Are Applicant Tracking Systems Rigged Against Jobseekers?

It’s a fact – if your resume does not make it through an employer’s Applicant Tracking System, it’s like you never even applied for the job. Is your resume making it through the Applicant Tracking System?

Too often, Applicant Tracking Systems make life difficult for jobseekers. But once you know how they work, you can use them to your advantage and they will no longer be a barrier to your job search. Not sure what this is all about? They can be confusing and continually evolve, which is why I research, take frequent training and test out the systems myself.

What is an Applicant Tracking System?

An Applicant Tracking System is the talent management software that most employers use to manage the hiring process. Over the years, these systems have evolved into an automated mechanism that employers use to process the flood of incoming resumes and identify the most qualified candidates.

How do Applicant Tracking Systems Work?

ATSes work by sorting through resumes to select the ones that best fit a particular position:

  1. First, the ATS reads the information on your resume as data, categorizes it and then populates the hiring company’s candidate database.
  2. The ATS then rates how qualified each candidate is by matching their resume with the keywords from the job posting. If your resume contains the relevant qualifications, as indicated by keywords, you will rank higher in the search results.
  3. Only the resumes of candidates considered qualified will be reviewed for further consideration. It may not seem fair, but the employers do need to identify the right candidate for the job without having to read hundreds of resumes.

How You Can Avoid the Resume Black Hole (Yes, it does exist)

If you aren’t winning frequent interviews, it may not be due to your lack of skills, experience or education. It is more likely that your resume is not making it through the Applicant Tracking System. Without the proper keywords and formatting, resumes can disappear into the abyss. Here are some quick tips on how you can overcome this problem.


  • Include the keywords for the role and your industry throughout your resume and cover letter to showcase your skills and demonstrate that you are highly qualified for the job. Potential employers will not assume that you have the required expertise – you must clearly tell them.
  • ATSes are actually very simple systems. Many do not recognize synonyms or abbreviations. Use the company’s language to show that you have what they need and will fit in with their group. Since you can’t be sure which the employer will use, it is best to use both the entire word and abbreviation for key terms somewhere in your resume.
  • Never try to fool the system by “keyword stuffing” your resume. I have heard of people jamming keywords into the margins in invisible white font, so that they will be rated as highly qualified. This kind of deceitful behavior is a great way to lose credibility and the job opportunity. Plus, the ATS parses the information on your resume as data, so it picks it up regardless of font color.
  • Where to find the right keywords? In addition to the job posting, use the company website and your own knowledge of the role. If you are truly qualified for the position, you know what is required. If it’s a longshot – forget that opening and apply for one that better matches your expertise. Here are some great tips from Alison Doyle.


Keywords alone don’t tell the whole story. The formatting you use for your resume is just as important as its content. If your formatting is not compatible with the Applicant Tracking System, it literally cannot read the information on your resume! GetFive explains.

  • Be careful of using resume templates because many contain hidden formatting that is not ATS-compatible. To be safe, if you see a template you really like, recreate its layout in a brand new document.
  • Not all systems can read the newest Microsoft Word .docx and few can convert from Apple’s iWork Pages application. I have found the best format to use is .doc, which appears to make it through most ATSes easily. Unless the system has OCR-capability, it literally cannot recognize the text on PDFs. So, I don’t recommend using a PDF unless the ATS lists that as an acceptable format.
  • Use standard fonts such as Arial (which is my favorite), Verdana, Calibri or Times New Roman. Stick to one font for a clean, professional look.
  • Do not use headers and footers — most ATS systems can only read the information within the body of a document. If it does pick up the information in the header or footer, it may put it somewhere in the middle of your resume, where it will not make any sense.
  • Many of the design elements that we use to make resumes look visually appealing are not compatible with Applicant Tracking Systems. Do not use symbols or special characters, multiple columns, page borders, graphics, non-standard bullets or text boxes. Some ATSes handle tables well, while others jumble up the content.

Learn More

Because Applicant Tracking Systems are a roadblock to so many jobseekers, I keep up on ATS technology every month so that my clients’ resumes pass through these online filters.  If you are uploading your resume online, you need to do the same. I share this information on my blog and at free presentations at local libraries that are open to the public. If you are located in central Connecticut, I invite you to attend one of my workshops at the Simsbury Public Library. You can find their monthly event calendar here: If you are not local, I encourage you to investigate free jobseeker resources at your local library.

Job boards can be a useful tool, but because only a portion of open positions are posted online, you should only spend about 20% of your job search on online job postings. Many companies prefer to use networking and referrals to find new employees. So remember, if you are applying to a lot of jobs online and are not hearing back, your resume may not be ATS-compatible. That’s an easy fix!


An inspirational career consultant, Trish (Thomas) McGrath has been helping people develop the tools, strategies and confidence to build satisfying careers since 2009. An experienced career transition coach, resume expert and job search strategist, she guides her clients through the job search process to make it less overwhelming and more successful. Contact Trish at (860) 658-6480 or to see how she can help you gain the competitive EDGE.


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