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applicant tracking system (ATS)

What is an applicant tracking system?

An applicant tracking system (ATS) is software that manages the recruiting and hiring process, including job postings and job applications. It organizes information about job seekers and makes it searchable. As its name implies, an ATS tracks candidates through the hiring process. It helps with interview scheduling, issues notifications and alerts, and sends automated emails to candidates and employees, such as recruiters and hiring managers.

But these systems are far more than organizers. An ATS is also used to cull applicants and recommend the top candidates. It may conduct a preliminary analysis of the applicants to find the best fits for a job. It may also look for keywords or use AI-type algorithms that run a deeper analysis of the job applicant. The goal is to speed HR's review of job applications and resumes.

How the applicant tracking system process works

An ATS helps an organization manage each step of the hiring process, from writing the job ad to making a job offer. This includes integrating with major job boards to streamline job postings, organize applications and allow candidates to create profiles. The ATS keeps track of all the activity that takes place around the candidate.

The following steps are typical of a recruitment process:

  1. The job requisition is created and, if necessary, approved within the system.
  2. The job is posted in one or more locations, including internally for employees, on the organization's website and on external job boards.
  3. Candidates apply for the position on the organization's website or directly on the job board if such functionality is available. They may have to answer questions related to the position, such as their work experience and education. Some systems can be set up to reject candidates automatically based on answers to certain questions.
  4. The ATS may parse resumes and rank new applications as they are submitted.
  5. The recruiter reviews applicants in the system and selects the candidates to pursue further. Candidates who are not selected may receive an automated rejection email.
  6. Interviews may take place with the recruiter, hiring manager and others as required. Notes can be entered in the ATS following each interview for future reference.
  7. When the preferred candidate is identified, the recruiter will typically use the ATS to send the offer to the candidate.
  8. If the candidate accepts the offer, they are "hired" into the HR system. Next, the onboarding functions of the ATS or HR system are made available to the newly hired employee where they can read and digitally sign policies, complete online forms and learn more about the organization.

Importance of ATS in recruitment and hiring

Using an ATS is important in many ways, even for small companies. First, candidates have come to expect companies to provide a positive candidate experience and user-friendly application process, which most applicant tracking systems provide. Second, for the employees involved in the recruitment process, such as recruiters, hiring managers and approvers, an ATS automates and streamlines the hiring process. Finally, an ATS provides a repository of data for future reference, for example, when a past candidate applies for a new job, or can be used as a tool to search for potential candidates in applications for previous job postings.

The term "applicant tracking system" is in wide use, and an ATS is considered a subset of a recruitment management system. The latter acts as an umbrella term for any technology that deals with recruitment, including candidate relationship management systems. Candidates in the ATS, but not selected for an immediate job, might be considered part of the talent pipeline and available for future opportunities. The candidate relationship management system maintains a connection to those prospects.

Benefits of applicant tracking systems

An ATS is designed to organize and speed up the hiring process by providing the following capabilities and benefits:

  • It lets you reuse job descriptions for multiple positions, which can save time and reduce the effort required to post a job.
  • It can post and manage job ads on the organization's internal and external career sites and across multiple job sites, such as Indeed and Monster, and on social media sites such as LinkedIn and Twitter.
  • It maintains a database of new applicants and people who may be prospects for future openings.
  • It aggregates information about candidates, including any communications and jobs they've applied for in the past, to create a single view and profile of each candidate.
  • It may also help sort and rank candidates by, for example, conducting an initial scan of candidates to select those who best meet job qualifications.
  • It may also be set up to automate responses, send out interview reminders and alert people in the database to new job openings. From this perspective, the ATS acts as a form of customer relationship management.
Functions of an applicant tracking system
Most applicant tracking systems have these features and functions in common.

Key ATS features

Taking full advantage of the features available in an ATS can help reduce manual processes, engage potential candidates and ultimately fill open requisitions faster and with better candidates. But many ATSes have other features and benefits that might not be as obvious.

For example, an ATS can be used to encourage people to apply. Some systems use chatbots to interact with candidates and help them complete their applications. They may also attempt to keep candidates engaged, update job seekers on their status and alert them if additional information is needed.

An ATS also enables collaboration by allowing anyone involved in the hiring process to stay abreast of the progress in filling a job and contribute to the candidate selection discussion.

An ATS may use varying degrees of intelligence to sort candidates. The technologies range from keyword matching to algorithms that take a deeper look at each candidate's data. In response to a resume, the ATS may send the applicant a series of questions to help recruiters learn more about the candidate.

ATS products that use these keyword-based screening methods are starting to see competition from systems that use machine learning approaches and natural language processing (NLP). Some vendors are building in capabilities that analyze a firm's past hiring decisions to discover the characteristics of top-performing employees. This data on current employees is then used to inform the ATS algorithm, which searches for patterns in work history and education that are indicative of success.

Another goal of these ATS technologies is to reduce bias, unconscious or otherwise, in recruiting and hiring. For example, machine learning and NLP are applied to job ads to avoid wording that subtly discourages a man or woman from applying. Bias is a major issue in hiring, according to researchers.

Job sites are adding ATS-like tracking features and moving away from the idea that they are just job boards. Some rank applicants by how well they meet the qualifications in the job ad. Job sites may also offer integration with an existing ATS.

Choosing an ATS vendor

The ATS market is competitive and crowded, and there are at least 100 ATS vendors. IDC estimated that worldwide revenue from talent acquisition technologies and services -- including ATS and recruiting software -- would grow at a compound annual growth rate of 5.2% from 2019 to 2023.

The advantage of the large number of vendors is that you can choose the one that best fits your organization in terms of functionality, cost and other criteria that are important to you, such as cloud-based vs. on-premises deployment.

When searching for an ATS, there are two types of vendors to consider.

  • Vendors that focus on the ATS market, such as iCIMS, Jobvite, Oracle Taleo, Greenhouse and Lever. They may also offer an onboarding module in addition to the ATS.
  • Vendors that offer an ATS module as part of an overall human resource management system. Their products include Oracle Cloud HCM, SAP SuccessFactors, Ceridian Dayforce, UKG Pro and many more. In some cases, the ATS is only available if you implement the vendor's core HR module.

Popular applicant tracking systems

Prominent products from the specialized ATS vendors include the following:

  • iCIMS. A comprehensive system that has many of the bells and whistles you'd expect from one of the top vendors.
  • Jobvite. A well-rounded system with onboarding functionality to simplify the new hire process.
  • Taleo. Acquired by Oracle in 2012, Taleo is a popular system used by companies of all sizes.
  • Lever. An easy-to-use ATS with candidate relationship management features built in.
  • VidCruiter. A platform with video features to facilitate remote interviewing, candidate video submissions and virtual events.

How applicants can 'beat' applicant tracking systems

Applicant tracking software systems are designed primarily to help the recruiting team streamline its processes. Because of this, a candidate's resume may never be seen by a human, and if it is, it may only be for a few seconds.

In the past, applicants could employ tricks such as using colored paper to make their resumes stand out. Today there are new tricks to try to beat the system and increase the likelihood of a successful application.

  • Tailor your resume to the job description. It takes more time than using one resume for every job you apply to, but if the company is using an ATS that ranks resumes based on keywords, you have a better chance of ranking high if the terminology in your resume matches what the company requires.
  • Avoid stretching the truth and including keywords where you have no experience. Your resume might get to the top of the pile, but the recruiter will quickly spot the embellishment.
  • Include both the acronym and long form when using a phrase for the first time in a resume. Often, recruiters are not specialists in your field and may not be well versed in its terminology.
  • Avoid using images to share information about yourself. If the organization is using resume parsing, the information will not be read and will leave your ATS profile with missing data.
  • Ensure your resume is saved as readable text. The easiest way to do this is to submit a Microsoft Word-compatible document or PDF file.
  • Use standard section headers that a resume parser will recognize. For example, use "Education" as a header to list the programs you've completed.
  • Use a simple font, such as Arial or Times New Roman, rather than one that looks artistic but the resume parser may not be able to read properly.
  • Watch the junk mailbox in your email software to ensure you don't miss an email, since the correspondence will often be automated and may look like junk mail.
  • Ensure your resume looks professional by correcting spelling and grammar, using headings and ensuring that sections line up correctly.
  • Include a good summary at the top of the resume, highlighting what you bring to the organization and not what you want from it. This will likely be the first thing a recruiter looks at if they open your resume.
  • If you are asked to answer questions when submitting your resume, keep in mind that some of them may be used as knock-out questions. This means if you don't provide the answers they want, you will automatically be rejected. Remember that they can see your answers, and if you stretch the truth too much to pass the questions, you may have to explain in an interview why you gave those answers.
  • The ATS will track all the jobs you've applied to in the past. Therefore, it's better to focus on jobs you are qualified to perform. For example, if you are applying for both individual contributor and director-level jobs, recruiters may find it difficult to gauge your level of experience.
  • Apply online even if a friend has offered to submit your resume on your behalf. Most recruiters want all the resumes to be in the system so they're easier to track. Also, if you don't submit the resume yourself, the recruiter may enter it on your behalf and skip over information you'd like included.
  • Some organizations have positions that they are always recruiting for, such as roles that tend to have high turnover. These positions, referred to as evergreen, may always appear on the organizations' websites, even when candidates have been hired.
  • Finally, remember your username and password so you can log in to update your resume or profile or apply for another position.

The future of applicant tracking systems

Applicant tracking systems have come a long way in the past 10 years. Once used primarily to simplify the most routine tasks, today they can host video interviews, parse candidate resumes and more.

The future of applicant tracking systems will most likely bring a refinement of the functions they already provide. Examples include a continued focus on usability, out-of-the-box integrations with additional HR systems and improvements to the AI capabilities. It is also expected that vendors will keep looking for opportunities to simplify the end-to-end process for recruiters. With some job postings attracting hundreds of applicants, anything that can be done to make the recruiter's job of reviewing applications, communicating with candidates and working with hiring managers simpler should pay big dividends.

This was last updated in July 2022

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