Still wondering what an ATS is, and why it sounds so important? We wrote this for you.

By: Daniel Lorenzo | Blog Manager and Chris Villanueva | Founder at Let’s Eat, Grandma


You’ve heard and seen them everywhere. In your online job search, around career events at your college, or from your tech-savvy business friends – those 3 little letters that somehow spell doom for a job seeker: ATS.

If you’re intimidated because you still don’t even know what the heck an ATS is, don’t worry! It’s important for your job hunt, but it’s nothing to fear.

Here’s our founder Chris Villanueva’s quick explainer on just what an ATS is, and why it’s standing between you and your next dream job:

What exactly is an ATS, and why have I been hearing so much about them?

ATS stands for Applicant Tracking System. It’s the name for a type of software that provides an organized way for companies to keep track of job applicants.

There’s such a buzz about them recently because our hiring landscape has changed so much over the past decade, and they’ve been a big part of that.

Once job candidates started applying online, companies started getting dozens (often even hundreds) of applicants applying for the same position.

And, unfortunately, that included more applicants than ever who were completely unqualified, and ended up wasting many a hiring manager’s time.

Somebody realized that there needed to be a way to help companies keep track of this high volume of candidates. So, a bunch of smart software companies quickly jumped in and created computer programs to do just that.

How do they work?

There are dozens of different ATS systems out there (including Taleo – the most common, JobVite, and many more), so they all work a little differently, but share the same premise.

They basically work as filtering systems for people. They scan through all the resumes received for a job, then order and prioritize which candidates’ resumes are the most relevant, based on specific qualifications that the hiring staff decides on.

Let me see if I can break that down without getting too technical.

Say you want some Tex-Mex tonight, so you Google “mexican restaurants.” Google then uses an algorithm to find the most relevant results for you (i.e., the best and closest Mexican restaurants!)

In the same way, an ATS ideally pulls up the most relevant results for a hiring manager – the best candidates for the job!

Say I’m an employer and I’m looking for a Software Developer with experience in Java. I can have my trusty ATS search for the keywords “Software Developer, Java” and quickly find the candidates who are most qualified in these areas, without sorting through hundreds of resumes myself.

So why does this matter for me?

Simply put: ATS are a huge pain in the butt for job seekers.

They have been ever since people started realizing that their resumes weren’t even getting seen, because these systems were filtering them out.

Since an ATS uses keywords and phrases entered by the employer, if your resume doesn’t have the right keywords (or enough of them), the system will not bump it through to the hiring manager stage.

For a job posting with 120 resumes, I’d say only about the top 10 will actually be looked at by a human – the rest will be weeded out.

So if I have an excellent resume, but don’t have the right wording on it, I might not get an interview? Isn’t that unfair?!

It is absolutely unfair. But job hunting is a game that you have to play.

There is certainly some crossover. If your resume is “good enough,” it likely already has all the right information for the job.

However, what this means is that it’s important to look at that information from a robot’s perspective. Regardless of how impressive your resume would have been in the past, you now have to make sure that it’s optimized with robot-friendly keywords pulled directly from the job description.

You can still be confident it will impress a human, but only once you’re sure it impresses the robot.

Do all companies use these things?

ATS are geared toward big companies with large organizational structures. Just as surely as Google is using one, that Mom-and-Pop restaurant in your hometown is definitely not.

It’s difficult to tell for sure if the company you’re applying for is using one or not. However, for any corporate job that’s posted in several places online, or for which you know you’ll be competing against a lot of people, it’s a safe bet to assume there’s an ATS in play.

So how can I beat these infernal machines?

With an easy 3-step process!

Step 1 for modifying your resume to appease an ATS is always to look at the wording of the online job posting. That Job Description section is going to be your Gospel.

(An important note here, too. If you haven’t already realized it, you’re going to need to modify your resume for each and every different job. If you’re applying to be both a Software Developer and Software Manager, those two resumes need to look very different.)

So, step 2 is going to be making a “keyword cloud” of ATS-friendly keywords that you can incorporate into your resume.

Write down a list of 7-8 keywords, based on the Job Descriptions you’ve read, and then organize those words into buckets for each of the positions you’re applying for.

The most common ATS keywords that you definitely need to include in your cloud are the job title and hard skills (like C++ and Java, instead of soft skills like “organization,” “leadership,” etc.).

Finally, step 3 is to integrate those keywords into your resume. And that’s the toughest part; this is where the art of writing comes in. Find ways to organically put them into both your Experience and Skills section.

And if you need help, you know who to call…


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