Applicant tracking systems – what are they, and how to write CVs for them

June 9, 2017

grads_guide_Donna_MooresEditor’s note: I recently wrote an article about why recruiters should think twice before using keyword scanning software to screen candidates. This caught the attention of professional recruiter and writer Donna Moores, who kindly put together the following advice to help grads optimise their CV for the attention of Applicant Tracking Systems – yes, including those which scan for keywords. While I may criticise the use of keyword scanning to screen applicants, in favour of simply asking the right screening questions in advance, I feel like Donna’s advice is useful, because let’s face it, keyword scanners exist – and every well-crafted job application deserves the chance to be seen by a pair of human eyes.

Applicant Tracking Systems – what are they, and how to write CVs for them

Among the many hurdles grad students need to jump on their way to getting the first job, applicant tracking systems are sometimes the first and the least expected. An applicant tracking system can nullify all the effort students invest into crafting their CVs by preventing the CVs from ever appearing in front of a pair of human eyes. And even though these systems are regularly criticised, they are widely used.

What’s an Applicant Tracking System?

An applicant tracking system, or ATS, is software that organises, stores, and scans job applications. Some ATSs can also post job adverts on different websites, but their main role is the automation of the organisation and review of job applications. An ATS uses different technologies, including artificial intelligence and semantic search, to scan applications for selected parameters – usually keywords. It can also assign a score to each CV.

ATSs have shortcomings – some are confused by strange fonts and headings and most can’t process graphics. But it’s their reliance on keywords that gives most applicants headaches.

ATSs don’t undermine the regular CV form so much that students need to follow a completely different set of rules when writing an ATS-friendly CV. All of the tips that are found in HandMadeWritings’ great infographic can still be relied upon – especially the part about the common mistakes in CVs grad students should avoid while looking for a job. ATS-friendliness is all about fine-tuning a well-written CV, and it starts with – keywords.

How to Optimise Keywords in a CV

The search for the right keywords that need to be included in a CV starts with the job post itself. Applicants should look at the job description and requirements and determine the defining terms they contain. Important skills are keywords, as are locations and key demands of the job. After they finish this, applicants will have a list of keywords they can use.

Including industry-specific terminology in the CV is necessary. Applicants never know how exactly will their CV be scanned by an ATS, and using the industry’s lingo can only help. As can spelling out any abbreviations – instead of writing “practical knowledge of SEO”, for example, it would be better to write “practical knowledge of search engine optimisation (SEO)”.

The important thing to remember is that keywords only work if they’re used naturally in the CV. They can’t be used out of context, and writing a CV solely by using keywords will backfire.

ATS-Friendly Formatting

The trick to formatting a CV for applicant tracking systems is to keep things very simple. ATSs might use powerful algorithms, but they’re still not as powerful as human brains are, so you don’t want to confuse them. And because different ATSs are confused by different things, applicants need to avoid a lot of things:

  • Using images can throw off the ATS and disqualify a CV;
  • Using tables, fields, columns, or text boxes can do the same;
  • Special characters, fonts, formatting options like bullet points and headings and subheadings might go unread by an ATS;
  • Using CV templates can render the CV unreadable by an ATS.

Formatting should be simple and basic. Applicants should use well-established fonts such as Arial, they should avoid using any colour other than black for lettering, and they should avoid underlining any words. All the information needs to be placed in the body of the file – applicants should include their name or contact information in the header.

After writing the CV, it would be a good idea to go through the HandMadeWritings’ infographic once again. It contains all the necessary rules for writing a standard CV, and those are the rules an ATS will most probably rely on when determining the score of the CV.

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