How to Beat those Pesky Job Search Computer Systems

Most online applications end up in one of two places: an applicant tracking system (ATS) or an email inbox. Neither place is particularly easy to get out of during a job search.

The Madness behind the Applicant Tracking Systems

Although companies can search their database for candidates (much like you would query Google to find what you’re looking for), most use their ATS only to manage applications for a specific job. They only look at resumes submitted for that particular position; they don’t query the database for other candidates.

The system also searches for keywords throughout your resume and gives each word a point value. These point values are added up to give your resume a score. The resumes with the highest score get seen by a human.

Success in navigating an applicant tracking system isn’t simply about the volume of keywords and phrases—it’s the right keywords—and, in particular, how unique those keywords are. Most jobseekers include the “obvious” keywords, but many applicant tracking systems put value on related keywords, not those specific terms.

Keywords can be nouns, adjectives, or short phrases—and they describe your unique skills, abilities, knowledge/education/training, and/or experience. How can you find the keywords or search terms that are likely going to be used to query the ATS?

  • Find 6–8 job postings for the type of position you want and see which words keep popping up.
  • Analyze your current job descriptions (and job descriptions of positions similar to the one you have, and the one you want).
  • Look at job descriptions on My Next Move ( or O*Net Online (

Other Do’s and Don’ts for Applicant Tracking Systems:

  • When applying for a specific position, do use that job title on your resume.
  • Do include the descriptor “phone:” and “email:” in front of the phone number and email address so the ATS can identify this information.
  • When listing dates for employment or education, do put the dates to the right of the information.
  • Do consider including section headers in ALL CAPS to make it easy for the applicant tracking system to categorize the information.
  • If you are working towards a degree or certification that is a requirement for the position, do include it on the resume—but make sure you include a phrase such as “Pursuing (name of credential)” or “Degree anticipated (date).”
  • Do check your email after applying for a position online. Some applicant tracking systems acknowledge submissions, but because these are automated responses, it may be diverted to your spam folder.
  • Do be mindful of the special characters and accents you use in your resume. Some words and phrases can be misinterpreted by an applicant tracking system—for example, accented words. The word “résumé” itself is not ATS-friendly. The ATS does not recognize the accented letters. Instead, it reads it as “r?sum?”.
  • Do not list your credentials (MBA, CPA, etc.) next to your name. Include that information on a separate line.
  • Do not include skills you don’t possess on the resume as an attempt to “trick” the applicant tracking system into selecting you. (Remember, the resume will eventually be reviewed by a human.)
  • Do not mix different fonts and sizes in your resume.
  • Do not submit multiple resumes to the same company. Applicant tracking systems have a memory—all those previous submissions remain in the system. You can apply to multiple, related positions, but make sure the resume information is consistent (for example, the number of years in a particular job) because the hiring manager will have access to the other versions, too.

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A big dreamer as well as a big do-er, Madelyn draws on her experience of successfully navigating three high-profile careers to provide the expert advice, encouragement, and step-by-step action plans you need to activate your career dreams.

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