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How to...triumph over tracking systems

Applicant tracking systems (ATS) have been in use for a number of years, but they’ve been developed a lot more recently, and are now much cleverer at filtering out applicants that don’t meet the company’s hiring criteria. Furthermore, whereas they were once fairly limited to larger firms with bigger hiring targets and budgets, as open-source versions are being developed, smaller firms are more commonly adopting them into their hiring processes. So understanding how you can help your application over the first hurdle is pretty handy.

Photo by Interactive Sports on Unsplash


So what is an ATS and why do firms use them? An ATS is a software solution that electronically manages elements of the recruitment process. Being able to automate a part of this process enables firms to more efficiently process applications for their advertised roles. Some firms receive hundreds of applications per role, so filtering a portion of these out based on criteria such as a university degree grade can speed up the hands-on part of the screening process. For smaller firms that don’t have dedicated recruitment teams, this can really help managers to focus their time on candidates who are the closest match to their hiring criteria. Additionally, an ATS can provide useful analysis of applicants to enable firms to monitor things like equality, as well as helping companies to remain compliant with GDPR.

All you need to do to beat the ATS is optimise your CV but don’t worry, it’s not as complicated as it sounds.

The first thing to consider are ‘keywords’. Your CV needs to include words that reflect the role you’re applying for. And yes, this does mean you’ll need to take time to tailor your CV for each role you're submitting an application for. Check the role on the company’s website for the skills and qualities required – this goes beyond just the section that is often titled ‘skills required’ – look through the introduction and main description of the role as well, as you'll probably find additional words that are worth noting. You then need to carefully insert these keywords into your CV, but don’t overdo it and repeat the same skills over and over because the systems are clever enough to figure out if you're doing this. Get specific – if the role requires 10 years’ of experience in a particular role or industry, make sure this is mentioned in your CV, the best location may be the professional summary/personal profile. Likewise, if the role asks for a qualification such as AAT, make sure this is included. A skills section is a great way of being able to list a few relevant skills/keywords easily, although don’t forget to sprinkle them throughout the other sections too.

Don’t get too creative with the section headings on your CV. Titles like ‘education’, ‘work experience’, ‘skills’ will do just fine. You may also need to rein in that creativity when it comes to the formatting. An ATS needs to be able to understand what it’s looking at and, if it doesn’t, it may make assumptions that what it’s looking at isn’t relevant for the role and you risk being rejected. Here’s some things to consider in terms of formatting:

  • Stick to a simple and commonly recognised font like arial or times new roman and avoid too much bold or italicised text – if you need to emphasise sections, use different sized fonts

  • Don’t use tables or images – I don’t recommend using these anyway

  • Use just black text on white background

  • Don’t use headers and footers – they're not really necessary anyway

  • Use standard bullet points rather than anything fancy like arrows or stars

  • Avoid using ampersands (&) which is a big no-no for me anyway, I think it looks lazy

  • Write terms in full length as well as abbreviated ie. ‘personal assistant (PA)’ to make sure you’re ticking all the possible boxes

  • Check your grammar and spelling (this is crucial even if you don’t think your CV will be scanned by an ATS) as you don’t want to waste a keyword by spelling it incorrectly

  • Finally, submit your CV as a Word (.doc) or PDF document (both if possible but Word if there’s any doubt) as they’re the most commonly recognised formats by an ATS

There are occasions when an ATS probably won’t be involved such as if the role is very senior, or you’re applying via a headhunter or recruitment agency (although, some firms ask agencies to submit applications in the same way, so not guaranteed). However, the process you go through to optimise your CV is worth it anyway to ensure its tailored and easy to read.

It’s worth remembering that it’s unlikely a CV will ever score 100% after going through an ATS – their purpose is to find the best matches – so do your best but recognise there are limits. However, this also means that, even if you don’t feel 100% qualified for the role, it’s worth putting in the effort and applying anyway – as long as you’re not lying about your experience, you could be in with a chance of meeting an actual human and demonstrating your enthusiasm and potential for the role.


A professional CV writer can help you to, not only produce a fantastically written CV, but also one that's optimised for ATS. Get in touch if you'd like help with yours!


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