Tools and Tricks for Rising Above Applicant Tracking Systems

Applicant Tracking System

Of the resumes submitted to employers that use Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS), 75% are never seen by human eyes. So reports Terena Bell, who notes that this HR software that automates the hiring process has nothing to do with “tracking,” but rather comparing the candidate’s resume to a predetermined set of requirements. The older the ATS, the more likely it is to seek exact matches on your resume for those requirements. Almost all Fortune 500 companies and most employers who post jobs on job boards use ATS. Bell reports that those employers using ATS can also be identified by ATS-company branding on the careers page of their Web site. At a minimum, ATS use means you must customize your resume for each job you apply for. This article offers additional tools and tricks to help guide your resume on its journey to be seen by human eyes.

Use a word-cloud app to measure keyword frequency. If we accept the premise that words appearing most often in a job posting are the most important and should be well sprinkled throughout a resume that responds to that ad, a word-cloud generator is an excellent tool. Career adviser Kristy Bonner recommends TagCrowd; unlike word-cloud generators intended to display words in appealing graphic patterns, TagCrowd (which is free) exclusively focuses on visualization of word frequency. Bonner recommends using it to analyze how often keywords appear in the job posting so you can see how well your keywords stack up in your resume, which you can also analyze with TagCrowd.

I pasted the content of a random posting for a research associate from the Biospace job board into TagCrowd. Disregarding words associated not with the job but the hiring process (“candidate,” “experience,” “responsibilities,” for example), the most frequently used word was “protein,” followed by “antibody,” “cell,” “purification,” “expression” and “molecular.” Thus, an applicant pursuing this position would want to ensure these words appear with similar frequency in the resume.

Experiment with a parts-of-speech parser. Executive resume writer Donna Svei describes one such tool,, which is free. The user pastes a job description into Rewordify and can then filter it for parts of speech – nouns, verbs, and so on. As Svei notes, most keywords are nouns (and hard skills are more likely than soft skills to be keywords). Of course, not all nouns are keywords, but it’s not hard to determine which nouns employers will be looking for and ensure they are in your resume. While verbs are rarely used as keywords, mirroring job-posting action verbs in your resume can make you look like you belong. Svei particularly likes using them to kick off accomplishment statements.

Try a keyword-optimizing service. One such service is Jobscan, which operates similarly to TagCrowd but is specifically geared for job search. Jobscan offers a free level so you can try a few scans to see if you want to commit to a plan that charges $89.95 quarterly. The app requires both job posting and resume to be pasted at the same time into separate windows. I pasted in the same research-associate job-posting as I did for TagCrowd, along with a clinical-researcher resume I prepared when I was a resume writer.

Jobscan, which recommends a match of 80% or above, found just a 36% match between the two texts and suggested the resume was missing four high-value skills (Note, however, that Svei uncovered research indicating “a 50% match with a job posting is as good as a 90% match for getting interviews”). Jobscan also suggested aligning the job title in the resume with that in the job posting, adding the name of the company being targeted, formatting dates the way recruiters like to see them (“MM / YY or MM / YYYY or Month YYYY” – e.g.,    03/19, 03/2019, Mar 2019 or March 2019), and including additional measurable results in the resume. Finally, Jobscan listed important keywords from the job posting that were missing from the resume. While the price of the paid version is hefty, you may be able to get the hang of using keywords just by using the free version, especially if you are applying for jobs that are similar to each other.

Address the “human eyes vs. machine” conundrum. Much of the advice typically imparted about “beating” ATS has to do with the way the resume is formatted – or perhaps more accurately, not formatted, because the resumes that fare best under ATS parsing have very little formatting – no bold, no italics, no graphics, no tables, no rule lines, no headers/footers, no columns, no text boxes and only round bullets. The best unformatted file type for submitting for ATS parsing is a text (.txt) file; however, that type of document is the least appealing and reader-friendly if your resume passes the ATS scrutiny and is then read by the hiring manager. One suggestion, if the application site allows it, is to submit both a text file and a formatted Word file. You could also look for opportunities to send the formatted version separately by email or even postal mail. Additional formatting and wording tips include:

  • Use a sans-serif font such as Arial, Calibri or Verdana. Serif fonts, such as Times New Roman, can confuse the ATS.
  • Use standard headings. Avoid the temptation to be clever with headings; use conventional labels, such as Experience, Education and Skills.
  • Use both acronym and spelled-out versions of phrases as the ATS will likely search for one or the other. Example: Pharmacy Benefit Managers and PBMs.
  • Avoid PDF formats as some ATS platforms can’t read them well.

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