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Frequently Asked Questions: Understanding Applicant Tracking Systems


Many of you reaching out to me for resume writing and other job search services have questions about applicant tracking system software and how it can affect the resume screening and hiring process. There are also many of you who have no earthly idea what applicant tracking systems are. So for your convenience, I’ve pulled together some of the most frequently asked questions I’ve received.



Q: How can I tell if a company uses applicant tracking system software?

As I type this, more than one-fourth of all hiring companies use some form of applicant tracking systems (ATS) to manage the influx of resumes and job applicants, and that number is growing. Companies with more than 100 employees are more likely to utilize ATS, as are certain industries such as healthcare, the government, and technology sectors. Whenever you apply for a job, you can safely assume an ATS is part of the company’s screening process. Just to be safe, it’s a good idea to submit an ATS-optimized resume.


Q: What is an ATS-Optimized Resume?

An ATS-optimized resume is formatted to be easily imported and read by ATS. Currently there are no industry standards in place and ATS settings vary, but general formatting guidelines are:

  • Avoid the use of charts, graphs, logos, and other images
  • Avoid special formatting (e.g. “fancy font, borders, bold and italicized text)
  • Use keyboard characters only (e.g. *, >, ~, -) when separating information
  • Save your file in .DOC or .TXT formats (avoid uploading PDF, RTF, and JPG files)
  • Include specific job/industry relevant keywords


Q: If asked to upload or copy-and-paste my resume, which should I do?

If given a choice, go with uploading an ATS-optimized MS Word file. More than likely larger companies will be using the most up-to-date ATS programs-they keep the document formatting intact. If you’re applying to a small or mid-size company, copy-and-paste an ATS-friendly text file directly into the application form.


Q: How do I know which keywords will pass the ATS screening?

When in doubt, review the original job posting and/or any similar postings for jobs you’re targeting. The job posting will usually include specific keywords that should also appear in your resume. You can also refer to online resources like the Occupational Outlook Handbook and O*Net.


Q: Does resume length matter?

No. When resumes are screened through ATS software, the computer file doesn’t generally recognize pages. It recognizes characters. Some ATS programs can identify character lengths; but that only happens when the resume has been copied-and-pasted into an online form; and IF it happens, the form will show a character limit (e.g. “Submissions are limited to 20,000 characters.”). You’ll rarely encounter an application form with character limits.


Q: How can I avoid ATS screening?

If you follow a company’s online application process, there’s not much you can do to avoid a potential ATS screening. It’s an automated process that more and more companies are integrating into their hiring process.

The only way to completely avoid ATS is to place your resume directly into the hands of the hiring manager, recruiter, or company owner in charge of making direct hiring decisions. It’s your only chance of securing an interview without ATS.

Despite the growing use of ATS software by companies nationwide, at the end of the day people hire people. According to research, approximately 75-percent of open job positions are never formally posted or advertised, and only 5-percent of candidates are hired job postings. Networking and getting your resume into the right person’s hands is the best way to land an interview.

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Now be honest… is the resume and cover letter you’ve been submitting for jobs getting you noticed? Are you receiving invitations to interview? If you answered “no,” we should talk. Contact me by phone: 1-866-562-0850 or email: for a NO COST, NO OBLIGATION 15-minute consultation. 

Kimberly Ben is a multi-credentialed Professional Resume and LinkedIn Writer and Job Search Coach. She has written hundreds of resumes, cover letters, LinkedIn profiles, and other career communications for multiple career industries and professions. Kimberly’s extensive education, training, and experience have resulted in a clear understanding of current hiring best practices and the most effective job search techniques, branding strategies, and insight on what it takes to gain the competitive edge and impress employers in a challenging job market.

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