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Applicant Tracking Systems

The pace of change in the recruitment world has accelerated, and this change is set to continue. Traditional ways of responding to job ads no longer work, and as a candidate, a fresh approach is required. For many, learning the language of the ATS bots will be critical to their next career move.

Welcome to Applicant Tracking Systems

Do you remember the Carlsberg Lager advert that featured a dusty telephone in an abandoned room? An employee walking along an empty corridor hears a phone ringing behind a rarely used door. He enters the derelict room and locates the phone. Blowing dust from the receiver and wiping grime from the handset so that he can see the number, he answers it. It becomes apparent that the call was a wrong number, and he leaves the room. The sign on the door to the office reads “Carlsberg Customer Complaints Dept.” That could be your phone if you’ve not yet discovered Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS), and how they’re being used to transform productivity in the recruitment world. Applicant Tracking Systems are software solutions designed for use by employers and recruitment organisations to collect, store, evaluate and manage job applications. From the job hunter’s perspective, the major function that they fulfil is the automatic evaluation, scoring and categorisation of your CV. When your CV is submitted, it is coldly and dispassionately assessed and scored against a job description by a computer program. These are colloquially referred to as ATS bots. If your CV is a match for the job, it may be seen by a human. If it’s not a sufficient match, your application will be silently rejected. The chances are, you won’t even receive a “Thanks, but sorry” email.

The process

The basic principle behind ATS bots is pretty simple. The job poster creates a role, identifying the skills and experience required for the role. These skills, experience and qualification requirements are weighted. When a CV is received by the system, it is parsed, evaluated and scored against the original job description. If your CV scores enough points, your application reaches the next stage, and your CV may be seen by a human. If not, you are a weaker link. Good bye. The sophistication of these systems varies, and is evolving at a rapid rate, so the accuracy of interpretation is constantly developing. ATS have dictionaries and synonyms, so whether you use “e-commerce” or “ecommerce”, the result should be the same. Scoring algorithms reflect the real world. Education is graded, positions are placed in a hierarchy, recency and frequency of keywords have a direct impact. Even the vocabulary used – positive or negative, passive or active. Your personality, skills, experience, passion, creativity and flair are boiled down to a number. You are a number. You need to know your number, and how to improve it.
Northern Lights

Cold hard numbers

Reports as to the usage of ATS vary, from 98% of Fortune 500 companies using them, 66% of large companies, and 35% of small companies. Even at the smaller end, these are big numbers, but there’s a more significant number to come.

It is estimated that as many as 75% of CVs submitted for roles are never read by a human – even if they appear on a list on a screen. It’s worth pausing for a moment to ponder this stat. You, as a person, a human, an individual, play no part in a job application in 75% of cases. Your hopes, dreams, sense of humour, charitable work, love of dogs and engaging smile count for zip.

These numbers are only growing, so it pays to understand the rules of the game.

Playing the game

Have you ever tried to explain cricket to an American? Beyond the fact that a match can last for five days, which in itself is absurd, the rules are seemingly impenetrable. When you’re in, you go out, and you’re in until you’re out. When you’re out, you go in. The rules are pretty simple, but it helps to know them if you want to safely get your leg before the wicket and avoid a mishap in cow corner while defending a googly.

So, just how do you get your CV into the line of sight of a human – whether that’s an internal hiring manager, or a recruitment consultant? Loving a list, here are the 11 F’s for a Fantastic ATS CV.

File Format

Let’s start with the basics. The more commonly used file formats undoubtedly work the best, while the more obscure ones will have to take their chances. Some lesser known file formats may not be accepted at all. Open Office and the Apple suite may be less recognised.

Sticking with .docx, and .pdf offer the best odds of success. Other formats might be accepted, but you’re looking to stack the dice in your favour. Unless you have a particular need or desire to use less mainstream document editors, keep it safe.


For those accustomed with creating documents for use in the real world, as opposed to the virtual world, document footers and headers are a standard inclusion in a document. They typically include the filename, page number and maybe the author.

Footers can cause confusion for bots, and are certainly spurious to them. It’s safer to remove them, and definitely don’t include any important information in them.

Before:CVs for ATS.docx                                2                                  Ed Longley

ATS friendly:



Fonts can be the electronic equivalent of a neck-tie – a way to impart personality and self-expression. ATS bots really don’t care about fonts, and worse than this, quirky fonts can result in errors parsing your CV. An ATS friendly CV should stick with something safe – such as Calibri. Best leave Comic Sans at the door.



Like the font above, it can be tempting to inject personality into a CV through the use of fun and informal language, trusting that this will get us noticed in preference to the dullards out there. If your CV is seen by a human, this may be the case, but it has to pass the bot test first. Fun phrases are likely to fail the Familiarity test, so it’s best (and arguably soul-destroying) to keep it neutral.

Before: as the colouring-in department web ninya, I smashed it out of the park

ATS friendly: as the marketing digital expert, I continuously achieved exceptional results



ATS bots have a particular talent for highlighting things that you might rather that they didn’t. There could be things in the past that didn’t work so well (we’re all allowed one mistake), or maybe things that are missing. In years gone by, it was possible to omit something, and hope that a quirky font and comedy tie would distract the eye from that incomplete degree. Simply omitting a key section just flags it up in red, and with it the chances of immediate rejection increase.

Worse than trying to bury something is inflating your skills and experience in order to pass the ATS bot test. Awarding yourself a degree from Cambridge could prove uncomfortable should you be interviewed by a Cambridge alumni… Make the most of what you have.


ATS friendly: EDUCATION: DipDigM Diploma in Digital Marketing



Every industry has its vernacular – a set of commonly used and understood terms and phrases to describe an activity or an outcome. ATS bots look for these terms, and their sophistication is increasing, and with it their ability to associate disparate terms with one another. Rather than relying on ATS bot intelligence, it’s safer to stick with familiar terms.

Before: I used the entire web suite of channels to find our customers

ATS friendly: I used the entire suite of digital channels to acquire our target audience online

The theme of Familiarity equally holds true with headings and sections within a CV. ATS bots are looking for structure in the document, knowing what is what. Using section headings that are eye-catching to a human may see your experience ignored or mis-categorised by a bot.

Funky graphics

Type “creative cv examples” into your favourite search engine, and a veritable feast of mouth-watering CV examples will be displayed. They look delicious, and the temptation might be to File -> Save As, and change the details. You’ll undeniably have an eye-catching CV. That nobody sees…

Fun visual elements and graphics absolutely lift a CV, but ATS bots can struggle to process them. Graphics may result in a scrambled CV, or information being omitted entirely. If the information these graphics hold is lost, your CV is destined to languish un-appreciated in the cyber bad-lands.

Presenting key information as text gives your CV a chance of rising to the top of the pack, and then you can wow the world with your creativity once you have its attention.


Not so long ago, having one CV was entirely OK and normal, and it was a sign of clarity in thinking and purpose, and a clear statement as to who and what the person was, and was not. This is no longer the case, and to have a practical chance of passing the ATS bot test, it is essential that the CV used to apply for a particular job accurately reflects the job, and it’s hard and soft-skill requirements.

Simply put, your CV will be scored against a list of weighted keywords, and if these keywords are not present in your CV, you will struggle to make the cut. A process of honestly and legitimately editing your CV to reflect the needs of the job is essential. The work required to make these job by job changes should not take long, and if it feels un-necessary, maybe it’s not the right role to be applying for.

As with Factual (above) avoid the temptation to try and game the system by stuffing your CV chock full of keywords. The SEO industry employed all sorts of black-hat techniques in the early 2000’s with invisible keywords stuffed onto a page. It worked for SEO for a while, but it’s not the way to start your relationship with your next boss…

Before: As a people person, I’m comfortable communicating with people of all levels

ATS friendly: I have highly developed interpersonal skills, with 10 years of stakeholder management



Some individuals are naturally modest, and like to hide their light under a bushel. They shy away from self-aggrandisement, and prefer to let people discover their talents and achievements. In social settings, this is fine, but for an ATS friendly CV, it will be red lights all the way.

ATS bots are expert at categorising the language employed on CVs:

  • Passive vs Active
  • Do-er vs Achiever
  • Manager vs Leader

Call out your experience and skills using terms that are inspiring and motivational, but possibly stop short of adopting the persona of an evangelical preacher if you’re quiet and effacing.

Before: While department head, business growth was strong due to my contribution

ATS friendly: My clear leadership and detailed business knowledge delivered 20% year on year profit growth



It’s good practice and courteous to fully spell out terms that are routinely abbreviated when they appear in a document for the first time. By employing nothing more than the norm, you’re getting two bites at the keyword cherry, and being a good person to boot.

Before: Through a carefully planned and creatively executed CRO programme…

ATS friendly: Through a carefully planned and creatively executed Conversion Rate Optimisation (CRO) programme…




So, you’ve turned the words on your CV into ATS bot catnip, and lo and behold, your application is in front of a real, bona fide, human being. With the top half dozen candidates in front of them in a list, they open your CV to read more. Instead of CV art, they find something that looked like the cat coughed it up onto the door mat.

Appearances do matter. It’s the job hunting equivalent of going on a date sporting clean clothes and well-groomed hair, but with breath smelling of the last nights garlic chicken.

In the world of CVs, it’s Substance over Style, but style absolutely matters. If extracting the last 10% out of Microsoft Word isn’t your forte, consider employing a professional. For £50 or so, you’ll get something that should put a smile on a face, not cause dry heaving.

An objective view

In this changing world, and with your career and earnings to consider, an external and objective view may be worthwhile. Knowing how your CV stacks up in the eyes of an ATS bot, and/ or a human could be a worthwhile investment.

It’s worth checking out TopResume to understand how bots and humans will evaluate and categorise you and your CV. Consider submitting it “before and after” to see how much of a difference you’ve made.

CV review and writing services are plentiful, and TopCV has relationships with many job portals and websites. You get a free review, and then a series of offers to help you with your next role. Like PhotoBox, never pay full price!


Darwinian Theory

Adaptation in personal and professional lives is critical, and it’s one of the key factors that differentiates between those who are successful, and those who simply survive. When I first encountered ATS, and the impact that it’s having on recruitment, I was briefly a little despondent. It had, I felt, removed people from a process that is entirely dedicated to people and their professional lives.

It seemed to me that the “One-Click Apply” explosion, coupled with ATS bots had created a dystopian world inhabited by silently operating machines, clinically making decisions about people they neither knew nor cared about. Passing judgement in a court with no appeal.

But after this period of reflection, which lasted the length of a dog walk, I recognised it for the value it offers. It places those people with the time and ability to construct a strong CV at an advantage over those who cannot. The quality of a CV will reflect the level/ position within the workplace of that individual. It also ensures that recruitment consultants and hiring managers can operate at a higher value-add level.

Applicant Tracking Systems should be equally known as Applicant Talent Screening systems – being the most familiar encounter that most will have with them. A significant change that could, and should, be employed is a closure loop. Silent rejection will be crushing to some, and it is the responsibility of those people building a people-centred process to recognise the person.