Understanding How The ATS Reads And Interacts With YOUR Resume

Kristen M Fife
7 min readMar 23, 2021

OK, there is so much misinformation from “professional resume writers” that have absolutely NO idea what they are talking about because they have NEVER used an Applicant Tracking System (ATS) in their lives other than to apply to a job.

So I am going to dig into the technology and terminology when it comes to applicants, jobs, and getting from point A to point Z from the applicant perspective. Let’s start with the basics: an ATS is a DATABASE, specifically what is called a “relational database” which means there are multiple ways information can be viewed easily. There are basically three “end users” for an ATS: the candidate, the recruiter/HR, and the Hiring Manager/team. An ATS is built mainly for recruiters to manage the hiring process, and every country has different laws about how information is handled. I’m in the US so I’m going to focus my explanations there.

I’ve written several articles on how I use the ATS, what does/not go into the actual process and the history of resumes. But for emphasis, I am going to repeat a couple of things.

Knockout Questions, “BOTS”, automation, and your application

  1. There is NO “bot” making actual “decisions” about whether or not a resume is available for a recruiter to see. EVERY APPLICANT ON EVERY ROLE IS 100% VISIBLE TO THE RECRUITER. The term “bot” refers to a CHATBOT, which is a relatively rare feature that some ATS creators or independent tech companies offer which can be enabled (aka “turned on”). It is used in conjunction with another option called “knock out questions”. “Knock out questions” are enabled (“turned on”) by someone in recruiting, and I guarantee you the recruiter is AWARE if this feature is enabled on the jobs they are recruiting for. Once you start the formal application process, these are a set of questions related to the job (not the federally mandated diversity/veteran status questions). They are YES or NO questions, generally covering specific requirements. Are you over 18? Are you legally authorized to work in this country for any employer? Will you ever require sponsorship to work in this country? (These are the basics that EVERY job application usually includes.) There are *additional* questions that can be enabled that are specific to the job. Do you possess a college degree? Do you have 3 years of professional experience doing XYZ? Are you certified as an ABC? If you were applying for a delivery driver job, you would see “Do you have a valid driver’s license?” THESE are knockout questions.
  2. IF a chatbot is enabled, then these questions may be asked as an IM (thus the “chat” portion of the name). Rather than just clicking on a bunch of radio buttons, the process is interactive. There are required answers (yes or no). If the answer is required to be “yes” and you answer “no”, you are “knocked out”. The IM session will end, or you will receive an automatic rejection notice in email for radio button questions. I have seen at least one ATS demo that allows the recruiter to schedule decline emails so a candidate doesn’t feel like they are going into a proverbial “black hole”.

This option and an email confirming your application for a specific role are the ONLY “automated” functions that do not include a recruiter “pushing a button” at this stage. Your application is still part of the record for the specific position, and the recruiter can STILL SEE IT. It doesn’t get pushed off into some nether region of the database. This is a LEGAL REQUIREMENT.

So what actually happens when I upload my resume?

When you find a job you are interested in and believe you are qualified for (or you are just peppering employers with your resume), then generally after you create a profile, you upload your resume as part of the application process. This is where a lot of confusion comes in from people who aren’t actually TRAINED to use an ATS day in and day out.

MOST ATS’ either attach your actual resume to your application, or they take the equivalent of a screen shot of it. It becomes an attachment that is part of your profile. Some systems can only attach specific document types, usually Word, .txt, or .PDF due to the type of technology used — usually that will be indicated somewhere on the job application/posting/website.

A significant number of them will also scan (also known as PARSING) the document for two reasons. One, to create a text only version of your information that is easier for a recruiter and hiring manager to read. Second, the scan is how the ATS pre-populates the required fields on the application.

Here is the technology portion of an ATS that only someone that creates them or uses them on a regular basis would know. The “scanning” technology used is called OCR — optical character recognition. The database is set up to look for certain information in specific CONFIGURATIONS ON THE DOCUMENT. Your name/contact information is at the TOP; your skills are EITHER at the top or bottom; your employment history is in the middle and includes your employer, title, and dates of employment followed by some form of description of your job.

THE ATS IS BUILT TO SCAN THE WAY HUMANS READ (in this case upper left corner to lower right corner in a horizontal direction for the US.) It is designed to read a page as it would be written if it were in a book.

So, if you use a format that does NOT follow this pattern? The OCR cannot figure out where to put the information, OR it will put everything in the wrong place. THIS is why you need to manually correct 90% of your application — because the ATS LITERALLY CANNOT READ THE DOCUMENT.

On top of that, some systems (Taleo is the one I am most familiar with) will also convert the text on your resume to HTML for ease of reading; guess what happens when a document has columns/graphs/charts/icons on it?

Let’s talk about keywords. There is a LOT of confusion here. I’m going to refer you to my article on why keywords matter (and there is a treasure trove of info in the comments), and I will explain what keywords actually are.

As a recruiter one of the functions of my job is called “Sourcing”. This is the actual proactive process of finding candidates. There are recruiters with the sole function of sourcing — this means they go find candidates for specific types of jobs. There are various “places” I can go to connect with my target applicant pool: LinkedIn, job boards/internet databases like Monster or Indeed.com; social media; referrals (employee or business — warm OR cold leads); blogs, articles, papers, conference lists; and… my own ATS. For any large repository of information, I need a way to actually hone in on qualified candidates. To do this I develop what is called a Boolean Search (aka “keyword”) based on the functional skills needed for the general job. This is the EXACT SAME TECHNOLOGY USED BY GOOGLE or any other general search engine/function.

For a general Boolean search, results are returned to me in a list STACK RANKED by the number of times each search term is repeated. So the more times a specific keyword (or set of keywords) is mentioned in a specific document, the more likely it is that I will actually see it and look at the result.

The final piece of misinformation I want to share is the random factoid (which is WRONG btw) that says “X% of recruiters never even read your resume.” I want to preface this with one very important way the recruiting process works. When an employer makes an offer to a candidate, the candidate needs to log into their profile via the open job to both sign the offer letter, and to enter information for a background check (if the employer has this step.) What this means is that the job may still be open and appear on the company website while this process is happening. So, if you apply during that period, it may be you receive a rejection for what appears to be an open position. Depending on the size of the company, the recruiter may direct you to other similar roles you can apply for. But be very sure: SOMEONE is “pressing a button”, and yes, it could be minutes after you actually apply.

Finally, many recruiters (myself included) work outside of normal business hours reviewing resumes — it is our only opportunity for large chunks of undisturbed time. So that means that you MAY receive a rejection late at night, early in the morning, or on a weekend. You may receive a rejection minutes or hours after you have applied. That means SOMEONE is looking at your resume outside of “normal” work hours.

Recruiters are generally a hard-working, deeply caring, conscientious professionals. Are there “bad apples”? Sure. Just like there are lousy teachers, accountants, plumbers, hair stylists, mechanics, marketing managers, architects, customer service reps, CEOs, and janitors. And just like there are truly exceptional resume writers or career coaches. But unfortunately, especially during times like now when we have super high unemployment, there are a LOT of unsavory people preying on the desperate to make a fast buck. If you see “career professionals” that constantly tell you HOW recruiting works — and they have not been a recruiter — then take their “facts” with a huge grain of salt, and ask a real recruiter.



Kristen M Fife

I am a seasoned technical recruiter in the Seattle area. I am also an experienced writer, with credits such as freelance content for the Seattle Times and U WA.