• Applicant Tracking System

Mastering the art of the online job application system


If you've applied to a large company, then chances are, you’ve met with and had dealings with an online job application system, also known as an Applicant Tracking System (ATS) in the HR and recruitment world.

An ATS is software used by employers to help organize applications submitted to them through their website. It often begins with you, the job seeker, setting up a profile, and finishes with your uploading a resumé.

Arguably, ATSs lack the human touch, but recruiters and HR professionals at large companies and organizations say the software makes their jobs much easier. “Without an ATS a recruiter is lost”, says Alison Elburn, Recruitment Lead at Providence Healthcare. “In my industry vacancies can reach upwards of 80 per recruiter with each posting collecting potentially a hundred applicants. Imagine having all those resumés come to you directly and then tracking which applicants are qualified which are not.”

If you want to get that interview and meet the hiring manager in person, then the trick is to pass the ATS. Here are a few suggestions how to do just that: 

You did this for me?

Customize, customize, customize. Prepare your resumé and cover letter for that job at that company. Determine the needs of the employer and that specific role and demonstrate over and over again how you meet their needs. Show them how special you think they are.

Don’t forget your skill statements, including action verbs and keywords. Keywords are words that reflect that type of work. For example, if you are looking for an office administration position, keywords may include Microsoft, Word, Excel, typing and computer. Finally, be sure to include a strong Highlights or Qualifications section. I often refer to this section as the VIP or mini resumé section. 

Do your leg work

Doing some preliminary research will allow you to get information that will work for you. Talk to someone who works at the company or in the job itself. They can provide you with keywords and insight into the application process. For more keywords associated with that job title, you can visit the National Occupation Classification (NOC) website.

Time is of the essence

Once you have a fabulously customized resumé and cover letter, Elburn recommends that you set aside a good hour dedicated to the application process itself. Some ATSs want your resumé uploaded as one document, and your cover letter as another, while other systems require both documents uploaded at once. Be prepared for this.

Save your resumé and cover letter together and separate – in both MS Word format (.doc and .docx) and pdf. Many ATSs show your progress in the application and how many steps are left. Sometimes they will indicate which documents should be uploaded and which can be copied and pasted into a designated section. 

Using these tips will bring you closer to the next step: the interview. It is here where you can wow them further with your presence. For tips on interviewing, read our guide to  “How to Ace your Next Interview Using the STAR Formula”. Now get out there and get hired!

Final Tips

  • On your resumé, organize your work experience starting from your most recent job and working back 
  • Headers: If you choose to put your contact details in a header at the top of your resumé, be aware that many ATSs cannot read content listed under headers. Include your contact details in the body of the MS Word document
  • Use basic fonts and clear layouts (no need to get fancy)
  • Complete the profile in its entirety. Without all required information, some ATSs will simply place your application on hold without submitting it, in some cases, unbeknownst to you


Chantal Rackley is a Certified Career Development Practitioner (CCDP) and career advisor at the North Shore WorkBC. She has over 11 years of advising and facilitating experience and loves (mostly) everything about her job. 

If you’re looking for services and support in your job search, visit one of our WorkBC centres to get started. All our employment services are FREE.

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