How to Beat the ATS: Hint, You Can’t
Updated: Jun 1
There are a lot of myths out there about applicant tracking systems, their impenetratable AI and recruiters. I see it all the time.
“Optimize your resume to be ATS compliant to get seen by a human.”
“Beat the ATS.”
“Use keywords to get your resume in front of a recruiter.”
I’ll be honest, a few years ago I was guilty of paying someone to write my resume to be “ATS Compliant” in order to get past those snarky ATS bots. I fell for it because I wanted my resume to be seen by an actual recruiter. I thought if my resume was not built to beat an ATS bot or not jam packed with keywords from the job description then I would never get an interview or even speak to a human. Boy, was I wrong! But why did I believe this? Because, there are so many articles out on the web chocked full of myths about what an applicant tracking system ACTUALLY does versus what people THINK it does.
Candidates now have this mindset that they need to beat a company’s ATS and if their application is denied it is because the system rejected it and not a human. This is just inaccurate. Everyone wants to blame the ATS for the bad outcomes.
The ATS is run by humans. Period.
Amy Miller, who is a recruiting truth teller and myth buster, constantly voices the truth about what is really going on behind the scenes in an ATS. The truth is, ATS Bots do not exist. As Amy points out in one of her videos, an ATS is a database that is run by people, information entered by people, statuses updated by people, and everything that goes right or wrong is because of PEOPLE.
At the other end of an ATS is a person who is physically looking at resumes. When you get those status updates that your application is “under view”, “rejected”, or “in process”, it is because a human has reviewed your application and made a decision based on what they saw.
There are two reasons you might get an immediate rejection after submitting your application:
Usually it’s due to the requirements and specifications that an employer enters for that specific job which turn into questions that you answer, which are actually screening/knock-out questions.
You have applied to an older job that already has an accepted offer, but the systems haven’t all been updated yet.
If you get rejected later (as in the following week or so), that is because you are not in the top group of qualified candidates for that job. If you get rejected much later (as in many many weeks or months later) it means you applied to the job after a substantial number of people had already applied and no one looked at your resume. You were auto-rejected when the job closed. You were just late to the party. Which makes everyone believe that applying via the ATS is like sending your resume to a black hole. Hear me say this: an ATS is not a black hole. Resumes and information do not just disappear into the abyss. Recruiters, sourcers, talent acquisition specialists, pretty much anyone who has access to the applicant tracking system, can find your information once it has been submitted. And in fact, they WANT to find it. Recruiters get paid to hire people. Not to ignore them.
Being in HR tech, our team will submit test resumes all the time on different job boards. Literally a document is uploaded as a resume and the only words on it are, ‘this is a test resume’, and we are contacted all the time for next steps. So what does this mean? Obviously the applicant tracking systems did not screen out our resume nor did the bots reject it.
A practically blank document did not beat the system.
My LinkedIn timeline is full of posts from both sides every day; people explaining the true functionality of an ATS but also people coaching others to beat the system. Candidates are told they can’t have a PDF resume and can’t use different fonts or colors. Will their resume get past the ATS and into the hands of a recruiter? Is their resume ATS friendly?
If you go to Google or YouTube and do a quick search on applicant tracking systems and resumes, a lot of results pop up. The top results are videos and articles on how to beat the ATS, how to get your resume seen, and how to get past the software. What do you not see as a top result? Videos and articles that bust those myths.
There is a lot of ATS fear mongering going around and it only hurts the candidates.
Applicant tracking systems help track where in the process the application is, whether that is application received, under review, interviewed, an offer made, etc. The whole purpose of an ATS is meant to help keep all applications and where they are at in the process, organized for the talent acquisition team.
How should recruiters help fix this problem?
Expectations and technology solve so many of the world’s problems. Take a look at your job postings, do you tell candidates what your process is? Do you tell them how long it takes you to reach out to them? Do you set the expectation that a text message will be the next step,or an email or a call?
And do you use technology to pull jobs down when you have enough applicants? Why create the black hole experience when the technology exists to eliminate it?
The myths will be busted not with another youtube video or a blog, but in the old adage: Actions speak louder than words.
Change your actions = better candidate experiences.