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How to Use Keywords to Navigate Applicant Tracking Systems

Applicant Tracking Systems

Applicant Tracking Systems If you’re looking for employment, you’ve probably lost count of the number of online job postings you’ve answered. When you apply to an online posting, you may receive an email from the company acknowledging the receipt of your resume and noting that the document is currently under review. And then . . . crickets.


Weeks (and possibly months) pass without any additional contact from the company or hiring manager.

To understand this unfortunate, all-too-common issue with online applications, it’s important to consider how companies evaluate the resumes that applicants submit online. Does the image of an overworked hiring manager come to mind, anxiously sifting through emails and reviewing thousands upon thousands of resumes?

That image is partly correct.

Yes, the volume of resumes that companies receive in response to a single job posting is often overwhelming. And though it is true that finding the ideal candidate for a job is very strenuous, hiring managers use specific tools to make the recruitment process more efficient.

One of these tools is the applicant tracking system. If you’re not receiving responses from companies when you submit your resume online, then an applicant tracking system may be the culprit.

These systems automatically screen resumes well before they hit the hiring manager’s desk (or inbox, as the case may be). Applicant tracking systems identify the most suitable candidates and discard the resumes of those whom these systems classify as underqualified.

By eliminating the resumes of unqualified candidates, applicant tracking systems reduce the number of resumes that hiring managers have to review.

Keywords and Applicant Tracking Systems

An applicant tracking system determines the degree to which the information in an applicant’s resume matches the requirements outlined in the job description. The factors that these systems consider include occupational skills, employment history, past employers, and educational background.

The system then assigns a score to each applicant. These scores are used to determine which applicants will move on to the next round of hiring and, subsequently, which resumes the hiring manager will actually see. So, this basically means that your application may be eliminated from the pool of qualified candidates before it ever is reviewed by human eyes.

On top of that, these systems are not perfect and occasionally disqualify candidates who are actually ideal for the position.

Don’t lose hope!

Although these systems are growing more and more sophisticated (and sometimes cost companies millions of dollars), there are also many helpful techniques that job seekers can use to ensure their resumes get past the seemingly insurmountable barrier of applicant tracking systems.

Given that applicant tracking systems scan resumes for information related to the job posting, applicants must also learn to optimize their use of keywords within their resumes.

Keywords (in the context of applicant tracking systems) represent the primary job responsibilities and professional skills that are required for a position (e.g., “customer service,” “analytical skills,” or “strategic management”), as well as the appropriate employment history, years of experience, and education.

Applicant tracking systems use keywords to form a link between a candidate’s qualifications and the requirements outlined in the job description.

To identify the keywords you must use in your resume, your first step is to look to the job posting itself. The most relevant keywords will be the terms and phrases that are repeated throughout the description. The name of the position itself is a great indicator of the possible keywords that should be used (e.g., if you are applying for a position as a financial analyst, then these two terms should be considered relevant keywords).

Keywords can also be unique to certain fields. For example, in the case of information technology, a keyword may include the names of specific programming languages.

In some fields, certain acronyms are very common (such as “CPA,” which stands for “certified public accountant”). A great trick is to use both the spelled-out version of the term and the acronym itself. The hiring manager may have programmed the applicant tracking system to scan resumes for the acronym or the complete term. By using both, you can rest assured that you’ve got yourself covered.

However, a simple laundry list of keywords won’t cut it. When assigning a score to a resume, applicant tracking systems place more weight on keywords that are contextualized and are used in conjunction with other related terms.

And, yes, while you should use keywords in your resume, do not overload your resume with them. Try to ensure that the placement of keywords is appropriate and natural. Finally, remember: an applicant tracking system will not be able to process a keyword if it is misspelled, so always double-check that your spelling is correct.


Although issues such as formatting also play a big part in overcoming applicant tracking systems, you’re now a master of one step of the process: using keywords to help get your resume to the hiring manager’s desk.

To ensure that your resume continues performing once it’s there, check out Inklyo’s online course on resume writing, a research-backed and up-to-date guide for writing a resume, which includes resume examples, ready-to-use resume templates, and more.

How to Write a Resume

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