No, Robots Aren’t Taking Over: Why You Shouldn’t Freak Out About ATS and AI in Recruiting

Aug 26, 2020 | Job Search Strategy, Resumes

A title graphic featuring an image of a toy robot, Let's Eat, Grandma's yellow pencil logo, and an alternate version of the article's title: "Why You Shouldn't Fear ATS in Recruitment"

Beating the ATS (Applicant Tracking System) is only one piece of the job search puzzle. Your resume still needs to impress the humans, and your skills and experience are what will actually land you the job.

By: Ashley Dolar | Resume Writer for Let’s Eat, Grandma

Job seekers, take a seat. It’s time to talk about the big, bad ATS and the rise of AI in recruitment before it’s too late…

They are definitely taking over the world, invading our precious job-seeking spaces one HR office at a time. The outlook is grim, and it’s getting more serious by the day.

But there is a way to escape the evil clutches of these job robots. Ready for it?

Stop freaking out about the ATS and just focus on writing a good resume!

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Taking Back the Power

Seriously. ATS’s are actually nothing to be afraid of, and they don’t have as much control as you probably think.

ATS stands for Applicant Tracking System — it’s a type of software designed to automatically scan, screen, and organize high volumes of job applications, making recruiters’ lives easier.

Here’s how ATS works: Once you submit an application, it will scan and parse the text from your resume (and log the responses you filled in on the online application form). This information is then stored and made searchable for recruiters to access in one centralized database.

If the system finds the keywords that the recruiter searches for in your resume, then it will more likely come up in the recruiter’s view for them to evaluate it and choose whether to pass it to the hiring manager. If your resume doesn’t contain those keywords, or if your text wasn’t correctly parsed because of your formatting, your resume may not be found by the recruiter and it could hit the (virtual) trash bin.

Most mid- to large-sized companies use ATS software to screen their online applications (including about 99% of Fortune 500 companies.) If you submit a resume online, it’s likely going into an ATS.

An image of a partially completed robot with a realistic human face, symbolizing the type of problem with being too afraid of AI in recruiting.

Your ATS-compliant resume shouldn’t read like this guy wrote it…

So, yes, you definitely want to optimize your resume for ATS software… but you don’t want to become the robot. You still need to sound like a real person who can solve problems, think strategically, and effectively communicate with other humans.

After all, the entire point of using an ATS in recruiting is so that a human can read the resumes they need to. The hiring manager is still the one who makes the decisions and calls people in for interviews. Your end goal should be to impress your fellow human beings, not some software system that just scans for relevant information.

And besides, here’s a truth bomb: The two most important aspects of writing an ATS-friendly resume are 1) integrating keywords from each job description and 2) having a clean, easily scannable design…

…these are things you should be doing to impress the hiring staff anyway!

If doing these two things means completely rewriting your resume, then it needed work anyway, regardless of the introduction of ATS in recruiting.

How ATS Actually Works

Let me just say it one more time for the people in the back: “A HUMAN STILL DECIDES WHETHER YOU’RE HIRED, NOT AN ATS.”

The ATS is simply a helpful tool used by recruiters to find qualified candidates from among tons of applications. It’s not a super-smart AI that automatically decides who’s hired while the recruiter lounges around; it’s a parser that helps recruiters sort through resumes (though some of them do have more advanced features, which we’ll get to).

You might think of it more like a search engine that sorts, ranks, and organizes information—not like a robot with red, beady eyes.

Yes, if your resume isn’t optimized, then it may slip through the cracks when you submit it online. But rather than shaking your fist as the sky, try to imagine being a recruiter lost in a stormy sea filled to the brim with resumes. These recruiters aren’t cackling maniacally while watching your resume spin down the drain. They are the ones drowning and looking for a life preserver.

A stack of binders with large quantities of paper in them, symbolizing the amount of resumes a recruiter would have to manually search through without using ATS in recruitment.

Would you want to scour all of these resumes, knowing that most of them are unqualified?

With ATS, they can point to a few candidates who seem to fit the bill instead of wasting time digging through the hundreds of unqualified applicants who always apply anyway.

Let’s give an example. Imagine a recruiter in Denver is hiring local software engineers who have experience coding in Python (all things that would have been prominent in the job description). In most cases, they’ll turn to their ATS (or LinkedIn), make a search like “Denver, software engineer, Python”, and just like that, they can start by looking at only qualified candidates.

Sure, some of the resumes that didn’t come up in their search might have been for qualified candidates who had just never heard of ATS in recruitment, but most of them would have been counted out anyway.

(Plus, here’s some good news — recruiters are smart people. They know that qualified candidates can fall through the cracks and try to avoid this. We spoke to a panel of four recruiters and heard as much — check out the 6-minute mark in this podcast.)

No Magic Bullets

It’s worth mentioning that every ATS system is different. ATS scanners and scores can predict how well your resume measures up against a job description, but unfortunately, there’s not a standardized yardstick or invisible progress bar that you need to clear.

It’s true that some ATS have advanced evaluation features like percentage matches and “knock-out” questions. Taleo, one of the most common ATS systems, offers the ability to assign bonuses to certain keywords, for instance.

But remember, a recruiter who wants to find a qualified candidate is still in control of how those features are used. Auto knock-out questions are usually basic things asked on the online application like “do you have a driver’s license?” And the hiring staff knows that a 93% match to the text of the job description isn’t necessarily a better employee than a 90% match. They know that an ATS can’t assess your culture fit, how much you researched the company in your cover letter, or the soft skills that are best assessed in-person.

That’s why applicants should optimize their resume keywords to have the best chance of coming up in a recruiter’s search, but also understand that there’s no magic bullet. Trying to find one is like barking up the wrong tree. If you think you aren’t making it through the ATS, improving the content of your resume is better than trying to game the system.

At the end of the day, a human is still in control of who is flagged for the hiring manager, called for an interview, and ultimately, hired for the job.

Beat the Bots

Since there isn’t a universal ATS system, there isn’t any one, universal way to beat them. Content is king anyway.

However, we do have a few must-dos to optimize your resume and get past them:

A photo of two people's hands in a handshake.

Networking is still the best way to find a job — you can avoid ATS altogether. See the final point in this section.

Put the exact job title on your resume.

This is one of the most commonly searched ATS keywords. For example, if a recruiter is hiring for a Software Engineer position and has 250+ applications, they will likely search for the exact title of “Software Engineer.” If you haven’t held this title before, write about how you are looking to transition into that role in your summary section, (e.g., “aspiring software engineer”), as well as integrating it into your header and the file name of your resume. 

Find the right mix of keywords.

When you review a job description, pull out the top five (or so) skills that a recruiter is probably going to use for a search. Then make sure that you use those exact keywords in your resume—the skills section works really well here. 

To learn how to find keywords in a job description, check out this blog.

Choose a simple format.

ATS software is known for parsing resumes into text. In other words, some of these systems literally chew up your beautifully formatted resume and spit it out into a uniform digital profile for its analysis. If it gets tripped up by elements it can’t process, like images, it may not scan your keywords. So, our best advice is to keep it simple: this includes only using one column, removing text boxes and tables, and avoiding all graphics/visual elements.

To see everything you need to make your format ATS-compliant, download this handy checklist.

Prioritize What Works.

Networking is still your most powerful job search tool. If you haven’t already done so, start building your network on LinkedIn, snagging informational interviews, and trying to get warm introductions to hiring staff on LinkedIn. (After you’ve optimized your profile, of course.) Then, when you find a lead on a job, you can skip the bots altogether and send your resume directly to the decision-makers.

So, next time you see a 2020 post about murder hornets or “the scourge” of AI in recruiting, go ahead and scream inside your heart. But then relax, and know that in the end, it is your skills and experience that will land you the dream job, not appeasing a robot.

Ready for more job search help?

Sign up for a free Senior Writer Resume Critique to see what's holding you back from landing interviews. One of our top professional resume writers will give you personalized feedback on the top 3 items you can improve based on our expert practices!