Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS): What you need to know

Careers Consultant, Kate Nicholls

If you’ve been applying for jobs and not getting anywhere it could be because your application isn’t compatible with the Applicant Tracking Software that the recruiter is using. Up to 75% of all applications through an ATS are rejected, so it’s essential you know how they work:

What is an ATS?

It’s a software that allows companies to manage and track candidates. It scans data fields on the application to find the best matches for the job. An ATS can sort through 1000s of CVs at one time, send candidates emails, save candidates for future positions, and more. Typically, it will reject unqualified candidates and move qualified candidates to the initial interview stage. Of the Fortune 500 companies, 99% use an ATS.

What is an ATS looking for:

  • Key words/buzz words from the job description and advert. These are important to both the ATS and the human recruiter as they need you to be a strong fit. Include technical and soft skills. If there isn’t a job description look at the company website, LinkedIn, emails, or find someone with a similar job at the Company (on LinkedIn) and see the skills they have. Thoughtfully weave these key words into your application so they aren’t glaringly obvious.
  • Job titles that match the position being advertised. If you haven’t already had a job with that title, write ‘now looking for a role as (job title)’ in your profile summary.
  • Degree, qualifications and educational requirements. If the employer needs certain qualifications list all the relevant ones you have.
  • CV structure. An ATS doesn’t like boxes, graphics, photos etc. Keep your CV structure straightforward (i.e no columns), remove headers and footers; and don’t use complicated headings (such as ‘who am I’) instead use ‘personal profile’.
  • Use the exact same words that the company has used, and if they’ve used acronyms use the same acronyms/abbreviations too.
  • If you use a font that is too fancy the ATS won’t be able to read your CV. Pick standard fonts such as Arial, Calibri or Verdana (i.e Sens Serif or Serif type fonts).
  • Use reverse chronology (i.e most recent dates first).
  • The name of CV document should be your full name and then the letters CV.

What else should you do?

You won’t always apply through an ATS system. It’s important to also gain the attention of the human recruiter too and you can do this by:

  • Gaining referrals from employees who you know work for the company (there may well be a referral scheme in place).
  • Be proactive about leveraging your connections and work hard to find someone in the company that you can talk to through LinkedIn or employer events (but be professional and not overbearing).

Can an ATS read your document if it’s saved as a PDF?

Yes, most can but you must ensure that the same rules (above) apply i.e no images and ensure your CV is properly formatted etc. It’s best to send your file as a .docx or .pdf file.

And finally, get your CV checked:

If you’ve done the above and want to see how your CV is shaping up, then try out our CV 360 tool: University of Surrey ( or book a quick query appointment with a Careers Consultant to have your CV checked: Surrey Pathfinder | University of Surrey

Sources of Information: