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Type three letters into TikTok and watch as influencers from around the world tell you how to beat the ATS, or applicant tracking system.

Well.. sort of.

The thing is, nearly all of them will say they’re going to provide the secret to beating the ATS, and then preface whatever their advice may be by saying “you can’t really beat the ATS.”

That’s not because the system is so incredibly sophisticated that it sees what a candidate is trying to do and flags it. Rather, it’s simply because no matter what, at some point, the candidate is going to have to convince a human being they’re capable of doing the job.

If that isn’t something they can do, no amount of résumé formatting or keyword stuffing is going to help a candidate stand out or get past the phase where a human reviews their qualifications or has a conversation with them.

Now, before we go any further down this rabbit hole, if you're reading this and you're in the market for a new ATS, you're going to want to check out our list of Best Applicant Tracking Systems for 2024.

Where Does the Beat the ATS Narrative Come From?

Why has the “beat the bot” narrative gained so much traction then? Put simply the ATS is seen as the first hurdle a job seeker has to overcome. 

With its systematic approach to digesting the information in a résumé, sometimes referred to as résumé parsing, the ATS breaks down the résumé into sections (contact info, job history, education, skills, etc.).

As with any system, there’s then a temptation to believe that the system can be gamed.

“With the latest developments in AI, there is no silver bullet and résumé parsing will ultimately get better over time, but it never hurts to keep it simple so that the software will work in your favor,” says Lisa Barrow, CEO of Kada Recruiting.

Advice for How to Beat The ATS

The idea that you can beat the ATS also stems from two consistent pieces of advice from career coaches and recruiting experts alike. 

  1. Keep the format of your résumé simple and easy to read. Skip all the fancy graphics and don’t bother putting a picture on the resume.
  2. Customize your resume and cover letter for the role you’re applying for. This includes the use of, not abuse of, key phrases that match the desired skills and attributes the employer is seeking. 

Tawny Lott Rodriguez has seen this advice be misunderstood over the last 12 years working in talent acquisition. In her current role as HR Director for a school in Salt Lake City, she’s regularly sees applicants who don't know what the ATS does.

“People hugely misunderstand how the ATS works,” she said. “While some keyword optimization can help, focusing solely on tricking the ATS often creates generic résumés that lack impact. A strong résumé should be tailored to the specific job description and showcase the applicant's unique value proposition.”

Trying to trick the system causes problems for candidates and recruiters alike.

In the end, the issue of trying to trick the ATS also points to a bigger issue with people flat out lying on résumés, but few alternatives have surfaced to replace the résumé as the defining document of someone’s career experience.

“From a candidate perspective, there are a lot of challenges no matter how simple we try to make it,” Elena Agaragimova, Talent Acquisition and Development Manager at Horizon Industries, said. “Candidates are trying to trick the system and as a result we’ve interviewed people who look great on paper, but when we get to a technical interview they can’t answer a question. I’m frustrated with résumés in general, but we haven’t figured out a better way to show skills and experience as a society.”

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ATS Optimized Résumés

Can you beat the ATS isn’t really a valid question. The better way to think of it is how do candidates create a résumé that speaks to both ATS and human needs?

“Recruiters quickly spot résumés overly optimized for ATS and lacking in substantive, relevant content,” says Alari Aho, founder of productivity and time tracking tool Toggl. “A balanced approach where you clearly match your qualifications and experiences with the job requirements using natural language is the way to go.”

Here are some tips for job seekers in any industry and a standardized view of what to look at for those in hiring positions.

The Targeted Résumé

Job seekers should carefully analyze the job description and tailor their résumé to highlight the specific skills and relevant experiences they’ve had in the past.

Author's Tip

Make a list of the key elements in the job description and think about how your own background and skills match these requirements. Then start thinking about how you can communicate that story succinctly while incorporating some keyphrases from the job description. It’s worth noting, key phrases are not buzzwords or jargon.

Quantify Achievements

Quantifying achievements on a résumé is crucial because it provides greater context for your story and evidence of your capabilities and accomplishments.

By including specific numbers, percentages, or other measurable data, you present a compelling case for your effectiveness and impact in previous roles.

This approach not only adds credibility to your résumé but also helps hiring managers visualize the scale and scope of your contributions.

For example, stating that you "reduced operational costs by 15% through process optimization" gives a hiring manager something specific to ask questions about and understand context around the achievement further.

Proofread Meticulously

A typo-ridden résumé can get flagged by the ATS and end your candidacy prematurely. There’s also no excuse for it.

At a time when there are a ton of tools to help you avoid mistakes, employers are expecting to see a clearly communicated résumé if nothing else. Even minor errors in spelling, grammar, or punctuation can detract from the impression of competence and attention to detail that you want to convey to potential employers.

Keep it Simple

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again. Don’t over complicate your résumé as a document.

Ultimately, it’s not the thing that’s going to get you hired. That will come down to your ability to interview, your interpersonal skills and how well you present your experience.

So for the résumé itself, Barrow recommends a few guidelines to follow.

  1. Make your résumé in document format.
  2. Use a standard font. 
  3. Avoid an overly complex or long résumé.
  4. Avoid columns, tables or anything more advanced.
  5. Make sure your work history is in chronological order.
  6. List tools, software or languages you have knowledge of explicitly.
  7. Label each section (Work History, Objectives, Education, Certifications, etc.).

Time Consuming Work For Candidates?

So… how much time should all of this take? 

“Applicants should spend enough time to ensure their résumé accurately reflects their experience and skills in relation to the job posting, which usually involves some customization for each application,” says Aho. “This might mean a few hours per application, especially when modifying your résumé to include specific keywords that match the job description. However, the focus should be on quality, not just on keyword quantity.”

If you’re seeking a new job, one way you can ensure that you have the ability to customize your résumé to each role you apply to is by keeping the formatting consistent and simple enough for an ATS to scan easily.

According to Rowena Winkler, an ATS expert at Wanderlust Careers, it can take between 1-3 hours to optimize your résumé for the ATS. This is because she recommends not only reviewing the job description thoroughly, but also looking at comparable job descriptions to get a sense of the industry you're applying to overall.

“Once you have a sense of the job description, you’ll need to identify the relevant keywords that align with the technical skills and soft skills needed for the position,” Winkler said. “Then, you’ll revise your résumé, incorporating the keywords that you identified, making sure it still reads well and highlights your experiences. Lastly, you’ll do final proofreading and revisions, checking that the formatting is still incorporated throughout the document.”

To cut down on the amount of time this process takes, she also recommends having a master résumé that lists all of your experiences with keywords taken from the various job descriptions you reviewed.

You can then copy and paste the most relevant experience for a specific position to a new document and make a few minor tweaks so that it better fits the role. You could also have more than one résumé that is catered to different industries, again using keywords from across different job descriptions.

Recruiters And The ATS

The ATS has become something of a boogeyman, with applicants believing their résumés are being weeded out and eliminated without ever getting in front of human eyes. In reality, there’s little evidence to show that this is the case.

On the recruitment side, hiring managers don’t always understand how the ATS works or how they can get more out of it. This is particularly inconvenient at a time that many orgs are struggling with the realities of searching for candidates.

“We now have to train hiring managers to look beyond the résumé and look for behavioral patterns that a good candidate should have,” Agaragimova said. “The way we try to tackle it is building relationships and training hiring managers, but I’m sure we miss out on good candidates all the time.”

This is particularly the case in high skilled roles in industries such as tech. What hiring managers want and what is on offer in the candidate pool isn’t often aligned and no amount of magical wordsmithing is going to help the ATS return the unicorns they’re looking for. 

“I recruit for very specific technology needs,” Agaragimova said. “So a hiring manager sends what they need and what they’re looking for is a unicorn. We then have to prove to them that this candidate doesn’t exist by providing four weeks of candidates that don’t fit the profile. By the time we’re done, they just hire a horse, which is what we should have been looking for to begin with.”

Part of the struggle with the ATS comes down to price and the resources of businesses that are using them. There are more sophisticated, AI driven tools that can help hiring teams hone in on the person they’re looking for, but there’s just one problem.

“The better ATS systems that are AI driven are very expensive," Agaragimova said. “Small companies struggle to afford them. The ATS’ that a lot of small companies are using leave a lot to be desired in terms of reporting. That’s going to be the big differentiator for small orgs.”

Back To TikTok And Methods

So where do we land on this? The truth, as is often the case, is somewhere in the middle. It’s possible to make a résumé more ATS friendly, but in the end, it’s still best to have it be optimized for human consumption above all.

Keywords, formats and layouts all play a part, but simplicity, just like honesty, is the best policy. If you’re a job seeker, keeping both at the forefront of your process and thinking will help yield opportunities that you won’t be wildly out of place interviewing for. 

And for hiring managers, trusting in your recruitment teams and mastering the technology at hand will help you find the best candidate possible, though maybe not the candidate of your dreams.

By David Rice

David Rice is a long time journalist and editor who specializes in covering human resources and leadership topics. His career has seen him focus on a variety of industries for both print and digital publications in the United States and UK.