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How applicant tracking systems work

iCIMS Staff
February 26, 2021

It used to be that when an applicant sent a resume to an employer or recruiter, they had to wait for someone to read the resume, consider it, and decide on the next step in the hiring process. This was a time-consuming ordeal, and sometimes viable applicants were overlooked or their resumes misplaced.

Today, machines have stepped in to assist in the process. With the right tools, businesses and recruiters have the opportunity not only to make the process faster but also more equitable. Solutions like applicant tracking systems (ATSs) also help recruiters keep in touch with applicants, ensuring they don’t fall through the cracks.

Still, there are some misconceptions about how software and other types of systems process job applications. Candidates can also be concerned that their job applications aren’t getting the due diligence they deserve if a computer system is processing them.

Here, we’ll explore what an ATS is, how it works, and what job candidates can do to optimize their resumes for these widely used systems.

What is an ATS, and how does it work?

An applicant tracking system is a software application that makes the recruitment and hiring process more straightforward, both for the recruiter and the applicant. It allows recruiters to accept and handle applications electronically.

When used in conjunction with other systems, an ATS can help any organization build a fair and streamlined application process from the time a resume is submitted to the day the candidate is hired.

The primary function of an ATS is to accept, store, and sort job applications and resumes. But most of today’s ATS solutions come with additional features.

For example, an ATS enables recruiters to sort and view applications electronically, eliminating paper waste and minimizing the risk of applications being misplaced. Some ATS systems automatically compare resumes with listed job descriptions to identify potential matches. Recruiters can also filter resumes by searching for keywords, such as specific skills necessary for the candidate to perform the job.

In addition to sorting and reviewing applications, ATS systems may also include an automated messaging component. This helps reduce the time applicants must wait for a recruiter’s response after they submit a resume. An ATS also increases recruiters’ efficiency, making it easier to communicate with more job seekers in a simple and organized way.

Finally, today’s ATS solutions usually include a tool that allows recruiters to schedule interviews. With a cloud-based ATS, recruiters can perform all these tasks in one space from anywhere in the world.

Common misconceptions about what an ATS does

It should come as no surprise that there are some misconceptions about how an ATS works. Some applicants may be uncomfortable by the idea that a machine will review their resume before a human.

But most of the misconceptions about ATSs are easily debunked. Here are a few to be aware of.

1. An ATS will automatically reject resumes if they aren’t perfect

There are few times an ATS will automatically reject or refuse to process a resume or CV. When this does occur, it’s usually because of a technical problem with the file uploaded to the ATS and nothing to do with the resume’s quality.

For example, if a file is too large or in the wrong format, the ATS might not accept it.

That said, ATS systems can send automated rejection letters to applicants, but only after accepting and analyzing a resume and only if the resume doesn’t meet the minimum requirements for a position. For example, a recruiter might list a specific skill, educational background, or experience level as a “must-have” requirement for a job. If the resume doesn’t meet those standards, it could be rejected.

2. An ATS will de-humanize the recruiting process

An ATS will automate some aspects of the hiring process, but its purpose is not to remove humans from the equation.

These tools assist with tedious tasks, such as sifting through countless applications based on experience, skills, educational backgrounds, or even specific keywords. These are all repetitive tasks a human would typically have to do, and giving those tasks to a machine only makes them faster and less prone to error.

Also, recruiters set the rules for how the ATS does these tasks. A human is always in control of which resumes are considered and which aren’t.

3. An ATS will disrupt other software solutions

Today’s ATS solutions are designed to integrate with other types of enterprise software on the market, including many of the most popular HR systems. For example, the iCIMS Talent Cloud integrates with job posting, job advertising, and back-office processes.

4. ATS solutions are expensive and difficult to implement

Most ATS providers understand that different types of businesses have different needs when it comes to talent acquisition. A small business might benefit from an ATS, but it won’t need as much capacity as a global enterprise.

That’s why ATS providers feature their products in a range of prices based on need. This makes the solutions accessible to businesses of all sizes.

Furthermore, most ATS providers are experts in integrating their solutions and implementing them in various organizations. Some features can be turned on immediately upon installation. When further implementation is necessary, you can typically count on your solution provider to guide you through the process.

For example, iCIMS provides implementation services to help new clients get their new platforms up and running.

How to optimize a resume for an ATS

More and more businesses are using applicant tracking systems, including 95% of Fortune 500 companies. Here are few ways candidates can optimize their resumes for these systems. If you’re a recruiter, consider adding this information to your application page.

1. Use keywords from the job description

Tailor your application for each job you’re applying to using keywords you find in the job description. Most keywords relate to the specific skills and competencies necessary to perform the job.

Be sure to use keywords featured in the job description naturally in the text of your application. If you begin your application with a summary statement, this is an excellent opportunity to utilize keywords.

2. Use simple formatting

Avoid complicated formatting elements like borders, symbols, tables, and lines. Use a simple, logical format that is easy to read and understand.

3. Spell out months and other abbreviations

Today’s ATS solutions can understand a lot based on context, but you can prevent misinterpretations by spelling out abbreviations for things like months and years. For example, write “August 2020” instead of “Aug. ’20.”

4. Submit text-based documents, not PDFs

When choosing a file format, MS Word is usually the best option, as this is easy for an ATS to scan and interpret. Images and PDFs are scannable, but they are generally more difficult for the system to read.

5. Complete every field, even those that aren’t required

When filling out an online application, treat every field as an opportunity to show your qualifications. Even if a field isn’t necessary to apply, fill it out. Look for opportunities to include keywords as well.

The iCIMS ATS helps recruiters and candidates

Whether you’re a small business, a global enterprise, or a recruiting agency, you need an industry-leading applicant tracking system to make the hiring process fair and efficient. The iCIMS ATS gives you more power to create better candidate experiences and streamline your HR processes through automation.

To learn more about how iCIMS can help, explore the Talent Cloud today.


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