What is an Applicant tracking system (ATS)?


An Applicant tracking system is a software application used during the recruitment process to determine which candidate is the best fit for a position.  

An applicant tracking system (ATS) is a type of software application used during the recruitment process. This software is responsible for determining which candidate is the best fit for a position by sorting through and assessing candidates’ responses to pre-screening questions, their CV’s ranking against the job description, keyword searches and more.

History of applicant tracking systems

Applicant tracking systems were originally used as a system of compliance and as a method of record keeping for companies. By keeping track of various factors such as race, gender and age, applicant tracking systems ensured that discrimination was not taking place and helped companies prove that they were equal opportunity employers.

As the system kept a record of everyone who had applied and could be used to manage candidate contacts and schedule interviews, applicant tracking systems quickly became the preferred method of record keeping for many companies. Some of the early systems also had the ability to perform keyword searches. At that time, however, the matching technology was in its earliest stages and had trouble with certain file types and formats. PDFs, for example, proved difficult for many of the systems as they didn’t know how to open the file.

Today, 75% of US employers – and 99% of Fortune 500 Companies – use applicant tracking systems to streamline their hiring process. While applicant tracking systems were first used by large corporations that receive thousands of applications, smaller corporations have started using them just as frequently.

Recent trends in applicant tracking systems

Optimising your CV for applicant tracking systems

As more companies implement applicant tracking systems, it’s becoming increasingly important for candidates to tailor their CV to each application by using the terms, phrases and keywords used in the job description. This is because applicant tracking systems rank candidates higher in the search results if their CV contains the keywords that the employer wants.

Keyword packing

The more overlap between a candidate’s CV and the job description, the more likely that candidate is to get past the applicant tracking system and reach the hiring manager. Therefore, it’s become common practice to pack in words that are characteristic of the role you’re applying for – a process that is now known as ‘keyword packing’.

Even though matching technologies have improved, applicant tracking systems are not yet able to infer that you have certain skills unless you explicitly state them. Therefore, candidates should be sure to include the more obvious skills like proficiency in Word or Excel in addition to the skills relevant to the job posting.

It’s important, however, that candidates avoid ‘keyword stuffing’. Keyword stuffing occurs when candidates overload their CV with keywords with the intent of tricking the applicant tracking system and raising their ranking. While keyword stuffing may get a candidate past the applicant tracking system, their CV will then be passed on to a human recruiter. If it reads like it’s been created for a search engine, the recruiter will have a bad user experience and is less likely to proceed with that application. Therefore, candidates must use keywords strategically and ensure that that their document maintains a natural reading flow.

Artificial intelligence and other online tools

There are many tools candidates can use to find relevant keywords – the most obvious being the job description itself. The company’s website and other communication channels, including social media accounts, can also be a valuable resource for finding keywords. If current employees of the company have LinkedIn profiles, candidates can use those accounts to see if they have similar qualifications and to check for commonly used words and phrases.

Artificial intelligence (AI) programmes, such as ChatGPT and other AI-powered CV builders, have added some ease to this process as well. By inputting a simple prompt, candidates can have AI programmes write the sections of their CV with the relevant keywords and in a consistent tone of voice.

CRM-powered applicant tracking systems

While applicant tracking systems were first used for compliance, filtering and searching, they’re now being used to identify passive talent through candidate relationship management (CRM) technology. This technology tracks everything from how many times an individual has visited the company’s website, read the company’s blog posts or how many jobs they’ve applied to at that company.

The benefit of CRM-powered applicant tracking systems is that candidates can increase their chances of being hired by engaging with companies online through their Facebook, LinkedIn and other social media sites. If candidates show interest in an employer and do so through the company’s communication channels, it’s possible that the company may reach out to the candidate on their own fruition, or use targeted advertising, as a result of the candidate’s online activity.

Advantages of applicant tracking systems

While human recruiters often look for grounds for immediate rejection, such as spelling errors or a lack of experience, applicant tracking systems focus on the skills that candidates do have. This allows for some element of human error and gives candidates, especially those fresh out of university with limited experience, a greater chance of getting the job through keyword packing.

The search function of applicant tracking systems allows employers to scan their entire database for specific qualifications and skills. This means that candidates who applied for similar positions in the past or for different roles can be identified as a match so long as they have the relevant skills and experience – giving those individuals a new and exciting opportunity.

Lastly, applicant tracking systems help ensure that employers adhere to equal opportunity hiring by removing the human element – and the potential for unconscious bias – from the hiring process.

Disadvantages of applicant tracking systems

While technology has made it easier for people to apply to jobs, it’s also made it easier for candidates to be rejected as well. According to recent data, application tracking systems now reject up to 75% of CVs before they get to a company’s hiring manager – which has resulted in missed talent pools, more skills gaps and a lack of diversity.

While applicant tracking systems help ensure equal opportunity hiring, they don’t necessarily guarantee that equity is being considered. For example, some systems automatically reject candidates that have gaps of 6+ months on their CV – without giving them the chance to explain their absence or provide evidence as to why they needed to take time away from work. With these systems in place, candidates are not able to explain how certain factors, socio-economic or otherwise, may have had an impact on the level of experience they’ve been able to achieve.

Use case

DevScore is a low code automation service that enables non-tech recruiters, hiring managers and HR professionals to assess and acquire software development talent. Through its CRM-powered applicant tracking system technology, DevScore seeks out potential candidates’ online activity to accurately assess and validate a candidate’s skills and experience. One way that DevScore achieves this is by analysing the GitHub accounts of tech candidates and creating a score based on how many comments the candidate received on their code and how well it is structured – which illustrates how a candidate’s online activity can positively impact their chances of being hired.