Talent Management

Are Your ATS Keywords Costing You Talent?

Published by in Talent Management

Applicant Tracking Systems are beautiful things.

ats keywords costing talent

They make sure all your applicants have everything laid out in the same way; so you no longer have to mess with different resume styles and formats. They keep you from having to comb through dozens of irrelevant, wishful-thinking resumes and pare down to only the ones that have what you care about.

What time savers! What problem solvers!

But they have a fatal flaw.

That wonderful software that let you rid yourself of all those irrelevant resumes may not work as well as you thought it did. In fact, relevant resumes get trashed by these systems for little more than formatting errors all the time. Even if they get through the formatting stage, ideal resumes can be trashed just because they lack the ideal keywords.

It gets worse. People have figured out this can happen, and some have even cracked the code on what keywords work best. One quick Google search turns up dozens of guides to gaming the ATS hiring system.

This is awful. What can you do about it?

Understanding the system

The best tip is to simply not use the resume filtering option of your ATS at all. Though this isn’t always possible for large corporations receiving thousands of resumes for a single open position, or small, but growing businesses that are strapped for time and resources. With that in mind, there are ways you can optimize your ATS to make finding a better hire more likely.

The first thing you need to keep in mind is that your ATS is dumb. No matter how smart your software is (and there are a lot of smart software systems out there), it’s still a program, and programs only know what you tell them.

If you hold down the CTRL and F keys on your keyboard, you can type in any word and find how many times it appears on the page you’re viewing. When you boil it down to its most basic, this is what your ATS is doing for you.

That may make it seem too simple, but it’s actually a good thing. It means you have a lot of control over what your ATS looks for.

Don’t think outside the box — make the box bigger

Since you have this control over the words your ATS looks for, you need to think carefully about the words you want.

Start by thinking about what you and your company needs. What’s the title of the position? Do you absolutely need someone with engineering experience? Does it have to be someone with a Ph.D?

Here’s the thing: I’m sure you’ve already thought of that. Especially if you’ve already written out the job description. So think about what you need and then think about what else might do the trick.

Maybe your applicant isn’t an engineer, but would the right kind of architecture experience also do the trick? Would someone whose background is in fine arts do the trick even if they don’t specifically mention that they were a graphic designer? Maybe, maybe not. Each job’s needs will be unique, but it’s worth thinking about.

Think like your candidates. They’re looking at glossaries of resume words, so you should, too. They’re comparing their resume with your job description to find matching keywords, so you should, too.

If this sounds like pulling teeth to you, Snappy Words is a super funky online thesaurus that will make it more fun, and is extremely helpful for visual thinkers.

Use your words wisely

Once you’ve considered widening the net, you also need to widen the software’s net. It may seem obvious to you that HR and Human Relations are the same thing. But that’s much less clear to a program. Watch out for acronyms and synonyms and include them in your ATS keyword search.

In the same sense, keep an eye out for plurals and verb tenses. While you might not distinguish between leads and led or grant proposal and grant proposals, one little “s” can make a world of difference to your ATS. The program doesn’t know any better, so you’ll just have to tell it.

Making sure to think of different ways a potential applicant might fill out their resume gives you more flexibility. And it helps you avoid your ATS throwing out a resume that fits your job description perfectly, but uses the “wrong” words.

I’d recommend having a brainstorming session with a thesaurus and a job skill glossary and listing every possible way to say every keyword you plan to include. A little extra work now could save your ideal applicant from being sorted into the trash before you ever get to see their resume.


If you want to keep the strongest talent in your talent pool, you need to think like an applicant. If you only operate from your side of the hiring table and never leap across it to see what they’re seeing, you’re never going to understand the full applicant experience.

Once you’ve got your keywords sorted and your ATS as optimized as you think it needs to be, test it. Run a sample resume through it. Run a resume that’s all wrong but has good keywords through it. Run an ideal resume through it. Run your colleague’s resumes through it. Heck, run your own resume through it! See what happens.

Fill out every page and follow each step. Are you frustrated with it? Confused by it? Did it allow through the resumes you thought it would? These sorts of tests can answer a lot of questions and turn up any fatal flaws, like where one company found their ATS rejected the resumes of their own top talent.

With the slightly more obvious step out of the way, go deeper. Think about more things your applicants might be doing. They’re probably running your job description through a wordcloud generator or making lists of top industry keywords in an attempt to detail their resumes into what they think your ATS wants to see.

They may even be trying to optimize their cover letters. Which brings up the point that if your ATS allows for it, you should absolutely be scanning applicants’ cover letters in addition to their resumes or CVs.

Create the ATS you would want to experience

When you help your candidates, you’re really helping yourself and your company. Capterra’s sister site, SoftwareAdvice, did some interesting research about how a negative candidate experience can be harmful to you as a business. Candidates who feel that they’ve had a good experience are more likely to speak highly of the company, refer other applicants, and apply again, even if they don’t get the job. Your ATS isn’t something to take lightly.
Have you experienced a bad Glassdoor review from your candidates? Have you been on the receiving end of a negative ATS experience? Let me hear your horror stories in the comments below, and we can talk about how to make it better next time around.

Looking for Applicant Tracking software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Applicant Tracking software solutions.

About the Author

Halden Ingwersen

Halden Ingwersen

Halden Ingwersen is a former Capterra analyst.


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