How do Applicant Tracking Systems work: Simplified

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Abstract depiction of how do applicant tracking systems work by GradSimple

Time to Read: 6 minutes

Nowadays, your first job application hurdle isn’t a human—it’s an algorithm

Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) sort, rank, and filter applicants long before a resume reaches human eyes. Lets delve into what ATS is, how it works, and why it’s pivotal for you to grasp its workings.


  • The First Hurdle is Digital: Your initial job application challenge is likely an Applicant Tracking System (ATS), not a person.
  • ATS Decides Who Gets Noticed: These systems sort, rank, and filter applicants based on their resumes’ match with the job description, well before reaching human eyes.
  • Understanding ATS is Key: Knowing how ATS works is important for optimizing resumes and enhancing job application success.

Understanding Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS)

What Are ATS?

Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) are software applications that automate the recruitment process for employers.

They act like a digital assistant that helps HR departments and hiring managers organize, sift through, and make decisions about job applications. From posting job listings to collecting applications and selecting candidates for interviews, ATS streamlines the hiring process, making it more efficient and manageable.

How ATS Became a Staple in Recruitment

The rise of ATS in the recruitment process can be attributed to the digital transformation of the job market. With the volume of job applications increasing exponentially, manually handling each application became impractical.

98% of Fortune 500 companies use one or more applicant tracking systems during the recruitment process.


How Does ATS Work?

Infographic on how do applicant tracking systems work by GradSimple.

Job Posting and Application Collection

Creating and Publishing Job Openings: ATS allows recruiters to post job openings across multiple platforms, including company careers pages and job boards, from a single dashboard. This centralized approach ensures a wider reach and a streamlined application collection process.

Collecting Applications: When candidates apply for positions, their submissions—whether resumes, cover letters, or digital forms—are collected directly into the ATS. This process ensures that all candidate information is stored in one place, making it easier for recruiters to manage and review applications.

Resume Parsing and Screening

Parsing Resumes: Once an application is submitted, the ATS parses the resume. This means it extracts information from the document, such as the candidate’s name, contact information, educational background, work history, and skills. This data is then structured into a standardized format for easier assessment.

Screening Candidates: The ATS screens candidates based on predefined criteria set by the employer, such as keywords, skills, education, and work experience related to the job. This automated screening process helps narrow down the pool of applicants to those who best match the job requirements.

Candidate Ranking and Filtering

Ranking Applicants: By setting specific criteria, ATS screens candidates based on qualifications and ranks them, helping recruiters focus on top prospects. This ranking helps recruiters prioritize which candidates to consider first, focusing their attention on those who appear to be the best fit for the job.

Filtering Process: Recruiters can use the ATS to set filters for various criteria, such as specific skills, qualifications, or previous job titles. The ATS filters out candidates who don’t meet these specified criteria, further refining the selection process and ensuring that only the most suitable applicants are considered for the next stages.

Interview Scheduling and Communication

Scheduling Interviews: Some ATS platforms offer features to schedule interviews and coordinate communication between the hiring team and candidates, streamlining the interview process. It may integrate with calendar systems to prevent scheduling conflicts and send automated invitations and reminders to candidates, simplifying the coordination of interviews.

Facilitating Communication: The ATS typically includes communication tools that allow for efficient interaction with candidates. These might include email templates, messaging systems, and notification features to keep candidates informed about their application status, request additional information, or provide updates about the hiring process.

Does ATS Automatically Reject Resumes?

Yes, but its not to the extent you think.

Misconception: Applicant Tracking Systems automatically disqualify and reject resumes. “70% of resumes are rejected by ATS”.

Reality: Applicant Tracking Systems DO NOT automatically reject resumes. The commonly referenced statistic that 70% of resumes are rejected by ATS is false.

There are no studies that support this number, though it is referenced by Forbes, CNBC, and Yahoo. The last known source, Preptel, no longer exists. ATS is designed to help streamline hiring for employers. It is not the decision-maker. The final decision to reject or pass a candidate is almost always made by a person.

PRO TIP: The only time ATS can auto reject a resume is if an applicant answers “no” to a hard requirement. Such as a job requiring a drivers license or having legal status to work in a country.

Why ATS Matters to College Students

Although Applicant Tracking Systems do not automatically reject you, they still play an essential role in the modern job application process. Your ATS assigned score can affect how a prospective employer perceives your candidacy.

Enhancing Your Job Application’s Visibility

  • Optimizing for ATS: Knowing how to tailor your resume and cover letter for ATS can significantly increase your chances of being noticed. Including relevant keywords, using a clear format, and highlighting applicable skills and experiences are all strategies that can enhance your application’s visibility within these systems.
  • Beyond Keywords: While optimizing for keywords is essential, understanding ATS helps you appreciate the importance of structuring your resume in a way that’s not just ATS-friendly but also appealing to the eventual human reviewer. This includes focusing on achievements and outcomes rather than just responsibilities.

Strategic Job Searching

  • Quality Over Quantity: With an understanding of ATS, the approach to job searching shifts from a quantity-focused strategy to one that emphasizes quality and fit. Customizing each application to the job description and company can significantly improve your success rate, a tactic that becomes manageable when you understand how ATS parses and ranks applications.
  • Leveraging Networking: Knowing that ATS may initially screen your application highlights the importance of networking to get your foot in the door. Building connections may lead to referrals, which could simply bypass the ATS altogether, bringing your resume directly to a recruiter’s attention.

How do Applicant Tracking Systems work: The Bottom Line

Having an understanding of Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) gives you a distinct advantage in your career search. By tailoring your resume and application materials to meet the criteria these systems look for, you can significantly increase your chances of landing in the “yes” pile.

Join the GradSimple community today for more insights and support as you prepare to turn your academic achievements into a successful career journey.

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