How to Make it Past the Applicant Tracking System

What Exactly is an Applicant Tracking System?

To put it simply, an ATS is a candidate sorting software. The degree and qualifications by which the candidates are sorted is different software to software and company to company.

There are over 100 different ATS software that are commonly used and not only is each one different, two companies using the same one can configure it differently depending on what they’re looking for in a candidate. Knowing this, it’s no wonder that there seems to be so much conflicting information out there, every company looks for different qualities in a candidate! What might make one candidate a great fit at one company can make them fall through the cracks at another.

Why do Companies use Applicant Tracking Systems?

For many companies, applicant tracking systems are necessary evils. While automated applicant screening may not be the best way to hire a qualified candidate, it’s hard to argue that it’s not efficient. There are a few statistics to keep in mind when you apply to a job:

  • According to a survey on Glassdoor, corporate job openings attract 250 resumes on average with 4-6 being called in for an interview (2013). Meaning that for every corporate job posting, roughly 2% of candidates get called in for an interview.

  • Recruiters spend on average of 6 seconds per resume. That’s right, you have 6 seconds to make an impression or your resume is gone. This is ASSUMING that your resume makes it into the hands of a human being in the first place.

Undoubtedly, qualified candidates fall through the cracks all the time. While some may accuse hiring managers and companies of being lazy, ATS are effective and efficient at what they do. Chances of a great candidate falling through are extremely slim (especially if they take the time to write a good application) and it significantly boosts productivity.

Imagine you had to sift through 250 individual rocks and identify ones that were gems, but instead of being able to take a look at a pile and pick out the obviously shiny ones you were given each rock 1 by 1 and forced to look them over for 5 minutes.

That's what a hiring manager would have to do if it weren't for an ATS, so a world without one isn't happening anytime soon.

Breaking Down the ATS

Okay, so we know the general definition of an ATS and why a company would use one, so how exactly do we plan around one?

Here are some general tips that should work relatively well (or at least, shouldn’t hurt your application to use like:

1. ATS Friendly Resume Layout

  • No Multi-Column Resumes

    • Multi-column resumes are generally not very friendly to an ATS. Personally, I’m not a fan of 2 column resumes anyway but if you really want to use one, then keep a 1 column resume for the ATS and a 2-column resume when you’re sending it to a recruiter or manager directly.

  • No Graphics and Clipart

    • Again, not ATS friendly so those resumes that use bars or star ratings for their skills section are likely hurting you more than helping.

  • Font

    • 11 or 12 points is preferred, 10 point and smaller may be too small but I’d say 10 is the smallest it should be. Stick to Arial, Helvetica, Garamond, Cambria, Verdana, Calibri, or Georgia.

  • Bolded words and Bulleted Lists

    • Bold each new section and use standard round bullets throughout your application (instead of other special characters). Non-standard bullet points can have trouble making it through an ATS and may cause all your bullet points to be condensed into one paragraph.

  • No Tables or Special Characters

  • Lines

    • I’ve heard some people say that lines don’t work, but I personally haven’t had a problem (whether it was receiving a resume with lines or sending one with lines). If you’d prefer to play on the safe side, that’s 100% up to you as I don’t think lines really matter either way.

  • .docx Format

    • PDF works fine too but use .docx to be safe

  • Use Proper Headings

  • Improperly formatting your resume or using non ATS compliant layouts can cause large chunks of your data or information to be completely sorted out. Don’t get cute and sacrifice functionality for aesthetics.

2. Tailored resumes

I can write a whole different article about tailoring your resume but the gist of it boils down to reading through the job posting you’re actually going to be applying to, identifying key words and phrases, and including them in your resume.

Breaking Down Different ATS Systems:

So that’s the general strategy, but as I mentioned before every ATS is different in both form and functionality. Some ATS emphasize certain aspects of the application over others so let’s take a look at the two most popular ATS in the market right now and see how we can get through those:

*Key note – Keep in mind that every ATS is almost entirely customizable to the user, so while this may be a GENERAL guide two companies using the same ATS can have very different processes.

All statistics found here.


Sound familiar? Taleo has owned the #1 spot in the ATS market share for a long time (though that number is decreasing every year, 36.43% of the market share in 2016 to 19.11% of the market share in 2018) and is by far the most popular ATS amongst larger companies. Honestly, I can’t say I’m a fan and I 100% understand the frustration around Taleo, but the fact remains that for now, it’s still the biggest fish in the pond. So how does Taleo work?

1. Keyword scoring

When you send your resume through Taleo, it will scan your resume for designated “keywords”. Simply put, the more keywords you have and the more often you use them, the higher your resume will score.

This doesn’t mean just throw random keywords everywhere, your phrasing and overall grammar should still make sense.

**KEY NOTE – As far as I know, Taleo still cannot identify keyword variants on it's own and needs some help with Boolean searches. I wouldn't trust the average HR rep/recruiter to do their due diligence so keep that in mind!*

2. Knockout Questions

  • “How many years of administration experience do you have?”

  • “What is the highest level of education you have completed?”

  • “Are you willing to relocate?”

  • “Are you willing to work weekends/holidays?”

Seen these types of questions before? They might not all be automatic dis-qualifiers, but Taleo has the functionality of ranking the importance of these questions in a tiered structure. Taleo also allows automatic disqualifying questions where if you answer “incorrectly”, you’re out.

3. Candidate Scoring

Based on your keywords and answer to the questions, Taleo will rank and score your application along with everyone else. Depending on your score, your application may be automatically rejected but don’t worry, Taleo users can delay the rejection e-mail so while you were rejected immediately, you’ll get the delayed automatic response in a week!


The #2 ATS in terms of market share in 2018, Greenhouse exploded onto the scene in the past 2 years (1.67% of the market in 2016 to 8.63% in 2018) and is #1 in small business/startups and #2 in mid-sized businesses behind Taleo. So how does Greenhouse work?

1. Bulk Application Review

Greenhouse allows the user to sort applicants by bulk. For instance, let’s say there are 100 applicants for job A and 120 applicants for job B. Greenhouse allows users to:

  • Sort all candidates in job A who answered “Yes” to question: “Are you willing to work weekends/holidays”.

Greenhouse basically has a filter that allows the user to bulk filter resumes/applications for any reason, so it would be impossible to discuss all of the possibilities.

2. Application Rules

Automatic rules in response to a candidate’s answer to a job post question.

  • Auto-tags

  • Customizable filter based off candidate’s response, for example:

  • For question: “Are you willing to work weekends/holidays”

  • If candidate answers “Yes”

  • Then tag: X

3. Auto-reject

Available only for Greenhouse’s enterprise clients the auto-reject functionality is exactly what it sounds like:

  • For question: “Are you willing to work weekends/holidays”

  • If candidate answers “No”

  • Then auto-reject

* Note Obviously most of the auto-sort/auto-reject questions won’t be this straightforward or easy, but this will give you an idea of how it works.

As you can see, Greenhouse is quite different from Taleo. There isn’t as much of a focus on keywords and automated scoring but keywords and correct answers to questions are still just as important.


Honestly, the strategy for overcoming every ATS on the market is just having an incredibly solid resume and playing the numbers game. You can definitely take a strategic approach and try to:

  • Put a greater emphasis on keywords when applying to jobs posting through Taleo

  • Put a greater emphasis on answering each question thoroughly.

The best you can do is to:

  1. Follow the ATS-friendly resume format to a T.

  2. Have a solid, TAILORED resume.

  3. Learn how to answer pre-screening questions

  4. First of all, absolutely DO NOT LIE on objective questions that can be fact checked. These include but are not limited to:

    1. Work history

    2. Education history

    3. Criminal history

    4. Location

    5. Etc.

  5. Understand that pre-screening questions can be just as important to the application process as your actual resume/cover letter, so take your time and answer each one thoroughly.

And that's the gist of it. Focusing on certain aspects of the application depending on the ATS can improve your chances by a few percentage points and many times, that can be the difference between being called in for an interview or being automatically filtered out.

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