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Tips for Using an Applicant Tracking System


When applying for a job, you are often asked to submit your information (resume, credentials, etc.,) into an online application system. Called an "Applicant Tracking System" an ATS is a centralized database where employers collect and manage the entire hiring process for candidates, and serves as a legal mechanism for Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) data. Some ATSs are highly customized to suit a company's specific branding and workflow, others are more generic. Regardless of how they look, an ATS helps the human resources team manage and measure hiring metrics such as the number of resumes received, how many resumes are forwarded on to hiring managers, how many resumes turn into interviews, how long each open job takes to fill, what source data led to the hiring, and so on. This information ensures the company meets business and hiring goals, and maintains a diverse slate of candidates.

I spoke with a corporate recruiter for a global finance firm who listed five tips for veteran job candidates applying through an ATS:

  1. Check if you can attach your resume in PDF format. This is always preferred as it keeps formatting in place, regardless of which program was used to produce it (e.g. Word, Pages). Always check the PDF to be sure formatting stays consistent with what you see on your screen – perhaps you could send it to a friend to confirm that what you see is what they see. If the ATS insists you attach a Word doc, send it to yourself first, to remove phantom pages at the end and correct any misaligned paragraphs.
  2. Proofread your submission many times. This can't be stated often enough. Spell check and grammar check your PDF and each area of your submission carefully. While timeliness is important in getting your information reviewed, errors are not acceptable, so budget time to proofread and submit.
  3. Many ATSs ask for both a "cut and pasted" resume and a resume attached to the submission. Even though not required to do both, if you have the option, do it. Each version serves different purposes: The cut and pasted version of your resume allows the recruiter to search your resume in the database using targeted keywords, and to review resumes submitted for a specific job. However, the recruiter also needs a clean, PDF version, of your resume if you're selected to interview. The recruiter will refer your PDF version to the hiring manager for review, and they appreciate a version that's formatted nicely.
  4. Use the job description to find keywords. Recruiters put keywords into job descriptions to make it easier to search, and to match candidates. If you are applying through an ATS for a specific job, your resume should have keywords that match the requirements specified in the job description. This will make the job of the recruiter so much easier! Also, don't just apply for every job opening the company posts, without customizing your submission. Recruiters can see if you send your resume in for jobs you are not qualified for, or which are outside of your career path.
  5. Similar to number 4, be sure you don't submit the same cover letter for every job. The recruiter will want to send your information on to the appropriate hiring manager or internal manager, and a poorly written, or "templated," cover letter can damage your chances of getting an interview. Hiring managers may eliminate candidates based on what the cover letter says.

When applying through an ATS, remember that the rules for quality, relevancy, and personal branding still apply, even though you are applying through a computer.

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Lida Citroën, a branding expert based in Denver, has made a career of helping people and companies create new or enhanced identities. She is passionate about helping veterans learn how to compete for careers in the civilian sector. A TEDx Speaker, Lida presents her unique personal branding training programs across the U.S., at military installations and events, serves on the Board of Directors of NAVSO  volunteers with ESGR, and has produced numerous programs and materials to help military veterans successfully transition after service. If you have a transition question Lida can help answer, email her at She is also the author of the best selling book, "Your Next Mission: A personal branding guide for the military-to-civilian transition," available at and on Amazon.