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Ask Joanna

Read the latest Ask Joanna column about applicant tracking software.

A winning on-line application:How applicant tracking software works

Dear Joanna,

How does applicant tracking software  (ATS) work? How can I prepare a resume and cover letter application that will include those “keywords” that will be picked up by an ATS computer system? And, could you please can you explain how I can increase my chances for a job interview with the right type of online application?

Signed: Keyword Confusion  

Dear KC,

After consulting with the Reena job coaches as well as information from Borsellino’s, The Muse, here is some advice to consider.

Understand the system. All ATS systems are programmed to read the resume and cover letter to find out if you’re a match for the job opening. Recruiters use this software to help them scan applications. One way that the ATS selects candidates to interview is by searching for specific “keywords”.

Including the right keywords. If you want to be noticed by the ATS, you need to include these special words that the recruiters search for—the most important ones for performing the job. Look for the “hard skills” that come up more than once in a posting and are mentioned near the top of the job posting’s requirements and duties. For example, for a receptionist job posting, the ATS keyword might be “customer service” or “MS Office”. Depending on your job goal, certain degrees and certifications could be important keywords. For example, if you are applying for a kitchen helper, your resume’s Food Handling Certification will most definitely be picked up in the ATS.

Don’t Trick the ATS. You can’t fool the ATS or the recruiter. For example, I know one job seeker who pasted the entire job description in white, repeating the keywords many times in his resume and even added a section labeled “keywords” with various words from the job description. Guess what happened? The application was flagged by the ATS. And this trick was discovered by the recruiter who saw that the candidate added the full text of the job description in the resume and just wrote “customer service customer service customer service” many times. In doing this, you’re showing the recruiter that you’ll cheat to get ahead. In the end, you need to be able to do the job and prove it on your resume.

Choose the right file type. There are two formats to submit your application (resume and cover letter). Either “.docx” or “.pdf”. According to the blogger, the .docx format is the best one to be picked up by the ATS. However, it’s important to follow the instructions of the application process.

Prepare an “Easy-to-Scan” resume by humans and the software. Recruiters want to find the information they’re looking for very quickly and in a readable form. For example, the ATS prefers chronological and combination resumes because your experiences, qualifications, education and skills are much easier to read in these formats. Don’t prepare a fancy resume with creative fonts and images. Avoid tables, text boxes, graphics, visuals, headers, footers, columns, hyperlinks, and more suggests Borsellino. Did you know that the ATS will convert your document to a text-only file? All the fancy formatting will be lost. And the ATS won’t be able to detect the important information on the application! Your application will not be presented!  

Joanna Samuels, MEd, is an adult educator with an expertise in career/job coaching and community/business partnership building.


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