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What is an Applicant Tracking System?

Friday, April 30th, 2021

An applicant tracking system (ATS) is a software designed to streamline the hiring process by filtering and organizing applicant information. An ATS acts as a database to store an applicant’s contact information, resume, and cover letter, and it can also help you schedule follow-up communications and interviews. Essentially, the goal of an ATS is to make the hiring process easier for recruiters and hiring managers.

How does an applicant tracking system work?

From an applicant’s perspective, an ATS typically takes the place of traditional hard copy or email applications. (These days, most companies don’t have time to manually review resumes and cover letters.) First, candidates answer a series of screening questions that cover education level, years of job experience, proficiency with certain programs, and willingness to travel or relocate. Then candidates are asked to upload their resume and cover letter, along with any additional work samples. To comply with labor laws, applicant tracking systems often ask candidates for demographic information, U.S. citizenship status, veteran status, and disability status. The process typically ends by giving candidates a chance to review and submit the application. If this process sounds familiar, you have probably gone through an ATS!

For employers, an applicant tracking system gathers and stores all incoming applications into an organized database. Some resumes are filtered out right away if they do not contain relevant keywords or if the applicant does not pass the screening questions. From there, employers can use a variety of features to sort resumes and follow up with qualified candidates. Moreover, an ATS can even schedule interviews and handle onboarding once a candidate is hired. Applicant tracking systems are useful for businesses of all sizesespecially those looking to automate the hiring process and find the best candidates. 

Applicant Tracking System Features

An ATS does more than just store applicant informationit allows employers to filter and organize applications and communicate with applicants. Here are the main features of most applicant tracking systems. Every ATS is different, so features may differ depending on the software you use.

Screening questions

Many applicant tracking systems allow you to add screening questions as part of the application process. Candidates whose answers do not match the job’s specific qualifications will be filtered out.  

Application viewing

Some employers may still choose to view every application that comes in. Applicant tracking systems allow employers to review these applications at any time.

Rankings

Applicant tracking systems will automatically rank resumes based on their relevance to the job description. The more keywords that match the job descriptionand the more often those keywords appearthe higher the resume is ranked in the list. This makes it easier to determine which candidates are the most qualified for the job. 

Keyword searches

Employers can search for specific applications using keywords. For example, an employer may search for resumes that include keywords like “leadership,” “communication skills,” or “customer service.”

Resume analysis

An ATS takes information from resumes and converts it to machine-readable formats. The data is structured into various fields and parameters for easier organization.

Resume storage

An ATS stores resumes for extended periods of time so an applicant’s information is always on file. Even if a candidate was passed over for a current job position, they may be considered for future job openings. 

Filters

Employers can filter applications based on various parameters like candidate location, application source, and date applied. 

Posting to job sites

Some applicant tracking systems even allow employers to post jobs on job boards and social media sites. This makes it easy to advertise the job listing and invite more candidates to apply.

Follow-up communication

Employers can customize follow-up communication with applicants. For example, employers can automate rejection letters for unqualified applicants or invite qualified candidates to interviews. Employers should use this feature to make sure every candidate gets a response to their application. 

Background screening

To further streamline the hiring process, some applicant tracking systems also provide background checks.  

Should my company use an applicant tracking system?

Companies of all sizes use applicant tracking systems. A recent 2020 study found that 98% of Fortune 500 companies and 66% of large companies use an ATS. Even 35% of small businesses have started using them! If your company is hiring for multiple positions at once, or you receive hundreds of job applications per listing, an ATS may be a wise investment. Here are a few reasons you may consider using an ATS.

There are, of course, some drawbacks to using an applicant tracking system. 

What are the top applicant tracking systems?

If you have decided to integrate an applicant tracking system into your business but don’t know where to start, we’ve got you covered. Here are some of the best applicant tracking systems available. 

Best Paid ATS

  1. VIVAHR: A centralized hiring software that lets you post your jobs to 50+ job boards. Create custom screening questionnaires and scorecards; access email templates and rich candidate profiles; and parse resumes for unlimited applicants and job postings.  
  2. Greenhouse: The best ATS for mid-market; allows users to take advantage of third-party applications with no extra charge. Used by companies like Airbnb, Pinterest, and HubSpot.
  3. Pinpoint: A new player in the ATS industry that has built up its platform with recruiting services like talent pipelines, sourcing capabilities, and recruitment marketing.
  4. VidCruiter: A great first ATS for businesses with 100-2,000 employees. Features include video interviews, skills assessments, scheduling, text recruiting, and more.
  5. Teamtailor: Takes a unique approach to recruiting by allowing teams to build career sites through their platform and market to specific demographics. Features include text recruiting, referrals, nurture campaigns, and more.
  6. SmartRecruiters: An enterprise-level ATS that helps attract, engage, and hire the right talent. SmartRecruiters implements customer feedback to constantly improve the software.  

There are numerous applicant tracking systems available, each with its own sets of features and pricing packages. Some applicant tracking systems even begin with 2-week free trials. If you want to recruit the best talent and streamline the application process, an ATS is a great investment for your company.

Best Free ATS

  1. Freshteam: Designed for businesses with around 50 employees. The free package provides basic applicant tracking, interview scheduling, and integration with some Google services for up to 3 active job postings. 
  2. Zoho Recruit: A free plan that allows 1 job posting. Features include candidate management, email management, and interview scheduling. It also provides simple resume search and 5 email templates for candidate communication. 
  3. CandidATS: A free, open-source ATS that provides a resume search database, email templates, and interview scheduling capabilities. Great for companies needing a free solution in a pinch. 
  4. RecruitEze: Although there are paid options, the free version allows for an unlimited number of job postings per month. 
  5. JobScore: Ideal for small businesses hiring less than 5 people at a time for 1 active job posting. Includes interview scheduling with calendar integration.

Each of these free options can be upgraded to paid plans. Free applicant tracking systems are a great way to familiarize yourself with the programs and secure talent in a pinch. Many small businesses begin with free plans and upgrade to paid packages. 

How to make the most of an applicant tracking system

An applicant tracking system is a powerful tool, but it can be overwhelming for first-time users. And with so many options available, how do you know which one will be the best for your business? Here are a few tips to make the most of an ATS.

Do your research!

Make sure the ATS you choose fits your needs. Depending on the size of your business, you may need a more robust ATS that aligns with your company goals. Be sure to learn about different features that come with each ATS. Remember that features may differ between free and paid applicant tracking systems. 

Here are good questions to guide your research:

Take your time researching applicant tracking systems. If you know other business owners who use applicant tracking systems, it’s a good idea to get feedback on which software they use. 

Pro-Tip: With all this research, it’s easy to go into information overload. Narrow down your options by immediately discounting applicant tracking systems that do not meet your requirements. Your final consideration list should contain no more than 5 applicant tracking systems. From there, rank the applicant tracking systems from most likely to least likely to use, and begin testing the software to make sure it’s a good fit. 

Test the ATS first

It’s a good idea to use free trial versions of different applicant tracking systems. Typically, an ATS will allow you a certain number of days to try the software before moving to a paid plan. Take time to familiarize yourself with the software and decide if the features are right for you. If you find that your top choice doesn’t work for you, go back to your consideration list and try the second option. Always have a backup plan in case your first choice doesn’t work out! 

Use the right keywords in your job description

An ATS will not be useful if you are not attracting the right candidates from the start. Make sure to use relevant keywords in your job description so qualified candidates will apply. Decide which skills are most important to the job and include those as keywords for your ATS to track. From there, your ATS will weed out candidates who are not a good match and rank candidates who match your desired skills and experiences. 

Keep it simple

With so many applicants these days searching for jobs on cell phones, it is crucial to have a mobile-friendly application process. Try to keep the application short and sweet. When possible, avoid long essays. Essays are difficult for the ATS to sort, and you will have to read through each essay yourself. Consider short answer responses instead. Candidates may drop out of the application if the process is too long. 

Also, keep the ATS simple for yourself! Customize your ATS to rank key areas of interest like skills, job experience, or education. An ATS can be overwhelming, so make sure you review only the most critical information from applicants.

Understand the ATS reports

In addition to storing an applicant’s resume and cover letter, an ATS may also track information about where your applicants are applying from. This can show you if one job board is attracting more candidates than others. From there, you can decide where to focus your job posts. You may also decide to expand your listing to other sites. A more advanced ATS may even identify when a job description could be limiting the types of applicants you receive.

Rewrite your hiring processes to integrate the ATS

Applicant tracking systems come with an assortment of features to keep you organized. The more your hiring process happens in one system, the more streamlined and efficient it will be. Jon Hill, CEO of The Energists, suggests revising your hiring process from top to bottom to integrate the ATS in every way you can. Take advantage of the analysis capabilities to further improve it as you go.

Don’t let the ATS do all the work!

Darren Dean, the founder of WipeLock, reminds us that applicant tracking systems are designed to help us make decisions, not command us what to do. Although an ATS can automate tasks and assist recruiters in daily operations, it is important to remember the human aspect behind every hiring endeavor. 

Take the time to review qualified candidates and send appropriate follow-up communication. Schedule preliminary screening interviews with candidates you are interested in. Keep in mind some candidates may slip through the cracksreach out to them and see if their personality is a good fit, even if their resume did not make the list. 

You can still review resumes to make sure qualified candidates did not get blocked by the ATS. You should also take detailed notes during each step of the hiring process. Taking notes keeps you organized and helps you remember details about each candidate. Most importantly, make sure all hiring personnel are fully trained on the new software and that you are’ taking advantage of its full capabilities.

Remember: it’s the ATS’s job to keep things organizedit’s your job to ultimately hire the best candidates.

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