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Understanding the Applicant Tracking Systems In Job Search

applicant tracking system
Written by Faizan Patankar

Applicant Tracking Systems are services that graduate employers and even some recruitment sites use to manage job applications and the different stages of an interview process.

For me and most graduates, Applicant Tracking Systems are Weapons of Mass Rejections.

According to job search services provider, Preptel, Applicant Tracking Systems are used by enterprises to manage their job openings. The initial screenings kill 75% of candidates’ chances of landing an interview as soon as they submit their resumes.

A further overview of how Applicant Tracking Systems work can be found in this excellent article on CIO.com 

Jon Ciampi, CEO of Preptel explains how Applicant Tracking Systems rank a resume’s relevance

Many job seekers and career experts think applicant tracking systems rely on keywords to determine the fit between a candidate’s resume and a specific job. They do their best to identify keywords in a job description that may be important to an employer or applicant tracking system, then they stuff these keywords in their resumes.

In fact, what matters most to applicant tracking systems is the uniqueness or “rarity” of the keyword or the keyword phrase, says Ciampi. That is, the keywords and phrases must be specific to a particular job ad. Applicant tracking systems, which “see” all job ads a company has ever published, determine which keywords and phrases in a specific job ad are unique to that job ad, says Ciampi.

The systems then develop a ranking based on how closely a job seeker’s resume matches each keyword and phrase and how many of the keyword phrases the job seeker’s resume has, he adds.


What are Applicant Tracking Systems

The figure below shows a typical process in an Applicant Tracking System. I have tried my best, but haven’t found a proper process diagram of an open Applicant Tracking System. But from my research and reading material, Applicant Tracking Systems can be generalised in the simple working process explained below.

A – Candidates submit a resume or a job application to a generic email address or a web portal (e.g. taleo). Some employers have their own graduate job application user interface, but the back-end of the system is generally similar. All the applications or resumes go into the Applicant Tracking Systems of that enterprise. All resumes/applications represent data being stored onto the company’s database. Resumes/Applications are represented by multiple colours signifying different style, information, etc.

B – The database stores the data, in this case the resumes and graduate job applications of candidates applying. Generally at this stage, the application is not looked at by anybody from the HR or recruitment team. All the resumes or job applications are held as ‘data’ and all appear similar to the system. No individualism.

C – The HR or recruitment team either manually modifies the keywords that it wants the software to scan the resumes or applications for, or it can also form a search text with multiple keywords and multiple levels with different rating factors (optional). Some Applicant Tracking Systems can also rank each resume against the others and rank them according to the specific job description. Your resume or application is scored/ranked.

D – If it is in the top, or has a good score, then your resume will be forwarded to next stage (green resume); else it is rejected (red).

E – Once your resume or job application is ready to be viewed by the recruiter or the HR personnel, the Applicant Tracking Systems allow for modified viewing of the information. It rarely appears as you submit it. The information in the Applicant Tracking Systems is sorted to show only the ‘important’ to the recruiter information. This could be experience, education or competency answers first, depending on the recruiter’s choice. This time, the recruiter chooses to read your application completely based on how the Applicant Tracking Systems have modified or parsed the information. Some claim that if you put your dates of work before the employer’s name in the experience section, then your experience is discounted by the Applicant Tracking Systems as it’s expecting text/employer name rather than numbers or months in there!

F – Finally, if the recruiter is happy with the information in the Applicant Tracking Systems, then your resume or application is forwarded onto the later stages of the recruitment process.

application tracking systems

Figure: Applicant Tracking System Schematic

Applicant Tracking Systems

This is a very crude way of presenting Applicant Tracking Systems – accepted. But it’s the simplest way I could use, to explain to you graduates and students how Applicant Tracking Systems works. That is why I stress on the process of ‘Graduate Application Optimisation’. When I review some competency answers or resume for graduates, I concentrate on keywords and how they phrase them rather than tables or colours or layout. Keep it simple and almost straight black and white.

I hope this article on Applicant Tracking Systems helps you understand what is going to happen to your resume or graduate job application when you send it to one of these recruiters’ or employers’ websites.

Note: This system is not fool proof. I’ve had fun with the system and you won’t believe how easy it is to crack the system, simply by writing what it wants to see. Why am I telling you this? Because nobody else will. But at Career Geek, we are honest graduates wanting to help.


About the author

Faizan Patankar

I started Career Geek Blog in 2011 to share my experience in job-hunting. I now focus on careers industry and blogging is just a tool to share that info. Love hacking careers. During the day I focus on my hobby - Engineering.