Navigating the Applicant Tracking System | Foundation 4 – Lesson 6

Go back to Job Search Prep Syllabus.

I don’t want to have to teach you this lesson, and you probably aren’t going to enjoy it very much, but until companies stop using crappy Applicant Tracking Systems (ATSs) this will be necessary.

Let’s start off with the basics. What’s an ATS? It’s a piece of software that companies use to monitor their recruitment function. Basically it acts as a repository for all of the data related to the hiring process. This isn’t the part of the system that job seekers run into problems with, though.

Our problem is with the front-end of the Applicant Tracking System – the part where you enter your data into the system. The front-end of an Applicant Tracking System typically includes everything from job listings to resume submission. So, while a smaller company without an ATS might just post some text on their website about job openings and an e-mail address that you can apply to, a company with an ATS has a clunky web interface that they have to use to post all of their jobs and accept all applications.

The problem with teaching a lesson like this is that every ATS has its own quirks. To make matters worse, many ATS vendors have a range of product offerings. That leads us to…

Problems with ATSs

Before we figure out how to make the most of our experiences with ATSs, we should first understand the problems that often plague them.


I wish that we could profile every ATS in this lesson and tell you how to use them, but that alone would take months of research. Even if you think that you’ve seen an ATS before, there’s a good chance that it’s set up slightly differently than it was last time you used it.


Many ATSs display content in frames. That means that the web address that you’re looking at isn’t actually where the job is posted. When you bookmark the page, you’re not actually bookmarking the job. Frames can also lead to other usability frustrations, but bookmarking problems are the biggest one.

Dynamic URLs

Many ATSs create a new page every time that you make a request to their server. These dynamically created pages have custom URLs that only work during your “session” on the website. Once you leave, that URL won’t work anymore. Once again, bookmarking a job won’t work.

Limited Search Functionality

Almost every ATS has some sort of search functionality. It’s usually extremely basic and doesn’t work very well. For instance, a search for “internships” will show completely different results than a search for “interns.” Sometimes they won’t even get plurals right, so “intern” and “interns” will deliver different results. You almost need to be a clairvoyant to know what to search for.

Search Engine Unfriendliness

The typical answer to the previous problem would be to use Google to search the ATS. That often doesn’t work because ATS vendors either have URLs that Google’s indexing bot can’t follow, or they intentionally restrict Google’s access to the job postings (only God knows why). This means that any jobs posted on an ATS that is not search engine friendly will not show up in Google at all.

Terrible Interfaces

Most ATSs are horrifically ugly. They also aren’t built with an eye towards usability, which means that finding your way around can be extremely difficult. There’s nothing intuitive about them.

Poor Site Architecture

This kind of goes with the above point. Many ATSs require you to click through multiple pages to find what you’re looking for. I’ve been on sites that require 8 clicks to get from the home page to a job posting. That leaves a lot of potential to get lost.

On Another Domain

Many ATS providers host the sites that they run or companies on their own servers. It can be confusing when you go from to to It makes you feel like you may no longer be giving the right people your personal information.

Back Button Doesn’t Work

Some ATSs have “functionality” that conflicts with proper use of the back button. If you make a misstep in your application, it’s hard to know whether clicking the back button will necessitate your starting over from square one.

Registration Required

Do you really need an account with a company’s jobs site to apply for a job? Many ATS providers seem to think so.

Inability to Save an Application

Let’s say that you’re halfway through the application process. The phone rings and you have to run out of the house. Is there a way to save your application where it is? If not, can you be sure that leaving your browser window open will preserve your current spot in the process?

Other Snafus

Sometimes ATSs just act weird. That’s not a good thing when they’re meant to control a process that may require a significant time investment – like a job application.

Rigid Format

Since recruiters are forced to use an ATS, they often conform their job postings to the format set by the ATS vendor. This tends to make all job postings look the same.

No Contact Information

Because the ATS is supposed to handle the entire recruiting process, companies often forget to make it easy to contact someone with a question about a job.

Keyword Scanning

Some ATS back-ends parse resumes and scan them for keywords. If you don’t have the right keywords, you don’t make the cut.

Lack of Flexibility

Have a beautifully formatted resume? Too bad, copy and paste it into the tiny box. Want to include a portfolio? No dice, attachments aren’t accepted. ATSs limit you in how you can present your image to the employer.

Tips for Navigating the ATS

Ok, I’ve just ripped on ATSs, and I don’t feel bad about it at all. I hate these pieces of software with a passion, and I bet you do too. Since many employers seem hell-bent on having the ATS define job seekers’ images, let’s try to figure out what we can do to make the most of the ATS experience.

Always Assume the Worst

Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong will go wrong. If you expect the ATS to fail you and act accordingly, you’ll protect yourself from losing any progress that you may have made. You also might end up pleasantly surprised when nothing goes wrong.

Problem Solve

Use common sense and your problem solving abilities to figure out the ATS that you’re working with. You’re smart. Don’t let your anxiety over your job search affect you.

Open Each Link in a New Tab/Window

This is a nice trick that will limit how far back you have to go if you make a mistake. Unfortunately, this trick won’t work with all ATSs. Some will lose functionality when you do this, and others won’t even let you do it.

Type Everything into Word

Instead of typing straight into the text boxes, use a desktop application so that you can save your work. That way when something goes wrong, you can just copy and paste your info back into the boxes. Be sure to save the document even after you’ve applied. You might need it again.

Don’t Get Frustrated

I understand how frustrating ATSs are. I really do, but if you let yourself get frustrated, it will show in your application. Try to work with the technology, and understand that the people that you will be dealing with at the company probably dislike the ATS too. In other words, deal with it.

Step Around the ATS

This is the best tip, but it’s also the hardest to do. We’ve talked about inserting yourself into the hiring process before the job gets posted. That’s one way to do it. Another way is to use networking to your advantage. Some companies won’t let this fly, others will. It can’t hurt to try. At the very least, you want to do something noteworthy that makes the Recruiter or Hiring Manager go into the ATS to check out your application and give it priority. That requires communication with real people beyond what you can do through a resume submission box.


Yes, Applicant Tracking Systems suck. No, I don’t understand why companies continue to use terrible software. Yes, sometimes the ATS is an abyss in which your resume disappears. Lack of usability in ATSs is a problem that is plaguing HR and it’s slowly getting better. I’ve done my best to identify problems and solutions, but there are just too many different ATSs out there to offer good, general advice.

That’s why this lesson’s homework is to bring me your ATS problems. I’ll do my best to diagnose them and give you a plan of action to make the most of your ATS experience (or step around it). I guess I’m the one who has homework for this lesson…

Oh yeah, and if you have anything to add to either of the lists, please do so by leaving a comment.

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3 responses to “Navigating the Applicant Tracking System | Foundation 4 – Lesson 6”

  1. sia says:

    Are you going to comment on things you can do after you tackle the ATS such as you can also drop your resume off to a company in person. This is not instead of but in addition to…

    • Jason Seiden says:

      Sia, I charge BIG MONEY for insights like that ! ;) Just kidding. Great suggestion, thank you. As we review the content, we’ll definitely consider building that into the module itself…

  2. Pigbiting mad says:

    I must have filled out 150 of these applications. Since I have gotten absolutely nowhere, I refuse to ever do one again. It’s just too much work for a zero percent response rate.

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