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September 1, 2020

Apply Online Successfully: Learn About Applicant Tracking Systems

By Megan Pritchett, Career Advisor
Reprinted from University of Denver Career & Professional Development Blog

Have you ever wondered what happens when you apply to jobs online? Does it feel like your resume falls into a black hole, never to return? Have you submitted lots of applications online with no responses? Keep reading to learn more about applicant tracking systems!

What are applicant tracking systems (ATS)?

When you apply for jobs or internships online, your resume and application information are often filtered through an applicant tracking system, or ATS. ATS systems are simply a software tool for recruiters and hiring teams to manage the recruitment and applicant process. There are many different kinds of ATS software systems, each with different features and uses. To watch a pre-recorded webinar on ATS, click here!

How do ATS work?

One of the most important things to know about applicant tracking systems is that they primarily use keyword searches to sort applicants. Let’s say that a recruiter has 100 applicants for an open position, and they want to conduct phone interviews with 20 of those applicants. They may use their ATS to enter certain criteria to first screen out unqualified applicants.

Importance of Keywords

The most important thing to do when preparing your resume and application to go through an ATS is to incorporate keywords directly from the job description. You will need to customize every resume you submit. For example, if a job description lists “Word, Excel, PowerPoint” as skills they’re looking for, the ATS may not translate “Microsoft Office” on your resume as meeting that requirement.

It takes time to incorporate keywords into your resume, and it can be tempting to not customize it or take shortcuts. However, don’t “keyword stuff” your resume or try to be tricky and hide keywords in your resume (ATS scan for this).

How can I know if I’m applying through an ATS?

One way to identify if you’re applying through an ATS system is through the website URL, or the link you’re applying through. Common ATS systems are Taleo, BambooHR, Jobvite, Brassring, Greenhouse, and iCIMS. If you see these names in the website link, you’re applying through an ATS!

If you are applying for a job using fillable forms or through the “Easy Apply” function on LinkedIn, then you are applying through an ATS.

If you are asked to submit your resume via email (for example, email your application to Jane Smith at it is likely that your application will not be submitted through an ATS. However, even if you have a referral at a company, you may still have to submit a formal application and your referral or company connection will be noted on your application profile.

Formatting Resumes for ATS

As ATS scan your resume, it’s important to make sure that the formatting makes it as easy as possible for the ATS to read the information correctly. Here are a few top formatting tips for ATS:


  • Build your resume using Microsoft Word or Google Sheets
  • Submit resumes as either .pdf or .docx format
  • Incorporate keywords from the job description
  • Use standard bullet points and standard fonts available on any computer
  • Have a professional file name


  • Use resume templates with lots of icons, graphics, and layers of formatting
  • Use text boxes or charts
  • Use abbreviations or acronyms

Cover Letters and ATS

Although every ATS system is different, some systems do scan your cover letter as a part of your application. While it can’t be promised that your resume will be read or scanned, it’s important to submit a cover letter even when it’s optional. It’s your chance to demonstrate to the company or organization that you’ve done your research and have the skills that they’re looking for.

Additional ATS Resources

Want to learn more about ATS? Click here to watch a recording of the Beat the Resume Robots webinar (May 2020):

Megan Pritchett is a career advisor at the University of Denver through the Career and Professional Development Office. Students can make an appointment to meet one-on-one with Megan by emailing or calling 303-871-2150.

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