Applying for a job online? You’ll soon become familiar with the acronym ATS.

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Applying for a job online? You’ll soon become familiar with the acronym ATS. When an applicant applies for a job via a corporate website, the résumé info is often uploaded into an applicant tracking system, known as an ATS.

Like a job-matching oracle, the process (and results) sometimes seems a bit mysterious. The ATS’s system of algorithms looks at the résumé’s data, and, if it recognizes what to do with it, plops it into the right spot in the applicant’s file, from certifications to phone numbers.

Hundreds of different ATS systems are in use today, often tailored toward particular industries, says résumé-writer Jill Walser, owner of Seattle-based résumé service “I got the job!” The tracking systems were a costly investment when they first came into mainstream use; as long as they functioned fairly well, they often weren’t replaced. Because of this, Walser formats her clients’ résumés to work with even the oldest ATS software.

For example, simple section titles, such as “Work History” or “Professional Experience” (versus jargon like “Marketing Success Path”), work for all parsing software, Walser says.

And because systems vary so widely, skip the résumé infographic.

“I stick to the basic principle that if a résumé is converted to plain text, that’s basically how it’s going to look to the ATS program,” says Joe Perez, of Seattle-based résumé company Writing Wolf. “So if the résumé is formatted using tables and columns, for instance, it’s not going to be read well.”

Next, keyword-counting software compares words in your résumé against keywords that the recruiter or hiring manager thinks are likely to be on the résumés of qualified candidates.

“Candidates with the most keywords are not always going to be the right candidate to move forward with, but at least they get a set of human eyes on their information,” Walser says. Recruiters review the keyword-ranked list the ATS system spits out, and decide whether to keep or toss applicants from consideration.

“If the recruiter never gets to their information because they’re too far down the keyword results list, short of a hiring manager who can pluck that candidate’s résumé out of obscurity, they’ll never be invited in for an interview,” Walser says.

Personalize your résumé for the job by matching the résumé headline — the first word or phrase directly under the contact information — to the position. “If someone is applying to a large company that uses requisition or job ID numbers, those should appear adjacent to the job title headline,” Walser says. For example: Area Sales Manager – Req. #4209478. “Job titles are often keywords, and the requisition number is useful for recruiters,” she says.

Include a sub-headline and a keyword section in your résumé’s summary, which can also be personalized to suit the position, using the company’s vernacular, Walser says. If you have “Sales Team Leadership” on your résumé but the company you’re applying to calls the concept “Success Group Management” — call it Success Group Management at least once on that application.

You can boost keyword use — without coming across as trying too hard — in your résumé’s education section, Walser says. “Listing course titles of the three to five college classes most relevant to current career goals is a good keyword optimization strategy, as is adding in online or employer-provided training,” she says.

If you’re a career-switcher, course titles may be one of the few ways to add new industry keywords, Walser says. “Similarly, add the topics and locations and organizations of any relevant speaking engagements,” she says, and spell out acronyms of any professional organizations you’re affiliated with.

Don’t stress keywords too much, Perez notes. “But it’s still important to use a few different variations of your job objective’s title, and to use the hot buzzwords in your career niche,” he says. To find out some of those “hot” words, do a little reverse engineering, he says. Check out current job ads for your desired title and see what employers are seeking, today.

“Basically, when it comes to ATS, I tell my clients that as long as they do a few simple things they don’t have much to worry about,” Perez says. “Pay attention to keywords, don’t use tables or columns or graphics of fancy formatting tricks, and follow an employer’s instructions carefully for submitting the résumé.”