIn Top Voice (the platform’s highest honor).

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