Applicant Tracking System Starter Guide: Learn the Basics

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The typical recruiting process has multiple moving parts, including updating job specifications, preparing recruitment material, sourcing and attracting candidates, screening candidates, and conducting interviews. These tasks can be challenging to coordinate. Yet, despite the workload, recruiters and HR managers are expected to find qualified candidates and fill positions quickly and efficiently. Therefore, an applicant tracking system (ATS) is a must-have solution in a recruiter’s toolkit, allowing them to automate most of these tasks. 

The 4 Best Applicant Tracking Software Tools 

We tested more than two dozen applicant tracking systems to find the best one. Ultimately, four software tools made it to our list, which you can check out in our best applicant tracking software post. Below we have the best applicant tracking systems:

  • BambooHR – Best for HR Teams that Handle Recruiting Themselves
  • Workable – Best for Filling A Niche Position Quickly
  • BreezyHR – Best for Lowering Your Cost to Hire 
  • JazzHR – Best for Companies That Are Always Recruiting 

What is an Applicant Tracking System?

An applicant tracking system (ATS) is a computer software program designed to automate and streamline an organization’s entire recruitment process. The software features may vary depending on the provider. However, one of the software’s basic capabilities is tracking candidates throughout the hiring process, from reviewing resumes, scheduling interviews, compiling feedback, and extending offers to successful candidates. 

For example, even the most basic ATS has database functionality to store candidate information. The system also makes the data searchable, so recruiters or hiring managers can easily pull relevant information on demand. Similarly, the ATS can pre-screen applicants and automatically recommend candidates to proceed to the next phase of the hiring process. 

Finally, ATS features primarily focus on improving the hiring process for recruiters and candidates. For example, the software can help recruiters create compelling job descriptions to attract high-quality candidates. Likewise, a sound system creates a positive candidate experience and likely increases top applicants’ job offer acceptance rate. 

How Does an Applicant Tracking System Work? 

Remember that a good applicant tracking system should digitize, automate, and streamline as much of the hiring process as possible. So the following section looks at how the ideal ATS works. 

The typical talent acquisition process starts with a job requisition. For example, a department manager may create a job requisition to formally request new hires or create a new position in the company. The document may include details like justification for a new hire, the department that needs the new employee, job responsibilities, ideal start date, pay and benefits, and other information.

Most advanced ATS lets you create job requisitions. Then HR approves the requisition. Next, the software may create a candidate profile using details in the requisition form. Alternatively, the hiring manager may generate the candidate profile manually. 

The ATS software also helps create job descriptions, usually from built-in templates. The software also allows you to post the openings on multiple mediums, including internally, on the corporate website, and on public job boards.  

Screenshot from BambooHR's applicant tracking web page of a job description for their customer service team lead.
BambooHR lets you create job description templates.

Next, candidates submit their applications which the ATS collects and stores in a database. The candidates may be asked to answer specific questions such as their education and work experience. Most ATS allows you to set parameters to automatically reject candidates that don’t meet the minimum job requirements. 

Additionally, most ATS automatically parse resumes and rank applicants based on how well they match the job requirements. From here, it’s easy for recruiters to sort the applications and invite qualified candidates for interviews manually. 

Again, the ATS lets you invite qualified candidates for interviews. The software can also automatically send rejection letters to unqualified candidates at the click of a button. You may also enter notes in the ATS for each corresponding candidate during interviews to review later. 

Finally, you can send offer letters to qualified candidates from the ATS. The candidates can also use the software to accept the job offer, usually without signing up or registering for the software. Many advanced applicant tracking systems also let you onboard new hires. 

Who Needs an Applicant Tracking System? 

Most organizations have no trouble justifying acquiring marketing, accounting, sales, and messaging software. However, it’s not always clear if an applicant tracking system should be a priority. Fortunately, there are multiple signs that it is time to invest in an ATS. 

The first obvious sign that you need an ATS is if your recruitment process takes too much time. You can quickly eliminate manual tasks like posting ads to job boards, checking, categorizing, and filing applications, sending receipts of application emails, and weeding out irrelevant candidates. If you spend too much time on these tasks, an ATS can save you time and effort. 

Similarly, an ATS is helpful if you’ve noticed an influx of irrelevant or unqualified resumes and applications. An applicant tracking system can help you set up screening questions to identify candidates that meet your core or minimum requirements. This way, you don’t have to spend unnecessary time on unwanted applications. 

You should also consider investing in an ATS if you’re having trouble collecting recruitment data or creating reports. Recruitment reports are critical for identifying challenges and areas of improvement, streamlining future talent acquisition, and predicting ROI for each hiring decision. An ATS quickly generates reports with essential metrics like time-to-disqualify, cost and time saved, time-to-fill, and quality-per-hire. 

Screenshot from BammbooHR's applicant tracking web page of their candidate funnel with metrics for applicants.
BambooHR has excellent tracking metrics you can use to see how your recruitment process works.

Consider also using an applicant tracking system if you don’t have a career site or want to improve an existing one. A good career site can help optimize recruitment and attract new talent directly. In addition, most ATS help you create and customize a career site or page to highlight your brand. 

Finally, consider using an applicant tracking system if you use external recruiters for all your hiring needs. External recruiters are helpful for high-level or difficult-to-fill positions. However, using an ATS can save costs for low to mid-level hires. In addition, the software helps create a streamlined hiring process to increase the quality of your hiring pipeline for these positions.  

Key Features of an Applicant Tracking System 

Some applicant tracking systems offer more robust features than others. So it is essential to know what you want the system to do. Below are some of the most sought-out ATS features. 

Job Distribution – One core feature of ATS is distributing job postings to as many job boards and recruitment sites as possible. Casting a wide net helps to improve your applicant pool and the chances of finding the best candidate. It will also save you time and effort copying and pasting the postings to various sites. 

This integration is also helpful for screening resumes. The ATS should let you access applications from various job boards within the system. It will save you time logging into disparate boards to screen resumes. 

Keyword Filters – Filters are another basic ATS functionality. You should be able to define criteria such as location, application date, assessment status, and qualifications. Candidates matching your criteria appear on top, allowing you to review candidates quickly. 

It’s worth noting that the system doesn’t disqualify candidates based on keywords. Instead, these keywords allow you to search applicants based on criteria like availability, education, work experience, and travel preferences. It’s a convenient feature for narrowing down the candidate pool. 

Career Pages – Many applicant tracking systems provide a customizable career page layout. You can easily embed the page on your website and let candidates submit applications from the company website. These applications immediately appear in your ATS dashboard. 

The careers page builder should also be customizable. For example, you should be able to simplify application steps, add sections, and include your company logo and branding. This feature should also offer analytics to track the careers page’s performance. 

Interview Management – The ideal ATS lets you communicate with shortlisted candidates directly from the platform. Additionally, most software integrates with supporting tools like Google Meet, Zoom, and Google Calendar to help schedule and conduct interviews. Ideally, the software should allow you to take notes during interviews to review in the next stage of the recruitment process. 

Similarly, you want an interview management feature with alerts and notifications. For example, the alert may be an email or message reminding the recruiter and interviewee of the upcoming interview. More advanced software uses AI to translate schedules and determine the optimal interview times. 

Collaboration – The recruitment process has multiple people, including the recruiter, HR manager, direct supervisor, CEO, and hiring manager. An ATS system should support communication and collaboration among interested parties. For example, email integration or a team chat feature can optimize information sharing during the recruitment process. 

Smart Analytics and Reporting – Analytics and reporting are essential for improving and streamlining the recruitment process. Most ATS offers critical insights into the process, including metrics like the cost of acquisition, time to hire, and diversity compliance. It’s a valuable feature for determining what works and what could be improved. 

Onboarding Features – A robust ATS helps eliminate the need for a separate software stack. For example, an onboarding feature means you don’t need additional HR software. The onboarding features may include a welcome email, an overview of employee benefits, and document signing.

Data Privacy Compliance – Many organizations implementing applicant tracking systems overlook data privacy and compliance. Many data privacy laws govern the collecting, storing, and disseminating of personal information. These include the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA), and California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA). So it is vital to choose a secure system. 

Therefore, look for an ATS with built-in security. These features may include access control, HTTPS enabled, and data encryption. Knowing the specific data protection laws governing your industry and choosing software with built-in compliance is also helpful. 

You can start by listing the challenges you want to solve in your recruitment process. Then assess the software’s features to determine whether it fits well. If more features lead to higher costs, identify the must-haves and set your budget accordingly. 

Best Practices for Hiring With an Application Tracking System 

An applicant tracking system is not a magic wand to solve all your recruiting problems. Instead, it is a supporting tool that helps optimize a well-thought-out talent acquisition process. Despite automation, there’s still the human element involved in the hiring process. 

The first step is to choose the best applicant tracking system for your use case. This process involves identifying the high-priority features and selecting a system that aligns with your unique needs and requirements. 

It’s also helpful to identify specific hiring goals, such as improving candidate interview review results, reducing new hire failure rates, accelerating the hiring process, or increasing job acceptance rates. Then, choose software that supports achieving these goals. 

Secondly, most applicant tracking systems offer a free trial or demonstration. The trial period allows you to test the software risk-free. So take advantage of the opportunity and try two or three software before purchasing. 

Third, involve key people in the software implementation. Employee buy-in is crucial when implementing software likely to change or interrupt the current workflow. Therefore, involve key stakeholders such as hiring managers, recruiters, direct supervisors, and HR leaders when assessing, testing, and purchasing the system. 

Furthermore, ATS can help create and distribute job postings quickly. However, it is not designed to refine or improve the quality of job descriptions and postings. Therefore, ensure that your job descriptions are thorough and accurate to increase your chances of matching with the best candidates. 

Finally, use broad and versatile keywords when using keywords to filter candidates. Some strong candidates may fail to integrate exact keywords in their resumes despite being qualified. Therefore, use filters cautiously and cast a wide net with your keywords.

Final Thoughts About Applicant Tracking Systems   

Applicant tracking systems (ATS) have multiple benefits, including time-saving, simplified job posting, improved cost per hire, and high-quality analytics. However, you can only leverage these benefits by choosing the best ATS for your specific usage. Therefore, it’s crucial to identify recruitment goals and challenges to help determine the best software for your needs. 

It’s also worth remembering that an ATS won’t solve all your recruiting needs. For example, you still have to create compelling and detailed job postings, present your company culture positively, and adjust your application process to the prevailing recruitment market to attract the best candidates. 

Finally, take advantage of free trials or demos before committing to the ATS. Check that the software makes your job easier rather than more complicated. Also, ensure that the software integrates with your existing software stacks, such as e-signature apps, file storage apps, business communication platforms, and employee onboarding tools. 

Below are two more related QuickSprout posts to supplement this guide to applicant tracking systems. 

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