The Definitive Guide to
Applicant Tracking Systems

Applicant Tracking SoftwareSourcing top talent has become a key responsibility, and challenge, for almost every HR department.

Fortunately applicant tracking systems can help automate much of the process, including:

  • Collecting job applications
  • Parsing and analyzing resumes
  • Identifying top prospective candidates
  • Manage and organize the applicant review process

By handling much of the administrative work and repetitive tasks, applicant tracking solutions save time, reduce stress and allow HR to focus on finding the best candidate for the job.

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Benefits of Applicant Tracking

Between finding ideal candidates and comparing them to one another, hiring managers need to keep a reliable record of the talent available.

Applicant tracking systems compile all the information about a potential employee in one spot, streamlining the steps to hiring new personnel and encouraging team collaboration through a transparent platform.

Did You Know: Companies using applicant tracking software are 40% more likely to be best-in-class.

Applicant tracking helps HR managers and recruiters to:

Shorten Hiring Cycles

Companies must act fast to get the best applicants for a job — ‘A’ players don’t remain on the market for very long.

To keep your search competitive, the hiring process needs to be as quick as possible. Otherwise, applicants start to think you’re “stringing them along.”

According to HR expert Jerome Ternyck, the greatest challenge for recruitment these days is to “write a killer job ad, cast a wide net, engage deeply with candidates and collaborate to interview, assess and make a decision – all within two weeks.”

Screening should take place in the first week, with interviews wrapped up by the end of the second, giving HR a very tight window for making a hiring decision.

With mobile functionality on the rise, employers can connect with desirable talent at a moment’s notice. Many applicant tracking systems have mobile functionality to help hiring managers review the hiring cycle at any time.

Much of the process is automated, which drastically reduces the need for personnel to touch base early in the application phase.

Pro Tip: Shorten the time it takes to make hiring decisions to catch top talent before they jump at another offer.

Attract Top Candidates

On average, an organization spends $3,500 or more just to hire a new employee. This can easily creep up by hiring someone who isn’t suited for the position. With applicants figuring out ways to game the system, employers can use all the help they can get to attract the right candidate for the position.

The candidate’s application experience is often overlooked, but plays a significant role for the bigger picture of talent sourcing. Recruiters can easily boost their organization’s reputation and attract a larger pool of qualified applicants if positively influencing the candidate’s experience.

ATS solutions have grown to offer features that not only help create effective job requisitions and postings, but also simplify the application process, keeping a candidate engaged with your company from the very start.

An easy-to-use job portal, for instance, allows candidates to manage their own applicant profile and quickly apply for desired positions without having to fill out multiple applications.

And automated communication allows you to reach out to each applicant, ultimately improving your company’s brand.

According to CareerBuilder’s 2015 Candidate Behavior Study, 67% of job seekers are more likely to buy from a company that provided consistent updates in the application process. Yet only 40% of the applications candidates submitted even received a response from the employer.

Keeping the application process simple and candidates informed can offer more benefits than initially meets the eye.

Pro Tip: Save time by focusing on candidates who are engaged in the process.

Reduce Administrative Work

With applicant tracking systems quickly expanding beyond just resume storage, more and more hiring managers are becoming dependent on the software. In fact, in its 2015 North American Staffing and Recruiting Trends Survey, Bullhorn found that 77% of recruiters admitted they need an ATS to do their jobs effectively.

Applicant tracking systems give recruiters and HR managers the ability to automate tasks and create customized workflows. This allows quick organization and retrieval of candidate files, making vital applicant information only a few clicks away.

When comparing applicants, the process shouldn’t be an “apples to oranges” exercise. The advanced tracking techniques of an ATS make resume overviews and comparisons more efficient by placing the candidates’ experiences, skills and talent side-by-side.

Did You Know: 73% of employers say that making a bad hire is far more costly than leaving the position open

Applicant tracking systems lay out each candidate’s criteria objectively, helping to prevent bias when making a decision. A hiring manager might reject resumes with minor errors or because of personal dissatisfaction, but the software looks to accept the resumes that best fit the position.

Ensure Compliance

An ATS can help you get more insight into your applicants, which can help you find the talent you need to grow. And the software can help you keep an eye on your company’s compliance with federal requirements and labor laws.

The software also has categories where applicants can list their sex and race to keep tabs on diverse hiring. All account activity can be tracked to keep your hiring search legally transparent, allowing administration to focus on other matters.

Key Features of Applicant Tracking

Applicant tracking systems help with your hiring search from day one.

The areas that store resumes are linked with the software and imported into your system.

The applications are then stored in one portal, giving you access to a variety of tools for categorizing, ranking and communicating with your candidates.

The following features automate some time-consuming tasks to help HR narrow the candidate pool before inviting job seekers to an interview:

Resume Collection and Parsing

Resumes can be imported from a number of places, including a customized applicant portal, emails or social media. Then they can be stored in the system for easy review.

Integrate with a branded portal

One way to gather information on candidates while familiarizing them with your brand is to redirect them from your company site to a branded applicant portal for uploading resumes.

The process is seamless on the applicant’s end. After navigating to the portal from the company’s site, the applicant still sees your brand name and can peruse over mission statements or company values as he or she submits an application directly to your system.

Additional information can be requested within the portal so you get a full picture of each candidate. You can even publish jobs directly through the portal to job board sites for a one-stop process in marketing the position.

From the start of the hiring process, a branded portal can help candidates get familiar with company values. Having engaged employees helps decrease turnover rates in the long run, and it’s a determining factor in identifying top performers.

Pro Tip: Use a branded applicant portal to attract higher quality candidates to your career site.

As for other portals, you can also publish jobs as an account administrator directly through the system to job board sites for a one-stop process in marketing the position.

This is called a “Plug and Play” method of integration, where the ATS is built to collect applicants from any avenue. MyStaffingPro described to us this type of integration model:

“We provide the career search screen for applicants to apply, allowing us to manage the prescreening and back-end process. Recruiters can apply this to job boards, background checkers, and social media pages, then loop these applicants back into the ATS system, keeping all candidates in one place.”

-Julia Friemering
Marketing Manager

Import through email

Resumes can also be directly imported from your email into the system.

If you connect with an applicant through email, the system can take the resume file and compare it with other saved resumes.

Different resume collection features allow for advanced recruiting by connecting with social media to find qualified applicants.

Upload to a parsing system

Whether they’re submitted through a portal or pulled from an email, uploaded resumes are all sent through a system where each application is parsed to see if it contains information relevant to the position’s criteria.

The parsing system works by matching keywords from the resume to the job position. Applicants are sorted according to how well they align with the requirements you’ve set for the job.

The resume is tracked through the system after being parsed, and the software compares the results to similar candidates. A hiring team can then quickly rate how well applicants meet the job’s basic criteria.

Automated Communication

It’s important to establish a personal connection with applicants without complicating the hiring process. Manually emailing each candidate to gauge their interest takes much longer than simply sending automated messages.

Applicant tracking software can help streamline the communication process, allowing you to reach multiple applicants without watering down your message.

While your applicants move through the pipeline as unscreened, screened, interviewed, and given an offer, automated messages keep them in the loop with a timeframe.

Other communication features save time by including templates for:

  • Screening surveys
  • Scheduling video or in-person interviews
  • Promoting job positions

The templates allow you to fill in names, dates and other descriptors. An email can then be sent to a wide range of applicants.

Screening surveys are particularly beneficial because you can use them to directly ask candidates additional questions and narrow them down based on their responses.

Pro Tip: Consider unique ways of promoting your brand such as embedding videos in your emails to show a friendly face and voice.

Measure candidate engagement

Some applicant tracking systems allow you to track your email sends and see exactly who’s opening the message, clicking your links and replying with interest. This way, you know which candidates will be easiest to connect with.

Much of your early hiring process can become automated so that once candidates reach certain points, they’ll be engaged without needing immediate attention from the hiring team.

The software keeps track of applicants who are most involved with the process, weeding out applicants merely “window shopping” for the position.

Pro Tip: Speed up your hiring cycle by cutting out less engaged applicants early on, giving you plenty of time to look over top contenders.

Custom Workflow and Team Collaboration

According to Silicon Valley HR thought-leader Dr. John Sullivan, collaborative hiring can eliminate biases of HR managers and benefit the overall process in three major areas:

  1. Improved hiring results
  2. Improved productivity
  3. Retention benefits

Despite the top-down-decision-making mentality that HR managers have had for years, finding a perfect fit for a position includes getting opinions from the team members who will work directly with the new hire.

With a collaborative portal, you can run qualified applicants by your team to include it in the hiring process.

Automated team scoring

Automated scoring lets team members rank each applicant and leave comments side by side with the application.

An average score shows your team’s overall grade on the applicant, which gives you an objective way to compare each top candidate.

Pro Tip: Allow different team members to give feedback on candidates that connects the candidate’s skills and experiences to on-the-job challenges.

Recruitment workflows

Custom workflows keep track of the recruitment process and put everyone on the same page.

The platform gives you visual feedback on your hiring strategy’s progress, showing you:

  • How many applicants have been reviewed
  • How your team ranks them
  • Schedules for future interviews

By keeping your hiring approach in order, you’re able to delegate needed time and resources down to a “T.” Including your team in the hiring strategy has never been easier.

Did you know: Once a candidate is in the system, they remain in your pipeline for future hires. Being able to reach into a database of talent significantly helps save time for a recruitment workflow.

Social Recruitment

Advanced applicant tracking systems include processes to search for passive candidates, rather than waiting for them to find you.

Criteria for each position can be set and applied to job board sites such as and Indeed, as well as social media sites such as LinkedIn and Twitter. Applicant tracking systems work to align a candidate’s traits with a position, rather than exclude job seekers.

Social talent acquisition

By using social media pools, your talent search can reach passive candidates as well as active ones.

Pro Tip: Engage with passive applicants so they keep your company in mind for future job opportunities.

This hiring strategy goes beyond applicant tracking and into talent acquisition solutions that can transform your current recruitment process.

As a recruiter searches for candidates, the ATS is able to save those queries.

Candidate data is pulled into the system and added to the recruiter’s workflow. Everything is saved along the way to crosscheck with federal requirements and labor laws.

This way, the ATS can create reports to prove recruiters aren’t discriminating in any searches, and leaves an audit trail.

Market Trends

The latest software for applicant tracking includes many recruiting features.

Advanced recruitment strategies collect a broad applicant pool, bringing in even international applicants, ensuring you have a talent spectrum to choose from.

Did You Know: Advanced recruiting features compare how well your job postings perform across social platforms.

Each step of the hiring process can be analyzed, reviewing both your candidates’ CVs and the hiring techniques used to find them.

Here are the top features often bundled with next generation applicant tracking systems:

Mobile Access

The convenience of doing your job on the go applies to hiring managers as well.

Smartphones have become an integral part of both business and personal life. For job searchers, mobile accessibility often determines how they identify positions and connect with employers.

According to LinkedIn reports, 50% of new applicants only apply through mobile devices.

Recruitment strategies that don’t account for mobile technology are missing out on a talent pool that has completely moved beyond the desktop.

Mobile recruiting apps allow applicants to respond to your queries at any time, speeding up the hiring process while including even more screening options.

Social Media Recruitment

User profiles have become digital resumes, and they’re often even more up-to-date than an uploaded CV.

Recruiterbox found that 43% of hiring managers surveyed claim the quality of their applicants has improved since incorporating social recruitment processes.

Employers can tap into talent pools within online communities, reaching out in a professionally personal space for quality candidates.

“As 62% of job seekers expect to find jobs on LinkedIn, 16% on Facebook, and 15% on Google+, recruiters should design a recruitment strategy that includes SEO, social media and job board posting.”

Irene DeNigris
Director of Talent

A global talent pool

With social media hiring, you can reach international candidates in talent pools you couldn’t find otherwise. Finding specialized candidates and bringing their experience into your company gives you a significant advantage over your competition.

While 66% of CEO’s claim their biggest challenge is a lack of talent with the skills necessary for their operations, social media allows any industry to connect directly with qualified applicants for recruiting the next generation workforce.

Networking through social media not only allows you access to an advanced workforce, but also helps to spotlight your brand.

Did You Know: Interacting on social media gives your company an edge by expanding your brand while attracting competitive applicants.

Experts in your field are accessible at any hiring level, whether you’re looking for entry-level IT or upper-management executives. Social media recruiting allows you to do an in-depth search for the most qualified candidates in the market.

Advanced Recruiting Reporting

It’s not always enough to simply attract many applicants and hope the top contenders stand out.

Finding expert talent for the job requires narrowing down and revising your searching techniques, without spending extra time or effort.

Your job posting’s performance

Advanced recruitment reporting tracks the performance of your job posting to show what audience it’s reached and when they’re viewing it.

Your reports can reflect:

  • The status of job seekers in the application process
  • What time of day applicants view your job posting
  • Which job board or career site brings in more applicants
  • The strengths of potential applicants
  • Custom categories applicants fall under
  • Applicants’ engagement in the hiring process
  • Questionnaire answers

Other advanced reporting options for comparing your applicant pool can be customized to display the data you need to make your next hiring decision.

Video Technology

Video technology has been on the rise for HR departments to save both time and money in the hiring process.

Did You Know: 60% of employers use video interviews for remote hiring

More than just a way to chat, video technology has enhanced features specifically for conducting and assessing video interviews with candidates. Here’s a quick look at what the technology can do:

  • Live interview recordings
  • One-way video interviews
  • Digital library for storage
  • Collaboration tools, like ranking systems and sharing features
  • Customized branding for candidate engagement

The tools are built specifically for talent acquisition, helping HR managers and recruiters connect with top candidates around the world.

Video technology also reduces the time it takes to set up an interview, as well as the cost it takes to do so (especially for international applicants). In fact, Accelir and WePow’s collaborative infographic shows that pre-recorded interviews reduce screening time by 47%.

On top of the quantitative benefits, video technology allows employers to evaluate candidates more thoroughly. Emails and phone calls can only go so far with making impressions. Live and one-way video interviews allow you to see a candidate’s nonverbal cues. Beyond that, you then have the videos at your disposal to compare top candidates after narrowing your search.

Video technology vendors have introduced integrations of their software with commonly used ATS solutions, like iCIMS and Taleo. With a seamless application, HR managers review applicant content, sync and manage applicant data, and collaborate with team members without switching between systems.

Applicant Tracking Challenges

Upgrading from spreadsheets can be a daunting move, especially for companies unaccustomed to a tech-focused environment.

For help implementing an applicant tracking system, consider these common pain points and the steps to overcome them:

1. Employees don’t understand how to use the technology

Many HR systems have self-service features, allowing any designated employee to participate in the system.

While self-service is great for engaging employees, not everyone has the right competency to navigate these systems. Vendors continue to develop the most intuitive systems, but business procedures can’t always be simplified.

The best advice for this type of predicament: Communicate with your vendor about end-user needs.

Coordinating with your vendor’s implementation experts gives the insight needed to get everyone on board.

Many vendors offer training seminars, training videos, or live chat/phone call assistance, along with an array of additional options for getting the most bang for your buck.

2. Underdeveloped corporate brand

For new companies to applicant tracking systems, some have never needed to focus on nurturing their brand online.

Online recruitment allows companies to reach a broader audience, allowing them to easily strengthen their brand awareness on a global scale.

But for companies that have never focused on this before, it can be an added challenge.

How Midmark Corporation overcame this challenge:

“To gain participation [on our career sites], we launched monthly contests focused on a particular [social] website… each week a winner received a gift card… At the conclusion of our contests, we found that some pages and accounts doubled or tripled the teammate interaction.”

Launching website contests on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter along with employee referral incentives is a great strategy for driving candidates your way.

Referred employees are found to be 15% less likely to quit their jobs.

3. Recruiters have a workflow that doesn’t mesh well with an ATS

Some users may not use an applicant tracking because they don’t understand the tech, and others just don’t want to.

For recruiters that have only relied on an applicant tracking solution for minor documentation, it’s time to really put the software to use due to:

  • The gold mine of data available for collection and benchmarking practices.
  • The benefits of fully understanding your process for gaining insight on improvements.
  • The ability to discover and keep candidates in your pipeline to recruit for other positions.
  • During an implementation stage, it’s highly important all users adopt the software so that your company can gauge if it’s working right and worth the money.

Lobbying for a new HR solution may sometimes feel like a political campaign, but it’s important to get full buy-in from everyone who will be accessing the system.

4. Top applicants always seem to fall into the notorious “black hole.”

Every resume submitted could lead to the perfect new hire. Letting one slip through the cracks is a reflection of a broken system.

Despite the extraordinary leaps HR technology has made, there’s still a general fear that applicant tracking systems aren’t effective.

Best Practices for Applicant Tracking

Here are some fail-safe tips for getting the most out of your ATS from day one:

  • Collaborate to write the job description: As the system parses resumes for keywords, it’s important to know you’re looking for more than an “organized team player.” In fact, 15-20% of applicants turn out to be unqualified for the job they’ve applied to. Allow co-workers to recommend the skills, experience, and traits they desire in a fellow team member for attracting the right fit.
  • Recommend a resume format and provide an example on your career site: ATS software helps compare resumes by defined categories, and sometimes runs into issues with non-traditional headers and other formatting discrepancies. Give applicants a standard format, or only accept applications through a portal so that candidates fill out the information directly to your system.
  • Automate feedback at every step in the process: The notorious “black hole” is in part due to recruiters dropping applicants into a folder that ends communication. Instead, trigger your automated messages to send throughout the screening and interview process. This way, your applicant pool is kept warm as you move candidates up the chain.
  • Eliminate the “maybe” pile: Some recruiters’ best intentions might lead them to keep applicants on a backburner in case the top candidate falls through, but this only leads to lost applications. When applicants are being considered for the position, notify them. When they are not being considered, notify them. Transparency throughout the process leads to a better candidate relationship, and takes care of the dismal “black hole.”

ATS vs. Recruiting Software

It’s no secret that applicant tracking systems and recruitment software are becoming one in the same. The two types of software have always gone hand-in-hand, and with the defining line becoming blurred, talent acquisition solutions are quick to use the terms alongside each other.

However, there’s still a small gap between the two solutions.

Applicant tracking systems were established as a major feature of recruitment software, originally as a repository for scanned resumes. Recruitment software was considered the complete solution for recruiters and HR managers, including features for candidate management, job requisition and posting management, advanced reporting, social recruiting and post hire management.

But with the market changing, the ATS feature has grown into a robust solution in recruitment software on its own.

Almost every HR software vendor sells an applicant tracking system. To keep up with the competition, vendors have added features like resume collection and parsing, automated communication, social recruitment and more, making the software more of a full solution for recruitment.

The bottom line: applicant tracking systems are still trailing slightly behind recruitment software.

Applicant tracking can efficiently take you through the entire hiring process, but recruitment software can help beyond making the hire. Recruitment solutions include the features of an ATS as well as other talent management aspects such as on-boarding forms and payroll integration.

Although the gap is closing quickly, there are still differences in the capabilities of the two solutions.

ATS Success Stories

Whether you’re hiring for a large corporation or a small business, applicant tracking systems help streamline the process.

The following ATS success stories demonstrate real world hiring dilemmas and the solutions that helped.

Ah Cacao operates across three retail stores and a wholesale location with a total of 35 employees.

With no dedicated HR personnel, an assortment of staff coordinated hiring through Google Docs, but found the process laborious and error prone. Each candidate required custom emails, and managers decided it was time to search for a solution to streamline the process.

With Zoho Recruit, five staff members coordinate the hiring process. They post job openings through the system to the company’s website, and are able to sort applicants into efficient categories as each enters the system. Communication is automated as the candidate moves through the pipeline, enhancing the candidate’s experience and saving significant time.

GE Money needed a hiring solution for meeting challenges common to large organizations.

Over time it developed employees from a small number of colleges, and had an inconsistent and decentralized hiring process.

Thanks to KellyOCG partnered with MyStaffingPro, GE Money was able to revolutionize its career site as well as standardize candidate screening methods to meet quality levels. The company decreased staffing costs by 54%, from a high of $10,847 to a low of $3,300 per hire.

Top Applicant Tracking Solutions

The HR technology space is a rapidly growing market with hundreds of vendors to choose from.

As vendors compete for clients, they continually add revolutionary features and improve customer satisfaction. Choosing one is no easy task.

To narrow down your search, we’ve listed and profiled some of the most popular applicant tracking and recruiting solutions:

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