Breaching the ATS Sentries

By David Smith

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OK, ATS [Applicant Tracking System] has been around for a while now, and to say that there is a plethora of advice and guidance on how to sneak your CV past their watchful eye and into the non-digital hands of a real-live human recruiter is probably a slight understatement, but I would like to share my positive experience as a CV Writer and Job Search coach.

I’ve had pretty good success at helping people avoid the cold rejection messages issued by ATS robots, so here is the information that I have found helps out.

This advice is based on the utilisation of ATS technology that matches CVs to job descriptions in a live application, rather than technology that recruiters use to search for candidates based on the CV that they have already uploaded to various recruitment sites.

Just before I begin though, you should be aware that ATS scores an application based on several factors, it doesn’t merely issue a zero or a one based on one element of your application. The thing is, you need a score of at least 75% match, 80-85% to be reasonably sure of being shortlisted.



You didn’t think we were going to get through this post without mentioning key-words did you? Really, key-words are perhaps the best way to get your CV to match a posted job description. These key-words would predominantly be based on experience that you bring to the table – in old JobCentre speak, these would be knock-out factors, which, to give you an example of this, a vacancy may ask for ‘experience of managing payroll for over 50 personnel’ – easily checked with a candidate face-to-face. That is much too specific for ATS though, so the key-word may simply be ‘payroll’.

Skills are important too, so you might find that you need to include key-words ‘Sage’, ‘Microsoft Excel’ or ‘Administration’ in an application for the above example.

The trouble is….these robots can be extremely pedantic, so it is not enough to use derivatives, you need to match the word exactly…I know, right? So, you need to be very specific. If the job description asks for ‘Sage 50’ or ‘Administrative’ [as opposed to ‘administration’] then you’d better toe the line, or risk losing points.

Conversely, if the ad asks for ‘MS Office’ – even though it hurts you to use an abbreviation in your CV – you have to comply and convert ‘Microsoft Office Suite 2016’ to ‘MS Office’.

Feel free to say ‘Darn robots…’ under your breath, they can’t hear you…I don’t think!

A Job Title Match

Many generations ago, you may see a heading on a CV – ‘Career Objective’ - which was usually a paragraph outlining your job goal, along with perhaps a little information on your current trajectory, professional goals including future learning and development you intend to undertake.

You won’t see this much nowadays, but you should always make clear in your CV what your job goal is, if you are applying for an ‘HR Business Partner’ role, then you had better have the phrase ‘HR Business Partner’ somewhere in your CV, usually in your opening salvo.

Education or Qualifications


Without sounding too obvious – if a job description asks for an HND in Engineering, then the sweep of your CV that ATS performs should reveal exactly that – even if you have a qualification that supersedes the one asked for, you need to make a reference to the lower one.

That’s pretty much it for this section, but just to remind you…..whereas a recruiter will be able to read between the lines, especially if he or she has a good knowledge of your industry – a robot will not be able to do that….not yet anyway!!

CV Word Count

This is perhaps the toughest aspect of ATS requirements – what is the word count requirement? It varies from location to location. For example, in the United States, it seems that brevity is valued, whereas in Australia, it is fine if you ‘go on a bit’ – the UK is somewhere in between.

You have all heard the debate on CV length – two pages, one page, four pages – it is a bit of a mystery. My best advice is that in most cases, if you stick to two pages with a reasonable sized font and include a reasonable amount of white space [you know what I am trying to say here – don’t squish 2000 words onto two pages] you shouldn’t be too far out.

Of all the factors that determines the quality of your CV, this one is the one I would sacrifice in order to ensure your CV is literally bursting with excellent content! That is all….

Measurable Results


This might sound cold, but an employer is most interested in what your input will do for either the bottom line, the amount of waste that can be cut, the amount of time that can be slashed from certain processes, the impact you can have on quality or repeat business [feel free to insert how awesome you are].

How well you will fit in is important, but perhaps placed in a secondary tier, depending on the business you are approaching of course, I would hate to tar all businesses with the same brush!

So, what is ATS looking for?

Percentages, cash amounts, time units, units of productivity, that sort of thing!

“Increased production by 37% with a 15% reduction in waste material and a saving of 8 minutes per process over a six-month period”

OK, that is a perfect storm of Lean implementation, but ATS would like to see five or more measurable results in your CV in order to score maximum brownie points on this category.

CV Stock Phraseology and Corporate Boloney

Are you a ‘Hard Working Team Player’? How about a ‘Results Oriented Problem Solver’?

To be honest, telling someone you are hard working is like saying ‘I’ll be at work on time…’ Hard working is not an attribute, it is a basic requirement, and instead of saying you are results-oriented, why not tell the reader about some of your results [see Measurable Results].

Either way, these terms could be flagged as negative and lose you points.

Similarly, using corporate gobble-de-gook, or meaningless, overused terminology in your CV can be just as bad – you should be aiming to quantify yourself rather than using wishy-washy terms such as ‘outside the box’, ‘Ninja’, ‘Jedi’ and all other such unrealistic descriptions of oneself.

If you do think outside the box, come up with a different term!!!

There is obviously an awful lot to this technology, and I don’t pretend to know everything, but if you are stuck with any element of it – get in touch!!

I hope that this was useful!

Twitter: @Careervisa


Email: [email protected]

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