Online Applications and ATS Explained

Online Applications and ATS Explained

“Your CV or application will most likely be scanned by an ATS (or Applicant Tracking System) before a human ever sees it, so it’s crucial to make sure that you’re sending documents that satisfy both humans and computers.”


There was once a time when you’d print (or even hand-write!) your CV and post it off to a company, before settling in to wait for weeks to see if your application had been successful.

These days it’s a very different story.  When you’ve written your CV or application form (or had the lovely team at CV Knowhow write it for you), you can pop it on an email or upload it directly, knowing it will be with the recruiter within moments.

More efficient, certainly, but do you know how to optimise this new style of application to give yourself the best possible chance of securing your dream role?

Your CV or application will most likely be scanned by an ATS (or Applicant Tracking System) before a human ever sees it, so it’s crucial to make sure that you’re sending documents that satisfy both humans and computers.

What is an ATS?

An ATS works by scanning your CV and storing the details, enabling recruiters to search for CVs containing the keywords relevant to the job they are advertising. The more relevant keywords your CV includes, the higher in the search results you’ll place and the higher your chance of being selected for the next stage.  It kind of sucks that your future is being decided, in the first instance at least, by a computer, but on the other hand it means that if you’re unsuccessful with your application, your CV can be stored and may be selected in the future.

Optimising your CV for the ATS

So, how can you get the ATS to notice you?  Think hard about the keywords that are relevant to your experience and target role, then do your research to make sure you haven’t missed anything.  Analyse adverts for the kind of roles you’ll be applying for and check out the LinkedIn profiles of professionals in a similar field – you’ll probably find inspiration for new skills and keywords that you should be including.

Aim to avoid CV clichés – to the ATS they’re not likely to be picked out in a search and to a human recruiter they’re so over-used they’re virtually meaningless.  If a company is looking for a Project Manager, it’s likely they’ll be searching for words such as “project manager”, “project management”, “budget”, “quality”, “risk” and so on.  The chances of them searching for “hardworking”, “team player” or “enthusiastic” are minimal.

Regarding the format, Microsoft Word is your best option as it’s a very common application which most ATSs can process.  PDFs are also a popular choice, but frequently the layout gets ruined by the ATS, so they aren’t always read correctly.

Finally, think about the presentation.  If it looks professional to a human recruiter, it’s likely to please the ATS too, but there are a few rules to bear in mind.  Don’t use tables – the ATS doesn’t know whether to read them top-to-bottom or side-to-side, so could end up producing a garbled load of nonsense.  Use a standard font, such as Arial or Calibri.  Over-elaborate fonts are hard for humans to read, particularly on a screen, and non-standard fonts may cause problems for the ATS.  Lastly, avoid graphics and minimise the use of colour – neither of these things looks professional, and the graphics will mess up the format when the ATS processes the document.  If you stick to black Arial 10-point font, you can’t go far wrong.

Emailing your CV

Debate continues to rage about whether cover letters or CVs should be sent as attachments or pasted into the body of the email.  There are pros and cons to each method, so all you can do is bear the arguments in mind and decide which will work best for you.

If you send the documents as an attachment, you’ll retain the formatting you worked so hard on and can be sure that the recipient is viewing the document exactly as you intended.  Don’t forget to give the documents a relevant file name – preferably including your name, not just “CV”!

If you paste the document into the body of the email, you eliminate the risk of the email being deleted either by a spam filter or by someone aware of the dangers of opening unsolicited attachments.

Online Applications

The appeal of online applications to the employer is clear – they can ask key questions before starting the interview process, and information from every candidate is presented consistently.

A liberal sprinkling of keywords is just as vital to an online application as it is to a CV.  The fact-based questions such as your contact details and qualifications shouldn’t cause too much trouble, but the competency-based questions, such as “tell me about a time when…”, are a different kettle of fish altogether.


Competency-based questions are best tackled using the STAR approach.  Choose a specific example to answer the question, and explain the Situation, the Task, your Actions and the Result.  The main focus should be on the actions, as this will enable the recruiter to understand how you approach situations and develop solutions.  The result, wherever possible, should be quantifiable.

Motivation Questions

Online applications frequently include questions such as why you want to work for the organisation, what has attracted you to the position advertised and even the very vague “tell us about yourself”.  It is crucial here to do your research so that you can show an up-to-date understanding of the industry, the company and the role.  Focus your answers on what you can do for the company, rather than what they can do for you.

Presenting a Polished Application

It is advisable to prepare your answers on a new Microsoft Word document initially, before copying and pasting them into the application form.  Not only can you save your answers to refer to when completing future applications, but you also have more liberty to play around with your wording and ideas if you don’t have to worry about accidentally hitting “submit”.

It also gives you the chance to use the spell-check function (although ensure you still perform a common-sense check yourself) and the review function (to check that the word- or character-count falls within the allocated limits).

Finally, ensure you have complied with all instructions provided, completed all sections of the application and uploaded any requested supporting documentation.

Go get it!

Now you know how the recruitment process works in 2018, you’re ready to blow recruiters away with your CV and application forms.  We wish you luck in your quest – your dream job is a mere click away.

If you’re still unsure, feel free to submit your CV for a free review. The experts at CV Knowhow would be happy to provide constructive feedback on your CV, with no obligation.  Happy job hunting!

I started off as a CV Consultant here at CV Knowhow and I am now the Writing & Service Manager. I have a degree in Classical History & Philosophy and after graduating, I experienced the heartbreak of searching for jobs with no real idea of how to apply or write a CV. I love being creative and using my skills to help others, the best part of my day is when someone we have helped gets in touch and lets us know they have secured their dream job! I am usually found in the office with a brew (tea, not coffee!) and my main weakness is cheese, preferably melted on toast, but on a cracker works just as well.