What is an Application Tracking System – and why is it important?

By Scot Herrick | Job Search

May 22

If you've done any research into writing a resume, you'll soon come across the dreaded ATS -- Application Tracking System. It's that dastardly beast that will grab your resume and throw it into the digital trash bin if you don't feed it right and correctly.

It is the black box of resumes reviews -- machine driven resume views, the gathering of your data, the evaluation of your life, and then an almost instant decision about your worthiness. Oh, worthiness for your job. Not YOUR worthiness as a person. But it feels that way...

What is an Applicant Tracking System?

The simplest explanation of an ATS is that it is a program recruiters and human resources use to find good candidates for a position among the hundreds -- or thousands of applications for a job posting. 

Instead of looking at hundreds of resumes and trying to determine which resumes best fit the job posting, recruiters use the program to filter out resumes that don't fit the position with those that do fit the position. 

Why is an Applicant Tracking System Used?

An ATS essentially takes your resume and stores the elements of your resume (job skills, work experience, education, etc.) and stores it into a database. Once in a database, it becomes searchable by the recruiter to help that person find positions. 

Here are some of the ways it can be used to find your resume:


Job title searches. Every company has multiple jobs they are hoping to fill. It makes sense to be able to search your resume database by job title. After all, you don't want to confuse a Janitor position with a Data Janitor III position.


Job skill searches. Here, the job skills that your position requires can be filled by multiple job titles, so your intent here is to find the job skills that best match your position. Perhaps your job is for an Analyst position in IT that can be filled by a Systems Analyst, Infrastructure Analyst or Business Analyst...so you search by the job skills needed and not the job title.


Certification searches. Your hiring manager is insistent on hiring only people who have specific certifications (I highly disagree with this...). But there you go. There are hiring managers out there who won't hire a Project Manager unless they have a PMP certification. Others with specific Microsoft certifications. A long list. Instead of searching by job title or job skills, search on a certification name.

And many others. You can see the flexibility an ATS system can provide a recruiter. Assuming its a good system...

Can you beat an ATS? 

No. But you can maximize your ability to get seen.

How do you maximize your ability to be seen?


Use Industry Standard job titles. If your job is in banking or insurance, for example, VP titles get thrown around like (budget) candy. But recruiters aren't going to search for Vice President III. They will, however, search for Claims Manager. Or Business Operations Manager. Check the job description title you're interested in. Does your resume job title match that job title? If not, ATS will pass you by in a nanosecond.


Use key words for your industry. Security Operations, Cyber Security, and Security Analysts all work in the security area, but none of those key words are the same. You don't need to put 5,000 key words in the resume, but where you do titles, department names, and accomplishments, use standard terms used in the industry (check your job description!).


Consistently format your work experience and education. ATS systems notice the patterns of your resume. Consistently formatting all of the jobs you want on your resume -- name of company, industry standard job title, dates, bulleted accomplishments -- will help the poor ATS system find the important bits about your work.

Don't be afraid of the big bad ATS System

The underlying message here is three-fold:


Write consistently


Write for humans


Follow your ways to be seen above

And you will.