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How to Beat the Applicant Tracking System (ATS): A Complete Guide for Remote Jobs




Remote Job Hunting




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What is an applicant tracking system?

If you’re on a remote job search, chances are you’ve encountered one of these without even realizing it. And this software may be the sole reason why you haven’t been contacted for an interview.

As we talked about in our guide on 7 Reasons Why You’re Not Landing That Remote Job, your resume and cover letter have to pass checks in applicant tracking systems (ATS) before ever reaching hiring managers.

If you can’t make it past these checkpoints, your application may as well be invisible. 

That’s why we’re diving into everything you need to know about how ATS works and how to play nice with them. Once you figure out this strategy, you’ll increase your chances of making it to the next round and scoring the remote role you’ve been chasing.

So let’s start with the basics:

What is an Applicant Tracking System (ATS)?

An applicant tracking system is software designed to help hiring teams separate well-qualified candidates from less-qualified ones.

So how does an applicant tracking system work?

Essentially, hiring managers program specific keywords relevant to each position into the ATS. The software then scans all the resumes the job posting receives to see which applications hit those exact terms.

If your resume includes the specific keywords hiring managers are looking for, it gets routed to the next stage (yay!). But if ATS doesn’t find those keywords, your application may wind up in a folder never to be seen by anyone.

This means you may never hear back from a company you applied to even though you have all the experience and qualifications the job calls for.

So Why Do Companies Use ATS?

As frustrating as that sounds, ATS is not designed to trick applicants or unknowingly turn away experienced candidates like you.

Put simply, ATS helps hiring teams whittle down their giant stack of resumes to save time. 

A single job post could garner over 300 applications, but there’s no way a hiring manager could possibly read through all of them. Multiply this by all the open positions a company has, and you can see the problem.

ATS helps hiring teams zone in on the best candidates in the shortest amount of time.

Think of it this way: when you’re shopping online, you use filters to help you find exactly what you’re looking for. Let’s say you’re buying sneakers. You filter out your choices using your size, a specific color, brand, and other defining characteristics.

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That’s precisely what ATS does.

The software is programmed with specific job titles, education or certification requirements, and even must-have skills and abilities. 

That’s why over 90% of companies use applicant tracking systems

And with such a high probability of your resume going through ATS, it’s 100% necessary to optimize your job search documents to pass the test.

You want your resume and cover letter to get past this initial gatekeeper and into the hands of an actual human who can see just how experienced and perfect you are for the role.

How to Beat the Applicant Tracking System (ATS): A Step-By-Step Guide

Now, when we talk about “beating” applicant tracking software, we don’t mean tricking or hacking it, using shady tactics, or stuffing your resume with unearned buzzwords.

These may get you through to the next round, but you’ll only be wasting everyone’s time from there (including your own). When a hiring manager calls, they’ll soon realize you’re not the candidate they thought they had on paper.

So a better tactic is to optimize your resume for applicant tracking systems.

This ensures you show off everything you have to offer in a way that gets hiring teams to see why you’re the best fit.

Follow these three steps, and you’ll do just that:


Step 1: Read the Remote Job Ad Carefully and Highlight Relevant Keywords

When it comes to decoding the secret language of remote job descriptions, you always want to have a highlighter on hand.

So if you find a job you think you’d be perfect for, copy the description into a blank doc or print it out. 

Your goal is to uncover the exact keywords a hiring manager used because, chances are, they programmed these same terms into their ATS. And that means your job search documents must have them too.

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For example, if the job ad mentions experience as a “marketing specialist,” your resume won’t get picked up if you choose to use “marketing consultant.”

Even though they probably mean the same thing and are a close match to a human reader, ATS isn’t smart enough to make that connection.

So if this is the case, you can simply swap the terms out on your resume, and you’ll be golden.

You’ll also want to highlight the specific tools, software, programming language, certifications, etc., mentioned as well. 

Your homework: Set up a job search spreadsheet.

When you start sifting through keywords in the job ads you’re interested in, you’ll notice that hiring managers include different terms, software proficiencies, qualifications, etc.

Setting up a spreadsheet can be super helpful for keeping things organized here.

Under each position on your spreadsheet, you can add all the keywords and terms you’ll need to hit for that specific role. Once you know which words the ATS will be looking for, you can move on to:


Step 2: Add The Keywords You Found To Your Cover Letter and Resume

By now, you should have a list of specific keywords and terms you discovered in step one. So now it’s time to sprinkle those throughout your resume and cover letter.

That’s what hiring experts mean when they say you should learn how to tailor your resume to your dream remote job.

Again, this isn’t about “stuffing” those keywords anywhere you can and as often as possible. Your resume and cover letter must sound authentic, or hiring teams will wonder whether you really have the experience or qualifications you crammed into your documents.

So be strategic about where you place each one. Make sure they fit in the appropriate sections of your resume and sound natural. 

You may want to reserve some keywords about your traits and abilities for your cover letter while adding matching titles and job duties to your resume. Then consider creating a bullet point list to share your software proficiencies, strengths, or certifications.

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Your homework: Find homes for your new keywords in your job search documents.

Take your spreadsheet or list of keywords and grab your current resume and cover letter.

Add any keywords you uncovered in step one to the appropriate places in your documents. Then make sure to highlight each term on your list, so you know you’ve used it.

You may also want to highlight the keywords in your resume and cover letter. This will show you how many keywords you’ve used and how often you’ve used them.

Ideally, you’ll want to use those terms in your documents at least two or three times (maybe even more, just to be safe). But you’ll also need to balance this and resist the urge to go overboard here.

Make sure to remove these highlights from your documents when you’re happy with the mix.

But before you call it a day and submit your application, there’s one more step to take:


Step 3: Double-Check Your Cover Letter and Resume For These Two Things

Even though ATS takes the heavy lifting out of finding qualified remote candidates, an algorithm will not send you an offer letter.

Your resume and cover letter are still going to be read and discussed by actual human HR teams. So you have to make sure these documents read well and are free of spelling and grammar mistakes. Sites like Grammarly can help during your editing and proofreading stages.

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Additionally, you must make sure the tone of your resume matches the tone of the job ad. This shows hiring managers you’ll be a natural fit for their company culture and the team.

Your homework: Go back to the job ad and analyze the tone. Is it more casual and fun or more professional and polished? Whatever it is, your resume and cover letter should match.

Extra credit tip: Watch out for subtle directions in the job ad you may have overlooked.

Some companies like to add key details to their job ads to see how well candidates pay attention and follow directions. This can include asking you to list your favorite zoo animal somewhere in your resume or cover letter, or something similar.

This helps HR teams further separate the candidates who made it past ATS. They can weed out candidates who were too busy to notice this detail, while learning a bit about those who comply with their request. 

Final Thoughts on How to Beat the Applicant Tracking System

Now that you know more about applicant tracking systems, you’re ready to optimize your resume and cover letter to make them work in your favor.

Do this, and you’ll have a much better chance of making it past the initial round and impressing hiring managers at the next step, which can both increase your odds of landing that remote job you’ve been eyeing.

Though this may sound like extra work, we promise it will pay off. Following this approach each time you apply for a job allows you to create laser-focused job documents that prove you’re the best candidate for the role.

You may also want to correct these reasons you’re not landing that remote job too.

Keep checking We Work Remotely for open positions in your field, and sign up for notifications so you’re the first to apply to them. 

Check out the WWR Learning Portal too! It’s your number one destination for everything you need to grow and thrive in your remote career.


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