Expert Tips for Outsmarting Applicant Tracking Systems

When you apply for a position online, you usually receive an automated message thanking you for applying, followed later on by either an invitation to interview, or a rejection email.

These invitation and rejection emails you receive are from an Applicant Tracking System (ATS), and it means that your resume/application either did or did not match the combination of required education, experience, keywords, and the position description was asking for. It’s important to know how to work with an ATS, as it is most employers use it today for receiving and reviewing applications, including 75% of large companies.  

For veterans in particular, this can be even more challenging because of the tendency to use acronyms and other military jargon that the ATS doesn’t recognize. Despite the daunting nature of tailoring, if you figure out how to work with they system rather than against it, you could have access to even more opportunities because of your veteran status and military work ethic.

Below are some of the major things to look out for when applying through the ATS. Use this as a reference for beating the system after consulting our other guides for resume-writing tips, military jargon translation tools, and seeking out extra assistance from nonprofits such as Hire Heroes USA.


When you apply through an Applicant Tracking System, your resume usually gets pasted into plain text for ease of use for the reader. Because of this, if you have your resume in nontraditional formatting, you could be eliminated from the candidate pool.

      • Common mistakes: Putting your name, address or contact information in the header or footer of your resume won’t paste into plain text through an ATS. If a recruiter filters out applications with missing information, you’ll be eliminated. Also, if you have a “creative” resume format with text boxes or lines dividing the resume vertically, some of your resume information may not be pasted, resulting in large chunks of experience missing for the application.
      • Our tip: Check with a veteran transition counselor if you’re unsure if your resume needs extra formatting work. Organizations such as Hire Heroes USA or U.S. Vets also have resume writing assistance.

Required Qualifications

In most position descriptions, you’ll see required and preferred qualifications summaries. To ensure that both the ATS and the reader see these qualifications clearly, put them in the first 3rd of your resume.

      • Common mistakes: If you don’t put a professional summary in your resume, you’re losing out on serious keyword-matching real estate. Your summary is a great way to incorporate everything the ATS is looking for, all within the first few lines. It also allows you to speak to your level of education, years of experience, and areas of expertise, so that when it gets in the hand of the recruiter, you easily demonstrate your value and goodness of fit for the job.
      • Our tip: [Consult veteran landing page] to help with adding the right keywords to your profile and align with the required qualifications for the position.

Hard Skills

Hard skills refer to the qualities of the job you must know, like technical skills, software knowledge, or direct practice knowledge. If the position lists skills and/or experience that relate to your ability to perform the role, ensure you are highlighting those areas in each of your previous work histories to hit not only the keywords, but the frequency of the keywords as well.

      • Common mistakes: Don’t copy and paste keywords directly in your resume to hit the right terms and satisfy the algorithm! Most ATS’s are smart, and will rank you not only on whether the keywords occur, but also on their frequency, and how well they are integrated into the text (so, listing “Project Management” 5 times in a row on your resumes and changing the text to white won’t work in your favor).
      • Our tip: Ensure that the skills you highlight from your military experience correlate with those required of the position. Typical hard skills you might have obtained during your military career might be project management, operations manager, quality assurance expert, administrative coordinator, or technical program assistant but check our ZipCares Veterans page for tools a more in-depth look at transferring military skills to corporate language.

Soft Skills

Many opportunities online also note preferred personality qualities in a candidate, like “innovative”, “passionate” and “able to work independently”. These are soft skills that relate to culture fit for a company, and are tracked by the ATS as well. You can include these words in your professional summary to boost your ATS ranking, and give yourself a leg up over other candidates that only focus on the hard skills.

      • Common mistakes: Many job seekers don’t think that these qualities matter, because they don’t relate directly to the position. Don’t make this mistake – rate higher in the applicant pool by incorporating these buzzwords in your professional summary or cover letter in your application.
      • Our tip: Regardless of the type of company or organization you are applying to, you should definitely highlight your skills in team-building, adaptability, flexibility, and problem solving when illustrating beneficial soft skills. If you saved any of your old “evals” from the service, you can try incorporating what past supervisors said in there as well.

While tailoring your resume and application to individual jobs can be tiring, it helps to make it a habit to identify the ATS, apply the right keywords, and focus on highlighting your relevant experience. It’s a fact that job seekers who integrate tailoring into their applications see 3X more call backs and invitations for interviews, so know that it is worth the effort! If it helps, you can try thinking of the process a little bit like warming up to your supervisors for a better eval. The process of working with the system rather than fighting it never goes away, so the better you are at mastering it, the more successful you will be in the long run!

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