How to Beat the Applicant Tracking System in 2021

By Mike Simpson

Picture this: you’ve found the absolutely perfect job for your skills and experience. So, you spend hours targeting your resume and honing your cover letter. And when you submit your application, you just know deep down in your bones that the hiring manager will call any day to invite you for an interview. It’s essentially a sure thing.

But days pass by, then weeks, and still nothing. Maybe, at some point, you get an automated email saying you didn’t make the cut. But how is that possible? You were exactly what the company was looking for! Well, it’s possible that the applicant tracking system (ATS) is to blame.

For many job seekers, beating the ATS is actually the hardest part of the job search. If you don’t get past it, the hiring manager won’t even lay eyes on your resume. In fact, they may not know it even existed.

So, what’s a savvy job seeker to do about it? How can a candidate prevent the ATS from taking them out of contention? Well, by using the right approach. If you want to know how to beat the ATS in 2021, here’s everything you need to know to pull it off.

What Is the Applicant Tracking System?

Before we talk about how you can defeat the monster that is the ATS, let’s take a moment to talk about what an applicant tracking system even is. Generally speaking, an ATS is a software solution designed to assist companies with recruitment and hiring. It collects candidate data before it ever makes it to the hiring manager, sorting through the information to find great matches for open positions.

Alright, so how does ATS software find those matches? Well, usually through the use of keyword screening and resume scoring.

With an ATS, a hiring manager, recruiter, or human resources professional defines what they want to find in a candidate by giving the software specific keywords. In most cases, those keywords come right from the job description. If you see a skill in the “must-haves” list in the job ad, there’s a good chance the ATS is going to look for that when it screens resumes.

When a candidate submits an application, the ATS scans the resume and cover letter to look for the keywords it’s supposed to find. Then, it tries to determine if that job seeker is qualified for the position by assessing how many of the keywords are in the application and how many times they are referenced. In some cases, it also compares the candidates to other job seekers, recommending only those who seem to be the strongest match.

Does an ATS only handle candidate screenings? No. ATS software can have a slew of other features, such as automated emails to applicants, interview scheduling tools, online skills tests, and more.

Those features all help companies find and manage candidates, so they do make an appearance in certain applicant tracking systems. However, different ATS solutions have different feature sets. Some are more feature-rich, while others are sparser, giving companies more options when they choose a solution.

In the end, an ATS aims to streamline a company’s hiring while automating as much of the process as possible. It’s meant to be a timesaver for finding quality matches. However, that doesn’t mean it can’t overlook a great candidate.

While an ATS may make use of artificial intelligence (AI), it is mainly keyword-driven when screening candidates. Plus, it can’t extrapolate for unspecified information in many cases.

For example, the system wouldn’t know that “applicant tracking system” and “ATS” mean the same thing unless it’s told that. So, if it was programmed for the former, but your resume only used the latter, it wouldn’t know that you actually meet the qualifications.

Is it possible to manage a job search without having to worry about beating an ATS? Sadly, no.

Over 95 percent of all Fortune 500 companies use an ATS, and they aren’t the only ones. These solutions are popular among employers of all sizes – with about 55 percent of hiring professionals using one – so you can’t necessarily avoid them simply by targeting a certain type of business.

But it is possible to use an ATS to your advantage. By approaching your application the right way, you can increase your odds of being seen as an excellent fit for a job, making it more likely that the hiring manager will actually see your resume.

Common Applicant Tracking System Mistakes

Before we dig into how to beat an applicant tracking system, let’s talk about some mistakes you can make when applying through one of these tech wonders. That way, you’ll know what not to do, and that can make a difference.

First, understand that many ATS software solutions aren’t the most powerful beasts around. They can’t scan imagines for information and may get confused if you use non-traditional formatting. If you want to increase your odds of making it past the screening stage, keep your resume design traditional, ditch the images, and avoid unnecessary flourishes.

Using the wrong file type is another biggie when it comes to ATS mistakes. Overall, 43 percent of candidates submitted resumes that were incompatible with the ATS. When that happens, the ATS can’t process your application and, instead of reaching out to tell you something went wrong, it’ll just reject the whole thing. Ouch.

Now, some job application systems won’t let you submit an incompatible file type, altering you the moment you try to upload the document. But others don’t have that safeguard in place. That’s why you need to check the instructions to see what file types are accepted.

Finally, an old underhanded recommendation for beating an ATS might get you past the automated screening, but it probably won’t land you an interview. Some people would copy the entire job description, paste it at the bottom of the resume or into their resume footer, change the text color white so that you can’t actually see it, and send in their application.

The ATS would see the text during the screening, increasing the odds the system would see the resume as a match. But that text wouldn’t show up when the application was viewed by a hiring manager. Seems like the perfect solution, right? Wrong.

Think about it; the hiring manager is eventually going to read your resume and, if you aren’t a decent match, they will notice. At that point, it’ll become clear that you did something dishonest to beat the ATS. Is that going to work in your favor? Of course not.

Beating an ATS isn’t about tricking it. Instead, it’s about presenting yourself in the right way, ensuring your honest but also in a good position to come out on top.

How to Beat the Applicant Tracking System

Alright, now it’s time for what you came here for: a look at how to beat the applicant tracking system. If you want to make sure you make it past the automated screening, here’s how to do it.

Review the Job Description for Keywords

As we mentioned above, an ATS is typically programmed to look for very specific keywords. In most cases, those keywords are exactly what you find in the job ad, especially in the must-haves list.

Review the job description and make a note of any specific skills or traits you find. Additionally, pay attention to the exact phrase and spelling. When you add the keywords to your resume and cover letter, you want to write them precisely how they appear in that job ad. That way, the ATS will recognize those terms, increasing the odds that it’ll view you as a match.

Target Your Resume and Cover Letter to the Job

When you feature relevant experience, you’re automatically increasing your odds of looking like a better match. Use the keywords you identified as a guide and include achievements that reference those capabilities.

If you aren’t sure how to begin, give the Tailoring Method a whirl. It’s a great strategy for ensuring you really focus on the hiring manager’s needs.

Use a Traditional Resume Format

ATS software is mainly designed to review fairly traditional resume formats. In most cases, this includes chronological and hybrid resumes, but not functional resumes.

If you want to get past the ATS, getting the format right is a must. We’ve taken a deep dive into the best resume format for 2021, so check it out if you aren’t sure where to begin.

Get Your Contact Information Out of the Header

While placing your contact information in the document header means it’ll always be front and center, not all ATS solutions can read your details if that’s where you put them. Instead, get your contact info out of the header and place it at the top of the first page. It’s a much safer approach.

Ditch Anything Fancy

An ATS may struggle to scan anything that isn’t simple text, headers, bullet points, or paragraphs. While a lovely table or colorful infographic might look good to you, the ATS may have no idea of how to deal with that information. And if the applicant tracking system can’t scan it, those details aren’t going to be part of its assessment.

Columns can also be problematic for an ATS. While a two-column resume might look incredibly up-to-date, many ATS resume screeners can’t skim them accurately. Even listing information in your skills section using columns can be problematic.

When in doubt, keep it simple. If you add the information using traditional text instead, you know the ATS will be able to read it.

Use Traditional Headers

When you add a section header to your resume, keep it traditional. An ATS might not recognize unique headers, causing it to become confused when analyzing your application, so it’s best to avoid them.

Options like “professional summary,” “skills,” “work history,” and “education” are widely used, so there is no doubt that the ATS will understand what is in each section.

Save Using the Right File Type

As we mentioned above, the file type you submit matters. In many cases, the job application platform will say which ones are acceptable. However, if it doesn’t, it’s best to default to a traditional option.

In most cases, .doc and .docx files will do the trick. Plus, with those file types, you get a reasonable number of formatting options, ensuring your resume looks appealing.

Technically, a plain text file is another option. However, you don’t get many formatting options with this approach, so it may not look the nicest when printed. Still, if you don’t have another file type at your disposal, it’s worth considering.

MIKE'S TIP: If the ATS says that PDFs are allowed, then go that route. A PDF isn’t editable, so you know that your resume won’t accidentally get changed when it’s being reviewed. Plus, all of your formatting will be perfectly preserved, ensuring nothing shifts around when it’s opened.

Putting It All Together

Ultimately, beating an applicant tracking system is pretty simple. By keeping your resume and cover letter clean, incorporating the right keywords, and relying on the correct file types, the odds are high that the ATS software can review your application with ease.

Plus, by following the tips above, you’re positioning yourself as an exceptional candidate, too. That way, when the hiring manager sees your resume for the first time, they are more likely to see you as a match and extend you an interview invitation. In the end, that’s what this is really all about anyway. So take advantage of what you’ve learned and move forward confidently.

Good luck!

About The Author

Mike Simpson

Co-Founder and CEO of TheInterviewGuys.com. Mike is a job interview and career expert and the head writer at TheInterviewGuys.com. His advice and insights have been shared and featured by publications such as Forbes, Entrepreneur, CNBC and more as well as educational institutions such as the University of Michigan, Penn State, Northeastern and others. Learn more about The Interview Guys on our About Us page.