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What Is an Applicant Tracking System? Your Questions Answered by the People Who Use Them!

Applicant tracking system

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You’ve probably seen the stats that say a majority of resumes are screened out by the applicant tracking system (ATS) and never seen by a human. Or you’ve heard that if you don’t use enough of the right resume keywords throughout your application, it will sink to the bottom of the pile. 

The fact is these aren’t facts, yet these ATS myths persist. That may be because there’s a tiny kernel of truth to them. For example, keywords can play an important role in your job search, just not in the way you might think! Today, we’re separating fact from fiction to help you understand the ins and outs of ATS.

What Is an Applicant Tracking System and What Do They Do?

As the name implies, an applicant tracking system (ATS) is a system to track applicants. The crucial word in “applicant tracking system” is tracking. ATSs are similar to a customer relationship manager (CRM). Christine Assaf of HRTact and senior human resources consultant at Archbright explains.

“It’s basically just a program that allows recruiters to keep track of the entire candidate process, usually from start to finish. We can review resumes, type up notes, communicate with the candidate, and many other things all from one spot.”

Why Do Companies Use ATS Systems?

Not all companies use applicant tracking systems, but many do. “When you have larger organizations or high volume roles, it becomes vital to use an ATS to process the job openings — especially since most recruiters are handling 20 to 30 openings at a time,” says Assaf.

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One study found that in 2023, 97.4% of Fortune 500 companies use an ATS!

While the ability to track where candidates are in the hiring process is a significant reason recruiters use applicant tracking systems, ATSs also make it easier for candidates to apply for open roles. Instead of emailing or even snail-mailing a cover letter and resume, applicants upload their documents and receive instant (or near-instant) confirmation that the company has them. This opens the candidate pool to a wider and more diverse range of applicants, helping companies connect with top talent.

How Do Recruiters Use Applicant Tracking Systems?

Recruiters use applicant tracking systems to stay organized, Margaret Buj, senior talent partner at MixMax, says.  

“Imagine if a recruiter working on 10 open positions got even just 50 applications for each role via email, it would be a complete chaos to manage the process, whereas, in an ATS, you can quickly review applications, reject candidates, request their availability for an interview, schedule further interviews, and then manage the offer.”

An ATS is also a database and some recruiters use the data to learn more about what’s working and what isn’t to improve their hiring efforts. For example, they can see how long it typically takes their company to go from posting a job to filling the role. Or they can analyze how well candidates match the job description to fine-tune job descriptions.

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Do Applicant Tracking Systems Rank and Reject Resumes Based on Keywords? 

You may have heard that the best way to beat the ATS is to include the “right” keywords on your resume enough times so the applicant tracking system ranks it high enough that you make it through to the next round.

While some applicant tracking systems can be programmed to look for resume keywords and some are configured to rank your resume, it’s highly unlikely that your application is rejected is due to a lack of keywords. “In my experience, from what I’ve used and know of ATS programs, I’ve never seen one that auto-rejects based on keywords,” says Assaf. 

“Most recruiters do actually screen through all the resumes to determine whether or not an applicant is qualified,” she continues. “I think the biggest misunderstanding is that recruiters are experienced in knowing the qualifications, scanning a resume, and being able to decide very efficiently. Many job seekers would attribute the rejection to not being seen, but I’d argue it’s usually due to other reasons. Firstly, not being qualified, but also it can be just timing and competition.”

Interestingly, a joint study between Accenture and Harvard Business school found that over 90% of employers use applicant tracking systems to filter and rank candidates.

However, the same study also found that a vast majority of respondents, 88%, believe that  qualified, highly-skilled candidates are being screened out because of how the ATS is configured. Even more, 92%, feel it was the same problem for middle-skilled candidates.

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ATS systems help the hiring process run more efficiently. But this efficiency has led to some applications being screened out of consideration because it’s difficult to configure the ATS in a way to ensure middle- and high-skills candidates aren’t overlooked.

Some applicant tracking systems use what the study calls “negative” filters. As an example, an ATS may be configured to look for a college degree because it can be an easy way to filter out applicants who aren’t qualified for the position. However, candidates who posses the skills and experience the company is looking for may be excluded from consideration simply because they don’t posses a degree.

This is likely why most recruiters look at nearly every resume that’s submitted. “In my 17 years of recruitment experience, we recruiters always looked at every single application. The good thing about an ATS is that you can quickly review all the candidates and either move them to the next state or reject,” says Buj.

If ATS Don’t Rank Resumes, How Are They Sorted?

Assuming the ATS isn’t configured to rank resumes based on keywords, it will sort resumes chronologically, meaning the order they were received. Here’s a screenshot from the backend of Forage’s applicant tracking system (Greenhouse). I submitted chronologically numbered resumes to the ATS and, as you can see in the recruiter view, they are presented in chronological order:

A screenshot of an applicant tracking system showing resumes in chronological order

Here’s another view for a different role from a different applicant tracking system:

Backend of an ATS with chronologically listed resumes
Photo courtesy of Margaret Buj

No resume is ranked higher than another. Much like at the deli counter, your application is assigned a number, placed in line, and when your number is called, a human reviews your resume.

What Are ‘Knockout’ Questions?

Knockout questions are often included in the ATS as part of your initial application. These questions are designed to quickly eliminate candidates who aren’t suited for the role and ask for details about your abilities, education, or experience. Knockout questions can include:

  • Do you have X years of experience in [this field or with a certain tool]?
  • Do you have X license or certification?
  • Do you have a bachelor’s [or master’s] degree?
  • Are you legally able to work in X country?
  • Do you live in X state?

Recruiters ask knockout questions because the things they’re asking about aren’t something the hiring manager would like you to have — they are required, such has possessing a certain license because of legal requirements or living in a specific state for a remote job. So, answering no (or something similar) on a knockout question means your application will probably be instantly rejected because you don’t possess something considered the bare minimum required for the role.

However, the applicant tracking system didn’t reject you. A human programmed it to. “Knockout questions do typically auto-reject an applicant,” says Assaf. “But here’s the thing…it didn’t — the recruiter did. Recruiters work with hiring managers (prior to posting openings) to know what the ‘must-haves’ and ‘need-to-haves’ are. Typically knockout questions are the must-haves.”

Should I Include Keywords on My Resume?

At this point, you may think that there’s no point in including keywords on your resume if an ATS doesn’t reject resumes based on them. But resume keywords can play a crucial role in your job search.

“Keywords are vital in applying for jobs,” says Assaf. “Many of us have changed trajectory or had a job title that encompassed many things. Or we have side projects of volunteer work that may be applicable to a particular job, company, or industry. So, keywords are important in that tailoring toward the application can help a person highlight particular experience they already have. This increases the chances that the recruiter and hiring manager may consider them.”

>>MORE: What Are Transferable Skills? Definition and Examples 

Beyond showing how you’re a good candidate for the role, keywords can also play a critical role in whether or not your application is moved to the next round, but not because you beat the ATS. 

“Keywords are important,” Buj says. “I look at them as a recruiter. It’s not so much about one specific keyword, it’s more about their overall experience and match to the job descriptions.”

Not every recruiter knows the technical requirements for a role. While they may specialize in a particular type of recruiting (say, technical recruiting), their job is to manage the hiring process from start to finish. As a result, they don’t always know the specifics of what the team needs in the next new hire. So, the recruiter meets with the hiring manager to create a job description. As the applications come in, the recruiter (and ATS) looks for keywords to figure out whether or not the person might be a good fit for the role.

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Keywords can also help you get hired for other positions at that company. An ATS is a searchable database and sometimes recruiters search their applicant tracking systems before posting a job. If you’ve applied for a role in the past, there’s a good chance you’re interested in working for the company and if your resume matches the criteria of this new role (AKA, the keywords), you could be invited for an interview.

How Do I Make an ATS-Friendy Resume?

You may have heard that modern resumes (like ones with columns or infographics) aren’t ATS-friendly and you should use certain fonts to make it easier for the ATS to read.

To be clear, you can submit any type of resume into many applicant tracking systems, and the ATS will read it just fine. Here are a few examples of unconventional resumes I submitted to Forage’s applicant tracking system and what I saw on the backend:

You can even upload a resume with an unconventional font, and the ATS might have no problems reading it:

So, you have options! However, your best bet is simple resume formats and fonts.

First, not all ATSs can read “fancy” resumes. Some have trouble with columns, tables, and graphics, and some have problems with certain fonts. While you can probably tell which applicant tracking system the company you’re applying to uses and you can research which resume formats and fonts this ATS can read, you’re better off spending your time customizing your resume to meet the job description.

Most, if not all, applicant tracking systems are better at reading hybrid and chronological resumes, making them your safest bet. And since most recruiters read resumes digitally these days, going with a sans-serif font makes sense because they are easier to read on screen.

Second, most recruiters start their review by looking for the crucial information they need to make a decision about your application. Hybrid and chronological resumes make it easy for a recruiter to quickly and easily find what they’re looking for.

What Kind of File Should My Resume Be?

Applicant tracking systems can read all kinds of files but not every ATS accepts every type of file. You can usually find the accepted file types near the field where you upload your resume. In general, systems take .doc, .docx, and .pdf, though some will accept .jpeg or even .png. In many systems, the file type you use ultimately doesn’t make a difference as long as it’s one of the types listed.

Picture of the front end of an applicant tracking system indicating what files the ATS accepts
The front end of an ATS indicating what files types you can submit

Assaf advises job seekers to use .pdf whenever possible. “Sending a resume as a .docx is not secure since it’s editable.”

If these file formats are not an option, you can almost always cut and paste your resume as plain text. However, there is a good chance the ATS will lose a lot of the formatting:

Picture of a resume that was copied and pasted as plain text into an applicant tracking system
A resume that was pasted into an ATS as plain text

Why Do I Have to Fill in Fields After Submitting My Resume to the ATS?

ATSs also parse your resume. Parsing is when a computer reviews a document and extracts data from it. In the case of an ATS, it parses your resume for key information, but not necessarily keywords. Most are looking for your contact information (and whatever else the recruiter requests).

But not all applicant tracking systems parse resumes the same way.

“Most ATSs will parse resumes based on the traditional resume format — chronological order,” says Assaf. “And some of them have gotten savvy about the nontraditional, skill-based (or functional) resumes too. But not all ATSs are alike and some have better parsing abilities than others, so that’s why a person may have to upload and then fill out.”

It’s also possible the recruiter programmed the ATS to not pre-fill those fields for you.

“Not everyone puts their contact information on their resume,” says Elisa Pineda, talent acquisition professional. “That is a sure-fire way to confirm we get it.” She also says it’s crucial not to leave those fields blank simply because the ATS didn’t fill them in. Without that information, there’s no way to schedule an interview.

Don’t Worry About Beating the ATS

So, those are the ins and outs of applicant tracking systems. And if you’re still wondering how to beat the ATS, you really can’t. But you also shouldn’t try. Ultimately, a well-written resume that highlights your accomplishments is what will help you land an interview.

One great way to help your application stand out in an ATS and to a recruiter is by completing a Forage virtual job simulation. You’ll build real-world skills, see what it’s like to work at a particular company in a specific role, and unlock a free resume snippet and interview talking points you can customize for your job search needs.

Image credit: Piscine /

Rachel Pelta is the Head Writer at Forage. Previously, she was a Content Specialist at FlexJobs, writing articles for job seekers and employers. Her work has been featured in Fast Company, The Ladders, MSN, and Money Talks News.

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