Expert job search advice.

Unveiling the Applicant Tracking System

What is an applicant tracking system (ATS), and how do recruiters use them?

What is an applicant tracking system

You’re just about to hit “send” on the resume you worked on with your career coach — the one you worked diligently to optimize keywords and align your experience with the needs of the role. 

However, you can’t help but compare this action to a war: You’re launching your “resume soldiers” onto a battlefield against a giant, dream-killing ATS bot that shoots out rejection emails before your 8:00 AM coffee. 

If you feel this way, you’re certainly not alone. However, it’s important to understand that ATS systems are void of the potential to make emotional connections and consider a candidate’s potential and “rightness” for the job at full capacity. Recruiters are still part of the hiring process and often work with a company’s applicant tracking system to find the best fit for a position’s needs and requirements.

Given this, what are your best chances of passing through an ATS system with flying colors and wowing that recruiter? 

First, you need to understand how ATS systems work and their purpose for recruiters. From there (still gripping to the war analogy), you can create the strongest armor possible to launch into your job-search battlefield. 

What Is an Applicant Tracking System (ATS)? 

According to the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), applicant tracking systems (ATS) track candidates and automate the hiring process. ATS software streamlines the collection of candidate information, parses resumes, filters applicants by skill and experience level, and tracks the onboarding process.   

There is no one ATS system but rather an array of options for companies, including BambooHR, JazzHR, Taleo, Zoho, Jobvite, Greenhouse, and many more. 

Whichever ATS system a company implements, it is not the “end-all-be-all” of the hiring process. Rather, it establishes a baseline for the most relevant applicants to be put forward for review (this is why optimizing your resume with job-specific keywords is so important). 

Jon Stross, president and co-founder of Greenhouse, explains the dynamic between ATS Systems and the recruitment process, stating that since its beginnings, Greenhouse has aimed to transform ATS into a collaborative platform.  “Recruiting is a team effort, involving everyone from hiring managers to interviewers, each contributing to candidate referral, role definition, and early application reviews,” he said. “This shift redefines ATS as more than just a compliance tool; it’s integral to company growth by streamlining hiring processes and emphasizing its central role in organizational success.”

Applicant Tracking Systems exist to help human resources and recruiting teams streamline the hiring process from end to end.

Ultimately, applicant tracking systems help human resources and recruiting teams streamline the hiring process from end to end, as the software helps businesses automate the recruitment process by managing job postings, applications, candidate information, and applicant communications through a single platform.

Why the Right Resume Keywords Matter in Applicant Tracking System Platforms 

Tailoring a resume to a particular job is never a bad idea, as you want your skills to shine as relevant and usable to the company. With an applicant tracking system in place, consider this step a requirement.

“Try to be relevant to the job,” said Stross. “Whether it’s being reviewed by a computer or a human, the goal is to demonstrate your suitability for the job. Employers want to see if you are a good fit. So, if you have a generic resume and apply to numerous jobs on platforms like Indeed, it’s not surprising if you don’t hear back. It’s important to consider how relevant you are for each of those positions.”

Pradyumn Karthic, product marketer for Zoho Recruit, echoes Stross’ sentiment, adding that for Zoho Recruit in particular, a recruiter can see the percentage of a candidate’s keyword match between the candidate’s skill set and the job.

The Importance of Keyword in Applicant Tracking Systems

“Keywords are essential on a resume, especially in applicant tracking systems like Zoho Recruit,” said Karthic. “It’s about automating the selection and shortlisting process. We use a two-layer keyword-matching system. First, we match job openings with candidate profiles based on specified skills. Then, we parse resumes to analyze how candidates define their skills — like differentiating ‘beginner level knowledge in Python’ from ‘Python experience beginner.’ This approach ensures that how you cover keywords matters just as much as listing them.”

Yes, this means that simply “dumping” relevant keywords on a resume will not be 100% effective for a candidate; rather, the applicant needs to make sure the surrounding keywords speak to the effectiveness and relevancy of the skill. 

Additionally, it’s also important to consider that ATS platforms like Zoho Recruit pick up on the quantifiable data around the keyword (i.e., “increased revenue by 15% by doing [keyword]).

“You should include the necessary keywords on your resume, strategically weaving them into well-crafted descriptions,” said Karthic. “This has always been my advice: Tailor your resume specifically to the job you’re applying for. It’s a proven practice that enhances your chances of standing out.”

How To Choose the Right Keywords for an ATS-Friendly Resume

To tailor a resume, you must carefully review the job description and required skills. Coursera recommends copying and pasting the job description into a separate document as you review it. This allows you to highlight the skills that match your own so you can easily reference them later.   

Consider the following qualifications from a job listing for a marketing manager position. 

To identify pertinent keywords and phrases, an applicant might review the job description and highlight matching skills and experiences in bold. (Remember, this approach should be applied to the entire job description; employers frequently incorporate crucial information throughout the job posting.)

Example: Keyword-Matching for an ATS-Friendly Resume

Required Qualifications:

  • 5+ years of experience in digital marketing, including SEO, SEM, and social media campaigns
  • Demonstrated ability to manage large-scale marketing budgets effectively
  • Experience in creating and implementing marketing strategies in a fast-paced environment
  • Proven track record of driving lead generation and conversion rates through digital channels

Preferred Qualifications:

  • Bachelor’s degree in Marketing, Communications, Business Administration, or related field
  • Experience with marketing automation platforms such as HubSpot or Marketo
  • Proficiency in web analytics tools like Google Analytics and Adobe Analytics
  • Strong analytical skills with the ability to interpret complex data and make actionable recommendations

To help understand what keywords to use in various resume sections, SHRM suggests five categories to consider: hard skills, soft skills, employment details, education and training details, and general information. 

Hard Skills

Hard skills are specific and measurable, while soft skills reveal “how” you do what you do. For example, keywords for hard skills could include cloud computing, data analysis, and project management, whereas soft skills are terms like creativity, problem-solving, and critical thinking. 

Employment Details

Think of the “employment details” section of keywords as the undisputed facts. For example, these are job titles you’ve held, employers you’ve worked for and for and how long, industry experience, product experience, and any budgets or staff you’ve managed over the lifetime of your career. 

For example, suppose you are applying for a lead software engineer role. In that case, the hiring manager will likely want to see that you’ve held positions such as senior software engineer or tech lead previously. This demonstrates your experience in leading projects and managing technical teams, which are crucial for succeeding in this role.

Education and Training

The “education and training” keywords will probably be the easiest keyword section, as you list any degrees you’ve earned (and the school you earned them from), certifications, or specialized training you have completed.

General Details

For “general details,” SHRM notes that some employers focus on keywords, including cities, states, ZIP codes, and countries. This helps them quickly identify candidates within their locality. Other keywords in this category might include honors and awards, board positions, professional affiliations, volunteer activities, and civic associations.

“These words have power because they communicate volumes about your professional success, network of contacts, contributions to the community, and more,” reported the source. 

While it can be tempting to include every possible keyword on your resume, it’s crucial to avoid overwhelming it. Rather, be strategic and best leverage your skills to the needs of the particular role. 

It’s also worth noting that an ATS converts resumes into plain text to scan and identify keywords that match its search intent. This process reduces your resume to a collection of words and then focuses only on the keywords that match its criteria. 

An ATS-Friendly Resume Does Not Replace Networking

Despite going above and beyond a meticulously crafted resume, the power of networking will always win. 

Reporting on the importance of networking in career growth, Forbes commented, “For many individuals that have succeeded in their career, the causes have largely been contributed to the strong networking channels they have created over time.”

Avoid thinking of networking as a chore but rather as a long-term investment of your time that will pay off in your career’s future. Additionally, rather than entering a networking situation with a what-can-I-get mindset, always try to enter an environment that fosters genuine connections based on interests and how you can contribute to a project or purpose. 

“… Study how you can contribute to their success, in addition to how you stand to benefit from their knowledge,” Forbes reported. 

While there is no magic elixir for career or resume success, you can best set yourself up for job-search success by combining a knowledge-rich network with a carefully researched and keyword-optimized resume.