How to optimize your CV and beat the Applicant Tracking System (ATS)


If you are applying for a job in a mid-large sized company, you are most likely applying through the  Applicant Tracking System (ATS). Applicant tracking Systems, commonly acronymized as ATS, have become quite a famous software in the HR– recruitment function. Different ATS software offers different packages. However, one standard function in all models is collecting, filtering, organising, and ranking CVs before HR professionals look at them. For this reason, if the CV lacks the right keywords or is not optimally formatted, the chances of your cv ranking low is very high.

How does ATS work?

From your job search efforts, there is a very high chance you have sent an application through Workday, Taleo, SAP SuccessFactors, Greenhouse, just to mention a few. These are some popular ATS currently in the market. Some large companies such as Google and Facebook opt to develop their systems. For employers, it helps save the business time and money as it significantly reduces the time spent on recruitment. The system is also credited with improving the candidate experience through constant communication and feedback to candidates.

A superior ATS system supports the recruitment process by helping recruiters create job postings, publish on the company’s web page and other relevant job boards, screen the applicant, track the application, and store the data.

Sadly, application screening is the stage where most CVs reach. Once the ATS crawls through the CV for some specific features, the features are either not visible or are unavailable, automatically disqualifying the candidate from the pool of applicants. How then do you ensure the ATS does not stand between you and the next stage of the recruitment process?

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Tips for candidates to beat the ATS
  1. Tailor your CV to the job description

in the ATS, generic CVs do not showcase an individual’s actual capability. Customising the  CV  for a specific role increases the chances of the ATS spotting you. The CV should mirror the job description. Tailor the headlines to match the position. 

2. Match keywords and skills to  those from the job description

The right keywords on the CV can get you on top of the pool. For example, for a digital marketing role, popular keywords would be; Marketing, SEO, target ad, digital marketing. Social media, Marketing strategy etc. depending on the job description. Be sure to place the keywords where they fall naturally and strategically, such as the headings.

3. Use a chronological format

From education to past experiences, list them in order, starting with the most recent. Avoid functional and hybrid CV formats which highlight qualifications and accomplishments, respectively. A chronological CV also works well for individuals whose work history is closely related to the job at hand as the ATS can easily pick up the most relevant keywords, qualifications and skills that the system is looking for.

4. Mind the font and format

Use ATS friendly font. These are usually traditional fonts such as Calibri, Helvetica, Georgia, Arial, Times New Romans, Garamond etc. Some ATS do not recognise modern fancy fonts, so they change such fonts to familiar ones, altering the look of the resume.

A simple layout can also help beat the ATS ‘obstacle’.The Margin should be an inch all around to easily enable the AI to read both ends of the document. In addition, the spacing should be uniform throughout the document and avoid overdesigning the layout.

What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make. – Jane Goodall

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5. Avoid headers, Footers,Tables and Graphic design visuals

The information on headers and footers usually gets lost due to a parsing error. The system is not able to extract information from these sections.

Tables and columns are a great way to structure a CV and saves on space. They are also visually appealing, but unfortunately, they are not ATS compatible. Once the system detects a table, it rearranges the texts into a readable format, not considering the different columns. This results in garbled texts that automatically disqualify the candidate.

6. Use the Standard section heading.

The ATS uses headings to navigate through the CV. For this reason, your heading needs to be well understood. I suggest using the following format: summary, contact information, education, work experience, skills, achievement, awards and publication.

Avoid using unconventional headings such as ‘my contacts’ or  ‘ where I used to work’ as most ATS are programmed to detect conventional headings such as Education and professional experience, etc.

7. Check grammar and spelling.

Your CV will not get far with both the ATS  and human eye scanning if full of bad grammar and spelling. ATS  is software, so unlike humans, it will not decipher what you are attempting to say. Also, Keywords are important in ATS, so misspelling a keyword means the keyword will not be detected.

8. Avoid abbreviations and acronyms.

Your CV should be easy to understand. Avoid abbreviations and Acronyms. If you have to use acronyms, complement them with complete words. For example, R&D  to be (Research and Develop), MBA  to be (Master of Business Administration), CPA  to be (Certified Public Accountant) etc. Most ATS software do not capture words in their long forms as opposed to the short form.

Applicant Tracking System is here to stay. The HR department is just getting started on leveraging Artificial Intelligence. An ATS optimized CV is the first step to beating the bot and getting to the face to face interaction stage of the recruitment process.

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