How to navigate an ATS job application

How to navigate an ATS job application

An increasing number of recruiters and employers are using Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS for short) to automate the first stage of the recruitment process. An ATS is not a new concept. A “human ATS” has been reviewing resumes for decades. But, in order to deal with a high or constant volume of applications, the automated ATS was developed to make the first review stage of resumes less labour intensive. It filters applications and provides a shortlist of resumes for hiring managers to review.

When you submit your resume through an ATS, the challenge is to match keywords in your application to the job description, regardless of how interesting your experience and career story may be. At this initial phase the ATS is built to filter on a select group of keywords, and your task is to customise each application and match those to get to the next stage.

Getting through the ATS stage

It’s not uncommon for 70% of applications for any role to be rejected by an ATS. The good news is that the ATS is non-discriminatory, so it doesn’t evaluate based on age, gender, race or location. It is possible to beat an ATS through three elements:

  • format
  • keywords
  • strategy


When an ATS scans a resume it first segments it into sections relating to the job, eg Work Experience, Education, Skills, Certifications, etc. It then searches for keywords that fit those used in the job description. It will then rank the resume from most relevant to least, quickly rejecting the resumes it deems to be a poor match.

This means you should use a simple format for your resume and list your work experience in reverse chronological order – most recent experience to earliest – but don’t go any further back than 10-15 years.

ALWAYS read the instructions before you submit to determine the recommended file format. ATS systems are not designed to read some graphic elements and non-text programs (such as Illustrator or PowerPoint). PDF is the universal format that most ATS can read, and also it maintains your layout. If the ATS your are submitting to can’t read PDF then the next best option is a .doc file, or which ever format the ATS recommends. You may even consider having a separate plain formatted version of your resume to use for ATS applications, that leaves off headers, footers and other fancy formatting.


Make sure you include, in the body of your resume, the keywords that are listed as skills or experience within the job description. If they are asking for 5+ years experience, then use ‘5 years+ experience’. Of course only if you have that experience.

Do not stack your resume with keywords (the system can identify what is called keyword stuffing). Your resume still needs to be written well, with structured sentences and grammar, and this is difficult if it’s been word stuffed. Also remember that once your resume is passed by the ATS system it will be reviewed by a human being. Successful resumes are written to be both human and ATS friendly.

The job description will also include action words – such as led, developed, managed, designed, project managed. Ensure you include these in your key achievements and work experience.

Double check your spelling, as an ATS can’t understand misspelt words. So, don’t miss an opportunity just because you didn’t proof read.

When using industry names or terms, always include both the full name and acronym to ensure it will be captured.


First step is to review the job description and highlight all the key job requirements, action words and industry related terms that you will need to include in your resume. Then review your resume to ensure they are incorporated into the text. 

Use an ATS reviewing tool to double check you’ve captured the keywords. Sites such as There are a number of trial or free services, so you may find one you prefer.

After you’ve submitted your resume, find a way to follow up with the hiring manager or recruitment team. Even thought this initial step is an automated process, the final hiring decisions are a human. So, if you can connect or make an impression with someone within the company, it may lead to your resume being given more consideration. 

Remember it’s a tool

Remember an ATS is not the employer, just a tool being used. So like all tools, the more informed we are about how to use them, then we can be more confident to navigate the process. 

Also remember that even if you don’t hear back from the hiring employer, or their ATS, the key is to keep going. The more applications you submit, that fit the above process, the more chance you have of getting your next role.

Andrea has spent over 25 years working with organisations, leaders and employees at every stage of a business and career life cycle. She has created positive impact for organisations through her work with executives, leadership teams, and diverse functional teams within the arts, education, government and media organisations as examples. With over 15 years experience within career development and coaching, her direct knowledge of individuals fears and challenges and insights across a broad spectrum of sectors and organisations, creates a unique understanding of what employees need to thrive.