Why You Shouldn’t Fear Applicant Tracking Systems, with Matt Warzel

Listen On:

Merely mentioning the words “applicant tracking system” can strike fear in the heart of a job seeker. We tend to fear what we aren’t familiar with and when our livelihood is on the line, it’s easy to understand why. But rather than fear them, Find Your Dream Job guest Matt Warzel says you need to learn how to benefit from them. When approached correctly, an ATS can help you get in front of a hiring manager more quickly, and allow you to showcase your skills prior to an interview. Matt shares the exact method he uses with clients to get the best results when applying through an ATS. 

About Our Guest:

Matt Warzel is a certified resume writer and the president of MJW Careers. Matt’s company helps you find your next job faster and with a better salary.

Resources in This Episode:

  • For more insight into how managers and recruiters think, follow Matt’s blog and sign up for his newsletter at jobstickers.com.
  • From our Sponsor: Find Your Dream Job is brought to you by TopResume.  TopResume has helped more than 400,000 professionals land more interviews and get hired faster. Get a free review of your resume today from one of TopResume’s expert writers.


Find Your Dream Job, Episode 344:

Why You Shouldn’t Fear Applicant Tracking Systems, with Matt Warzel

Airdate: April 20, 2022

Mac Prichard:

This is Find Your Dream Job, the podcast that helps you get hired, have the career you want, and make a difference in life. 

I’m your host, Mac Prichard. I’m also the founder of Mac’s List. It’s a job board in the Pacific Northwest that helps you find a fulfilling career.

Every Wednesday, I talk to a different expert about the tools you need to get the work you want.

Find Your Dream Job is brought to you by TopResume. TopResume has helped more than 400,000 professionals land more interviews and get hired faster. 

Get a free review of your resume today. 

Go to macslist.org/topresume. 

Many employers today use an applicant tracking system to receive and sort applications. 

And you may worry about what happens to your application after the system receives it. 

Matt Warzel is here to talk about why you shouldn’t fear applicant tracking systems. 

He’s a certified resume writer and the president of MJW Careers. Matt’s company helps you find your next job faster and with a better salary. 

He joins us from Wilmington, North Carolina.

Well, let’s start with a definition, Matt. What is an applicant tracking system? 

Matt Warzel:

An applicant tracking system is essentially software for the recruiters and hiring managers that will help them track a particular candidate in their system, and that entails, you know, every single bit of communication, from the submission process when the recruiter receives the resume and any addendums, all the way through any sort of activity of placement, interviewing, et cetera. So it’s just, to make it easy, software so recruiters can monitor your application and your candidacy throughout the process, because otherwise, you know, you’re gonna be doing a lot of handwriting and using a schedule and that kind of thing, and it’s a little dated. 

And these have been around; I know they’re kind of becoming more known to the audience, to the candidates out there just from, you know, maybe some casual reading or just hearing from other people, but I’m surprised that a lot of people are aware of what they are now. They just might not know what goes, you know, into these from behind the scenes. 

But I remember when I had applicant tracking systems starting out, they weren’t as sophisticated. So there are a lot of different components to them nowadays versus back when I was using them. 

Mac Prichard:

How common are applicant tracking systems? Is this something that only large companies use, Matt, or are you seeing even smaller employers adopt these systems, too? 

Matt Warzel:

It is well-adopted. It’s pretty universal. I mean, it is expensive, it’s like any software, but it helps with the automation. So I think a lot of folks that, even if they’re, let’s just call them mom and pop shops, if they have the bandwidth in the budget, I think a lot of folks are investing in even HR platforms that might include an applicant tracking system within the package. So something that might manage payroll and performance reports and things like that. But if someone’s using the software, it’s typically either by itself as a solo product, or it’s embedded within something like an HR product. 

Mac Prichard:

Why do so many applicants fear applicant tracking systems? Is this a bad thing for candidates? 

Matt Warzel:

You know, I think it’s the kind of the robotic mystique that it is, you know, the AI, and everybody hears this complicated, these buzzwords and these acronyms, and they think, oh, this is above me. But in reality, they are nothing more than, again, then a tracker. 

Now, in some cases, they are acting as a gatekeeper. So you’ll have a recruiter that might have some parameters embedded into it. We call them rules. So when a candidate submits a resume, the recruiter might have some rules in place that say, you know, must have X amount of keywords. 

We call it keyword optimization in the resume writing world, and you’re trying to get some of those searchable terms on your resume, and in more often places than not, because the more relatable you are to the role, you’re gonna have boosted visibility. You’re gonna show up sooner on some of these searches. 

But all in all, we’ll just say the most fundamental one is literally just tracking your progress, whereas more sophisticated ones might include some of these preliminary kinds of needs, if you will. And that just helps maybe a Google go from, you know, twenty thousand people a day or whatever, I couldn’t imagine what their number might be, you know, but it helps trickle it down, so then, those gold nuggets, if you will, kind of makes its way through. 

Mac Prichard:

Can a qualified applicant not make it through the system if they don’t, say, use the right keywords or follow the rules that you just described a moment ago that recruiters might set up for screening resumes coming through an applicant tracking system? 

Matt Warzel:

Absolutely, and therein lies some of the issues. They’re saying, you know, it’s not supportive of some of the really solid finds that might not make their way through just because maybe they have a format that’s not aligned with the proper kind of applicant tracking system format that we use, that I use for my clients, and a lot of industry experts will use. 

And that’s not something that has to be daunting. Your format, just think linear. You want something that’s just very aligned, something that doesn’t have much text boxes, or graphics, or columns, or borders, data charts, things like that. While it looks good visually and the aesthetics, they have kind of a flair to them sometimes; you won’t get through with that kind of resume just because when the robots, we’ll call them the ATS, tries to parse your data from the resume into the applicant tracking system, it can’t copy, and it can’t scan that type of stuff. So think, less is more. Worry about the content, your intention, your messaging, your value offerings over kind of the flair, if you will. 

Mac Prichard:

And how can understanding how applicant tracking systems make you not only a better candidate but have a more successful job search? 

Matt Warzel:

Yeah, it gives you a fair shake, I think. I think, why go through all the effort of, you know, maybe some informational interviewing with folks, maybe some networking, using some back door job-hunting strategies. We kind of call them that. That’s usually kind of a guerilla marketing idea of how to get your “brand” to be recognized. Right? To give the hiring manager that moment where they’re gonna want to stop and take a look at you and vet you further. 

So when you keep it simple, you’re only giving yourself more advantages to just at least get to the human eyeballs. If you start kind of going against the grain, again, doing stuff that’s a little too cute or, you know, graphicky or what have you, that’s where you start bogging down the reader, and the data won’t make it through. So give yourself a fair shake and keep it simple. There’s plenty of good formats out there that will align with these rules. 

Mac Prichard:

Well, let’s talk about that, Matt, and let’s talk about you help your clients work with applicant tracking systems. You’ve mentioned formats and design of resumes a number of times now; walk us through what is a good layout and a good format for your resume that’s gonna help you get through the applicant tracking system and put your resume in front of the hiring manager. 

Matt Warzel:

You definitely want to have, and I know it might sound a little hard to visualize, just not seeing a sample, but if you can have your contact info upfront and you use dividers to kind of space out, say, from city/state to email, to LinkedIn, URL, phone number, what have you. You want to just use dividers, no columns or anything like that, and then you want to have a nice summary that might have a few sentences, again, right below the contact information. No page breaks, no dividers, nothing like that, just go down to the next line. 

And my formatting is set up where you can kind of see the breaks. Right? So maybe you have the summaries in regular text, the skills might be in bolded, what have you. So you can get a little creative with the bolding and italics.

And then, after the summary, I do have the skill section. That skill section, you definitely want to use the divider mentality, as well. You don’t want to use a column there. I see that being like the one spot where you might have this fantastic resume as far as a layout, but you went with a column with the skills. Again, you’ve just got to give yourself a fair shake. You’re not gonna not be vetted just because you didn’t put your skills in a column. Right? So just make sure you have the right skills, but use a divider. 

Then I like to go into an accomplishments section which is just bullets. You can use bullets. Those are fine. Those will parse well. And then, after the accomplishments, you do the experience again- bullets, and finalize it with any education, certification, association, volunteerism. 

So, again, very linear, and you’re not doing anything odd between sections. All you’re doing is maybe changing some bolding and italices just to kind of show them the next section if you will. 

Mac Prichard:

What’s the most common design mistake you see people make that trips up their resume and doesn’t get it through the applicant tracking system?

Matt Warzel:

Infographics. I see so many folks that are clinging to infographics, and I get it. Again, the visual aesthetics look good, and it’s fun. It’s kind of playful, if you will. Unless you’re a graphic designer or someone in the creative field, again, stick to the professional format. 

But I can’t tell you how many times I’ll get people coming to me going, “I’m not getting any interviews.” And they’ll present me with an infographic as their resume. I kinda know when it started roughly, but I don’t know where or who came up with that idea but I stay away from infographics if I can avoid them. 

I usually tell my graphic designers get a professional resume used for applications and then send your infographic as an addendum. 

Mac Prichard:

And I just want to be clear here, the issue is that the software doesn’t read these design elements, or the design elements make it difficult for the software to pick up on the keywords that you might have in the text, and therefore, you’re just being rejected. Is that a good summary? 

Matt Warzel:

That is it. And it’s either you’re being rejected, or you may slip through. But what do you do when you try to copy and paste from a resume that’s infographic to, let’s say, a word format that’s, you know, very plain? When you go to copy and paste it, you’ll see some jumbled items. You might have your phone number at the bottom, all of a sudden, and, you know, skills are below the experience section, and things are just out of place. 

So the visual content is not even parsed correctly. It’ll be all jumbled up. So if you’re lucky enough to get it through, then you have a recruiter on the other end that is a little kind of, you know, annoyed, if you will, that they have to go and start putting all your information back in place, into pieces like a Lego. So you want to give them the easiest way to collect your information, and that is by keeping it linear. 

Mac Prichard:

Well, this is terrific, Matt. We’re gonna take a break. When we come back, Matt Warzel will continue to share his advice on why you shouldn’t fear applicant tracking systems. Stay with us. 

Will your resume pass muster with an applicant tracking system? 

Talk to the experts at TopResume. 

Go to maclist.org/topresume.

A professional writer at TopResume will check out your resume for free. 

Go to macslist.org/topresume.

You’ll find out how you can make your resume ready for an applicant tracking system. 

Or you can hire TopResume to do it for you. 

Go to maclist.org/topresume. 

Now, let’s get back to the show.

We’re back in the Mac’s List studio. I’m talking with Matt Warzel.

He’s a certified resume writer and the president of MJW Careers. Matt’s company helps you find your next job faster and with a better salary. 

He joins us from Wilmington, North Carolina.

Now, Matt, before the break, we were talking about why you shouldn’t fear applicant tracking systems, and you talked us through why they exist and some of the common challenges that applicants face, particularly with designed resumes, and you stressed that you should keep in mind a simple format. 

I know another step that you recommend to your clients follow is to include the right content in your application materials, especially your skills and experience. Tell us more about this, Matt. What do you have in mind here? 

Matt Warzel:

That’s great, you know, and that’s something that I really pride myself with my clients in understanding for them, so they’re not having to worry about how to figure out what stays on, what comes off. Right? 

So you’re looking at your resume and how I set mine up in terms of the mentality behind these sections, so the summary my idea behind a good summary is, you want to show your key value offerings right away. You want them to understand what’s your unique selling proposition. Why is Mac better at doing his job than the next person who might have a similar title, similar kind of career progression? And so, what’s your uniqueness as it relates to whatever you’re targeting? 

So you wanna almost reverse engineer off of the job openings you’re targeting. You want to look and see what are the skills that are comparable between all these types of openings? What are the tasks, if you will, that you’re gonna be doing? Because a lot of job descriptions are just a bunch of tasks laid out. And then start to filter that into the resume in a way that sounds unique and customized. 

And this is kind of where people pay me to do this. Right? Because there is a science behind this, but for takeaways for the audience, think about A, set the tone in the summary. Why do you offer value? Why should they stop and give you a two-minute read instead of just six seconds initially? 

Then with the skills section, again, operational skills, like the hard skills, you can do technical aptitude or even some methodologies at this part. So if I’m a supply chain manager and I see a resume that has Lean Six Sigma, Kaizen, these types of words, I’m excited because these are methodologies that live and breathe in my space, and this is someone who’s bringing that to the table. 

So it’s that kind of resonation factor with having the right skills. Not only are you optimizing your resume, but you’re setting that story up. So they can go from the summary to skills and think, okay, this person lives and breathes in my space, and they’re a little unique. I like how they’ve set the tone with the summary. 

And then the meat and potatoes. This is the important stuff now, so the accomplishments and the experience section. This kind of makes or breaks you because a lot of folks that are recruiters have a bad habit of jumping to the experience section and kind of seeing what you’ve done as far as your succession and will understand right away if they want to vet you just because there’s a lot of red flags there, just job-hopping, gaps which now is becoming not so much of a swear word like it used to be because of the certain circumstances you’ve dealt with. But things like that have red flags. 

So to position your accomplishments experience section, think like this, a three-pronged approach. A, does it relate? Again, that resonation, take those five or six tasks and then engineer them into your experience section if you’ve done them. Don’t fib. But then don’t just copy and paste the task. What was your spin? If you have to handle managing a team at a budget, talk about your team value, talk about a really neat scenario, how you came in under budget with a project, or whatever. Put your spin on that particular task, so it’s very cause and effect, but also yours. It’s not just a general term. 

Two, operational, bottom-line impact; get those KPIs in there. Volume, sales, cuts in cost, streamlining efficiency, reducing waste, things like that, that show that you’re thinking about the bottom line. That goes a long way with hiring managers. 

And then finally, what’s unique? Did you win an award, give a speech, you know, be featured in a newsletter or newspaper? Things that kind of well-round you as a candidate.

And if you lean on those three ideas throughout the whole entire experience and accomplishment section, it’s gonna make for a better read than just a task dump. 

Mac Prichard:

In your experience -that’s a very thoughtful strategy, and it requires some effort and care. In your experience, Matt, do most job seekers do that? Or are they simply cutting and pasting their resume and dropping it into the application tracking system forms? 

Matt Warzel:

It depends on how they’re setting up that resume, but I see a lot of folks that they’ll either copy and paste their old job description as the actual, you know, content for that particular role, or I’ll see that they’ll just list out, you know, very mundane tasks. I, you know, managed the distribution, I was in charge of supply chain, I was, you know. And I always tell my clients to think of this after each statement, say, so what? So you managed a supply chain, so what? What’s that do for everybody? Because you managed a supply chain, did you get on-time deliverables? Did you work implementing continuous improvements to make sure the workflow was meeting the KPIs or your mandatory numbers, whatever? 

So think in terms of, so what? So every sentence will then have a reason to be on there. It’s like a screenplay. You’ve got to have every word matter. You don’t see people writing movies and just kind of, you know, taking a leisure route about it. It’s like, no, you’ve got to get an hour and a half across and keep an audience engaged. Every word should count, same thing with your resume. 

Mac Prichard:

Are applicant tracking systems sophisticated enough to distinguish between just a cut and paste job where someone has recycled an old job description or their resume and someone who does what you just described, which is look at the job posting, think about specific skills and qualifications that are most relevant, and think about those key performance indicators in answering that so what question? Can applicant tracking systems really tell the difference between those two applications? 

Matt Warzel:

There’s no general rule with ATS. They are set up – each of them have their own little platform. Right? There’s Taleo, and there’s just hundreds of application tracking systems. Then you get into the point where there are thousands of rules. Each of these HR teams put in their own set of rules. So there’s no real answer to say, hey, you’re gonna get farther if you do this. The thing with my approach is, once it hits the human eyeballs, you’re gonna resonate better. 

Now, the upfront robots, if you’re doing what I say, keeping it linear, having the right keywords, your visibility should be boosted high enough where you’ll make it through that phase. And that’s what I’m setting you up for, success once you hit the human eyeballs, and then it’s the hiring managers, the sourcers, and the recruiters. 

As far as saying yes, though, there’s no given answer because there’s so many rules and so many companies with different types. So that’s why the rule of thumb is play the game to your advantage, set yours up so you’re given a fair shake, and not having to worry about those outliers like that.

Because there’s some that might kick you out because you didn’t have one word that they literally needed on every resume to get through, and it might have use a piece of software you never acquired or what have you. Maybe you don’t have the degree, you know. I know there are some that are set up that if you don’t have a Bachelors, they kick you out, that kind of thing. So that stuff you can’t work your way around, you know, if they mandate something and you don’t have it, you know, it is what it is. So just keep moving on in your career journey, find the next role. 

Mac Prichard:

You’ve mentioned keywords a number of times both in this segment and in the first part of our conversation. What’s your best advice, Matt, for identifying the keywords that are gonna matter to an applicant tracking system and incorporating them into your application materials? 

Matt Warzel:

So the job description’s gold, that is number one. That is coming right from the hiring managers to the recruiters to the audience, if you will, the candidates. So use the job description. Try to highlight, again, the skills you have on all these descriptions that you’re reading, all of these job openings. Highlight the ones you have and make sure you weave them into the resume. 

On the second side of it, you can always use LinkedIn to your advantage with keywords because if you go on there and find some colleagues, hiring managers, people you aspire to be, what have you, go and look at what skills do they have under their endorsements at the bottom. What are they saying? Their LinkedIn has to be something that would be beneficial to have. Right? Visible, and so, go and look on LinkedIn under the endorsements of people that you either aspire to be or are already aligned with and start to manage how you’re gonna get some of those skills into your LinkedIn profile and your resume as well. 

And if there are some skills that you don’t have but you are starting to recognize as something that might be a need, given that you’ve done the research and seeing people that are successful in your space, in your role, then go upskill. Go learn those. That’s also a great way to find those gaps that you could start plugging in while you have the time during your job hunt or on the weekends, what have you. Upskilling is always a must, and it’s only getting more important. They’re recognizing it from a corporate standpoint of how they should be upskilling their employees within, but kind of keep that war on talent rolling. So always be improving. Right? 

Mac Prichard:

Terrific, well, it’s been a great conversation, Matt. Now tell us what’s next for you? 

Matt Warzel:

Yeah, so I have a daily blog that I write as well as a  weekly newsletter. So if you go to jobstickers.com, that’s embedded into my actual website, and that is where you’ll see my daily blog, as well as if you want to follow me on LinkedIn. I’m all about trying to maintain that consistency, posting once a day and being insightful in uncovering kind of the lid of how hiring managers and recruiters think, just so I don’t have to, you know, I don’t hide behind paywalls and stuff. I’m always kind of just giving up the goods, so to speak. 

Mac Prichard:

Terrific, I know in addition to jobstickers.com where people can learn- not only see that advice but learn more about your services. You also invite listeners to connect with you on LinkedIn, and if they do, I hope they’ll mention they heard you on Find Your Dream Job. 

Now, Matt, given all the great advice you’ve shared today, what’s the one thing you want a listener to remember about why you shouldn’t fear applicant tracking systems? 

Matt Warzel:

Coming from the perspective of when I was a recruiter, I was a recruiter for almost ten years prior to doing career coaching the last twelve, and I always want people to know this. Hiring teams, recruiters, they are humans, they are trying their best, and the wonkiness that is the pandemic and how we’re hiring right now, and there’s a lot of variables that they’re trying to grasp – just be gentle with them. They’re trying. If they find a role that they like you for, you’ll get notified. If not, keep plugging away. Don’t bad-mouth folks because you hear about ghosting and all this kind of thing. It’s just because it’s the nature of the beast. There’s a lot more of us than there are of them on that end, and so they’re doing their best, and I just want everybody to take that away saying, hey, recruiters and hiring teams, they’re humans, too. 

Mac Prichard:

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Next week, our guest will be Thaddeus B. Dunn. 

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You’ve been asked to interview for a job you really want. Congratulations!  

What should you do next?

Join us next Wednesday when Thaddeus B. Dunn and I talk about how to prepare for a job interview.

Until next time, thanks for letting us help you find your dream job.

This show is produced by Mac’s List. 

Susan Thornton-Hough schedules our guests and writes our newsletter. Lisa Kislingbury Anderson manages our social media.

Our sound engineer is Jeni Wren Stottrup. Ryan Morrison at Podfly Productions edits the show. Dawn Mole creates our transcripts. And our music is by Freddy Trujillo.

This is Mac Prichard. See you next week.