ATS Myths |

This is a speech synthesized article about how applicant tracking systems work and some of the myths associated with them


Applicant tracking systems (ATS) are the villain in the story of hiring today. But do they deserve that distinction? The role of ATS in hiring is complex. Let’s dig into the numbers we hear, the existing research, the implications for job seekers, and why formatting is essential for and beyond ATS.

Is “ATS Reject More Than 70% of Resumes” True?

This statement originates from a 2012 sales pitch made by a company selling services to job seekers. As the company no longer exists, the original article no longer exists, and it is unclear if there was research behind the claim. If you’re curious to read the entire back story, this article outlines it in detail.

In short, there is not any credible data to support this point.

Recruiters have indicated that talk of automated rejection is overblown as this, this, and this article discusses how recruiters review EVERY resume.

There are a few other reasons for career services providers to stop using this data point.

Beating The Applicant Tracking System

First, this statement typically insinuates formatting is to blame for automatic rejections. This creates an unhelpful scapegoat for candidates and contradicts the existing data showing candidates are likely to score low or be filtered out because they do not appear to meet the qualifications, not because of formatting.

Second, career services providers, especially professional resume writers, offer more value to clients than an “ATS-friendly resume.” Using this as a crutch to sell services undermines that value.

An ATS-friendly format means nothing for the candidate’s ability to score highly if the text doesn’t demonstrate their qualifications.

Join me in not continuing the automated rejection myth, and let’s dive into data we can trust.

Before we continue, there are a few elements that make this conversation complex and often contribute to conflicting advice:

The ATS market includes 200+ systems, and companies customize them to meet their needs. It isn’t that formatting elements “do or don’t work in ATS.” The format conversation (which isn’t the main story) is what will “likely work in most systems, likely not work in most systems, or isn’t worth the risk.”

There are elements an ATS may not “score” or “read,” but that doesn’t mean they prevent other text from being scored and therefore can’t be used (like graphics, which we’ll discuss more below). Although graphics may impact scoring in some systems, there are ways to include visual elements in a document that will work in most ATS.


If It’s Not ATS, Why Don’t Your Clients Hear Back?

Unfortunately, articles about the recent Hidden Workers study by Harvard Business School (HBS) focused on ATS. It includes rich data about how companies hire and what applicants can do to close the gap. We’ll dive into that in a future Careers By The Numbers. The data did include a few key points about how companies judge applications.

The report shared that more than 90% of companies use technology to rank and filter candidates (note: this is not the same as automatic rejection!).

The study also found that technology screens out qualified applicants in 88% of companies because they don’t match the search terms. Many popular media articles picked up on that point and blamed technology for candidates not being hired.

With 21% of recruiters citing a challenge of “too many applicants” for each position in Jobvite’s 2021 Recruiter Nation, screening out qualified people doesn’t necessarily pose a problem for the company. Most companies are still finding and hiring qualified candidates (although they will have to adjust as talent shortages continue). This process does pose a problem today for a candidate who does not align their resumes to their targeted roles.

However, this is not only about matching key terms. The HBS study found that more than 50% of companies screened out applicants because they had a gap of 6+ months on their resume, not because of skills match. Career services providers need to understand how to minimize gaps on resumes (see the last issue of Careers By The Numbers for data on gaps).

You may have read career colleagues discouraging candidates from “targeting” their resumes – the process of making sure they use the right keywords to align with each position for which they apply.

Reverse Engineering the ATS for Results

They suggest candidates start with a clear focus so they don’t have to target each resume.

They do have a point. Starting with a clear focus is essential for many reasons.

1) Analyze job descriptions. Find a few detailed descriptions and find themes for the top skill sets and specific keywords to include.

2) Mine the candidate experience for relevant stories. Resumes must share the required skills in context – preferably in accomplishment statements. As more scoring systems use artificial intelligence, skills in lists will have less impact on a resume’s score.

3) Align resume verbiage to the employer’s language. Although we can do this on the foundational resume to minimize targeting activity, it is best to quickly scan a resume and make sure key terms match the job description if you are applying online. (Applying online is the least effective job search strategy, but that’s a conversation for another newsletter).

Let’s not confuse candidates by splitting hairs and telling them not to target their resumes. This is a “both/and” situation. Yes, we need to start with a clear focus, and we also need to evaluate each application before submitting it to make quick alignments in language. If this takes significant time for each resume, go back and clarify the job target.

The bottom line?

Most candidates are eliminated from the hiring process because they do not clearly meet requirements (especially years of experience), have a gap on their resume, do not follow directions, or incorrectly answer a “knock-out question,” not because of formatting.

Although Content is Paramount, Formatting Matters

Formatting is essential for a human reader and to maximize a candidate’s score when companies use resume scoring.

Recent Jobvite data shows that format is more important to recruiters today than in previous years. With ever-growing applicant numbers and an understanding that many recruiters look at every resume, the emphasis on format makes sense. Recruiters need a resume that is easy to skim and quickly find critical information.

Neuroscience would suggest that formatting has always had an impact. The human brain is wired to look for shortcuts and find patterns that make information easier to digest. Visuals are often that shortcut. They are “read” faster and first and remembered longer.

These patterns include the F-shaped, layer-cake, bypassing, and spotting in reading. By understanding how the eye skims and reads a document, and especially a resume, we can use formatting elements that draw the eye to the most relevant and impressive details in a resume.

The arguments against graphics usually start with, “but ATS!” Remember: although an ATS does not read the visual, it likely does not prevent an ATS from reading and scoring the text. Use graphics to illustrate the text, not replace it.

Build your resume in Word (yes, you can create a graphic resume in Word) and then save it in PDF if the system says it accepts PDF (some still do not!). Many ATS are less likely to score graphic resumes created in other programs, even when saved in PDF. (I do not have data to support this, just the experience of colleagues who experiment with the technology).

Optimizing Your Resume for the ATS

The second argument against visuals is that “recruiters don’t like them.” First, recruiters are human. Although many are brilliant, they are not above neuroscience. While it is crucial to understand the audience and company culture, a well-placed, meaningful graphic will capture any human’s attention.

If it is relevant and tells a story, it will likely have a positive impact. If the visual doesn’t add value, is hard to read, or portrays ill-selected or confidential information, it might have a negative effect.

Resume format matters. It is a strategic tool to highlight relevant information for readers and make sure they see the content that qualifies the candidate for the role. Considering what will likely work in an ATS is essential, and stripping all formatting is unnecessary. When a candidate doesn’t use formatting to facilitate reading for a human, they miss out on the opportunity to quickly capture attention and stand out visually.

Resume content matters more. Crafting differentiating content that demonstrates the candidate meets requirements is where career services professionals add value. Most candidates struggle to capture the most relevant information and communicate it in the employer’s language. This is even more true for candidates making a career transition – an increasing population during the Great Shift.

The power of the resume writing process is not an ATS-friendly resume or even the end product of the resume alone.

Resume preparation clarifies focus, mines for relevant stories, and translates accomplishments into the employer’s language. It serves as the foundation for a successful job search.

Salary Negotiations. Negotiating the Package.


Jeff AltmanJeff Altman, The Big Game Hunter is a coach who worked as a recruiter for what seems like one hundred years. He is hired to provide No BS Career Advice globally. That can involve job search, hiring staff, management, leadership, career transition and advice about resolving workplace issues. Schedule a discovery call at my website,

He is the host of “No BS Job Search Advice Radio,” the #1 podcast in iTunes for job search with over 2500 episodes.

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