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Understand the ATS

When applying for jobs, your resume will typically be submitted to an applicant tracking system (ATS). What the ATS does with your resume has been a cause of substantial anxiety to job seekers: Is it scanning for keywords? Can it read my formatting? Did I use the right font?

I have good news. You rarely have to worry about the ATS because it's not doing what you've been told.

To begin, it's helpful to understand what an ATS is actually used for.

Why Companies use an ATS

An applicant tracking system (ATS) is a software application that many companies use to manage the recruitment process. ATSs are designed to help companies organize the hiring process and coordinate between the many stakeholders. Think of it like a contact book combined with a kanban board (like Trello).

When you submit and application, a database entry is created with your resume, and the information you submitted. A recruiter then reviews your application and rejects you, or updates your database record to the next step (like a phone screen). This process continues and the ATS keeps track of your details, the hiring step you are at, and assists with scheduling.

Myth #1: ATS Keyword Scanning

Contrary to popular belief, ATSs rarely do a keyword scan and almost never automatically reject resumes based on keywords. The primary function of an ATS is organization, not scanning and rejecting.

While some ATSs perform a keyword scan, the most popular ones in the tech industry, like Greenhouse, Lever, and Ashby don't even offer keyword scanning. Further, many recruiters have gone out of their way to point this out and have been ignored. See this article from Amy Miller for details from an experienced recruiter.

Myth #2: ATS Optimization

The ATS optimization industry is based on fake research published by a company that sells ATS optimization software and propagated through well coordinated PR. This same "research" is responsible for much of the keyword scanning myth.

Even if ATS scanning was a concern, there is no way an ATS optimization service could accurately simulate how every different proprietary ATS scans resumes. Save your money and use the tips below.

Optimizing for Humans and ATSs

While it is important to consider the role of an ATS in the job application process, ultimately your resume will be reviewed by a human recruiter. Therefore, it is important to optimize your resume for human readers, while still ensuring that it is easily readable by an ATS.

To optimize your resume for both humans and ATSs, focus on the following:

  • Use clear and concise language that is easy for humans to read and understand
  • Include relevant keywords and phrases from the job post you are applying to, but avoid cramming your resume with excessive keywords
  • Use a clear and professional layout that is easy for both humans and ATSs to read
  • Ensure all text is large enough to be easily read

By following these guidelines, you can create a resume that is both easily readable by an ATS and appealing to human recruiters.


For example, as a software engineer, you might include the following keywords and phrases in your resume, based on the requirements in the job post you are applying to:

  • Software development
  • Programming languages (e.g. Java, Python)
  • Technologies (e.g. React, AWS)
  • Management

By including these keywords and phrases in a clear and concise manner, you can optimize your resume for both human recruiters and ATSs.

Overall, understanding the role of an ATS and how to optimize your resume for both humans and ATSs can help improve your chances of getting an interview.

Last updated on December 13, 2022