Tech Isn’t Always Right…or Why I Hate ATS

Applicant Tracking Software (ATS) systems are becoming more and more common in the workplace. They are supposed to weed out unqualified candidates and make the hiring process faster and result in better quality hires. But in practice it’s a different story.

If you could redesign the interview process from scratch, what would you change?
– Christie Mims, CEO of Revolutionary Club

Interesting question isn’t it? It’s one of the reasons I follow Christie Mims on LinkedIn…and you should be as well! Christie is always posting thought-provoking questions.

This one I answered almost without thought…get rid of ATS. Applicant Tracking Software (ATS) systems are becoming more and more common in the workplace. They are software programs that are designed (in theory) to match applicants and jobs by doing a lot of the basic work that used to be done by an actual human being in the Human Resources department: scanning resumes and online application forms for keywords matching the position description or other essential factors like education, past positions, etc. This eliminates the applications or resumes of people who are completely unqualified for a job, allowing viable candidates to be forwarded on for review by a human. That’s the theory anyway. In practice?  Well…let’s just say it’s a different story.

pen-writing-notes-studyingI’ve experienced first hand exactly how spectacularly ATS systems can muck up the hiring process. After I graduated with my Masters, I was working at a National Park Service site in Kansas as a Museum Technician Intern. At the same time, I was also applying for Museum Technician jobs within the NPS (and The Smithsonian and the National Archives) all across the country…which meant filling out application after application through their online portal to submit through their ATS for consideration. Even though I met and/or exceeded all of the Education and work requirements for the positions, and was currently interning in the position at an NPS site, my applications were getting nowhere; my scores were running in the low 80’s when they were returned to me. Frustrated, I talked with the Museum Technician on site, who was also my supervisor,  about what I was doing wrong.

That’s when he told me about how the ATS system worked, and in turn how the NPS hiring process works. He told me about how all applications run through it were given a number score, and only applications that scored 95 or higher were contacted for an interview. Add to that veteran preference points (5 points for a veteran, 10 points for a wounded veteran) which are added to the scores AFTER they are run through ATS, it’s an uphill climb for anyone to get their application seen by a human being. After you met baseline qualifications, the only way to up your score was to “literally stuff your application” with keywords, he said.

copy-pasteSo I started doing what he suggested. I was able to improve my score from the low 80’s to the mid-high 80’s by adding all of the keywords I could identify, but that still didn’t meet the 95 threshold. On a whim, just to test for myself how screwed up a system this was, I began literally copying/pasting whole sections of text from the job descriptions into my application. Entire paragraphs from the job description went into my application, copied whole-cloth. Even doing this only got me into the low 90 range.

The final test came about two years later, when the Museum Technician at the site (my former supervisor) transferred to another site and they needed a replacement. We were in still in touch on a regular basis. He called me as soon as he knew the transfer would happen and told me that he had told the site supervisor that I was the only person he wanted to take over for him because I was the only one he trusted with the collection, which has its share of quirks. So, I applied immediately for his position when it was opened. Not only did I copy/paste paragraphs from the job description, add all of the experience I had obtained as a Curator of Collections in the interim, I also stuffed the application with site-specific terms I knew from working with the collection personally. All of the abbreviations, methodologies, etc. they were using all went in. Ultimately I never knew how this test performed; the site decided to convert the position from a full-time staff member to a university-student internship position, so my application was never scored.

This story demonstrates one of the many things wrong with using ATS in the hiring process: it rewards gaming the system. Essentially I was testing formatting. How were things worded? How were they ranked? Because the entire Federal Hiring system uses the same software (the NARA and Smithsonian jobs all used the same portal and same application system), I had a hunch it was based on how the position announcement was formatted, and I appeared to be correct. Other articles on ATS systems also note the fact that formatting is a major factor in whether an ATS can correctly identify an ideal candidate. Websites and blog posts are dedicated to helping you game the system. Many career consultants recommend skipping the typical application process altogether and going straight to the hiring manager with your documentation in hand, in no small part because the use of ATS has broken the hiring process. How can one argue that this is helping employers find the best candidates, rather than the ones that are simply the best at gaming them?

On the side of the employer, I strongly believe it also makes hiring more difficult. Job descriptions are re-written to include tons of specific detail and keywords so the ATS can do its job, but how does this affect the time it takes to find a good candidate? When your job description reads like the ingredients list on a box of candy, the odds of you finding someone with all of the qualifications you included is slim to none, thus increasing hiring time. I also believe this is part of what fuels the “skills gap” myth that runs through many businesses today.

Agree?  Disagree?  Let me know in the comments!



  1. […] process itself that is too long…it’s the systems they use to help organize it. Their Applicant Tracking System and Online Portal are jokes. I can guarantee that it’s not just the wait that is making it […]



  2. […] that it’s more about who you know than what you know, and that goes double for a world where Applicant Tracking Systems run the hiring show. Networking just felt dirty, like I would be trying to manipulate someone into […]



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