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Job Search: Applicant Tracking Systems

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Understanding the Role of ATS in Hiring

Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) have been around since the 1990's and are now a widely used computer application for processing job applications. While people are still involved in the review of job applications and selection of candidates, in some industries (see chart below) an ATS may help hiring managers decide which resumes will make it to human review. Global ATS Chart

Business, financial services, and insurance (BFSI) and IT/Telecom make up the majority of industries that report using an ATS in their hiring process. If you are applying for a job in either industry or in manufacturing or healthcare, preparing your job application for ATS processing is advised. 

What You Need to Know

Knockout Questions

Knockout questions are a feature of online job applications designed to narrow the job applicant pool by eliminating applicants that do not meet strict requirements for the position. These may include the following: 

  • Do you have X years of experience?​

  • Do you have a [specific degree or certification] required for this position?​

  • Are you willing to relocate?​

  • Are you willing to travel as part of this job?​

  • Are you willing to work full-time?

If these questions are asked directly, often at the beginning or end of a job application (and not just noted in the job requirements) they are likely knockout questions and how you answer them may eliminate you from the applicant pool. 

Title and Employer

Getting a new job is easier if you already work under the same title or at the same organization where you are applying. This is measured in computer processed applications by filtering for applications containing the same title and/or company as the job posting. If you are a career changer, consider adding a "seeking" statement in your resume's summary section with the job title and company where you desire to work.

Keyword Matching

While you scan a job description for duties and requirements that match your experience, be sure to add those that apply to your resume. Keywords in job descriptions are often used to filter and/or rank your job application. Expand AND list acronyms, for example:

  • Return on Investment (ROI)

Need help understanding keywords? Checkout the "Understanding Keywords" activity sheet in the "Workshop Resources" box on the left-hand side.

Counting Years of Experience

In many cases, it is required to have a minimum amount of experience with skills or technologies for a role. Job start and end dates are used by ATS systems to count years of experience. It helps to follow ATS-friendly date formatting. This means either the month and year as the two digit month and four digit year with a slash between them OR the month spelled out and the four digit year. You can use a single dash in between or the word "to" to indicate a date range. Examples:

  • MM/YYYY - MM/YYYY can look like this: 01/2023 - 01/2024
  • Month Year to Month Year can look like this: January 2023 to January 2024

The counting method also means the job seeker needs to have the skill being counted listed under their job descriptions. It helps to use the exact phrasing as found in the job posting to describe the skill being counted.

Education and Certifications

While listing the year of a degree received 5+ years ago is not recommended, be sure to list the name of the degree you have clearly, especially if it is a requirement for a role. Same for certificates and licenses. If there is a serial number or date for a license that needs to be active, be sure to list them. Finally, any acronyms or abbreviations should be expanded AND listed (see example above). 


Not all formatting is compatible with ATS systems. Use pointers below to avoid technical errors in processing. 

  • Submit resumes as .doc, .docx, or .pdf file types. 
  • Avoid tables, including template designs that use columns
  • Use a standard font (Times New Roman, Arial, Helvetica, etc)
  • Use standard margins
  • Use traditional section headers, such as "Education" and "Work Experience"
  • Avoid special characters
  • Avoid providing essential information within graphics
  • Avoid headers and footers outside of standard margins