ATSs (Applicant Tracking Systems) are tools used by employers to receive and store job applications to be reviewed by the recruiter. Debunking the ATS myths requires us to look at what it is, how it works, and how to create CVs that comply with it.

To obtain a driver’s license in South Africa, you must be tested on your ability to apply the K53 driving style. Some rules enforced in this driving style are impractical for daily driving. I don’t know a single person who still drives in this way after obtaining their driver’s license.

Understanding the recruitment system when you’re about to enter a job search is much the same. Some of the things you come up against will seem almost nonsensical, but that’s how they work, so you will have to conform to be effective within the system.


One primary point of contention within the recruitment system is ATS. 75% of recruiters and 98% of Fortune 500 companies use ATS. It is, quite simply, a talent management database designed to receive and store application CVs and other data.

When you embark on a job search, you’ll become inundated with conflicting information about how these systems work and how to “beat the bots”. Don’t get sucked into nonsensical research about identifying ATS. Just assume that you will encounter them, stop believing the hype, and start using some common sense.

Before we get into the Do’s and Don’t of ATS, let’s quickly unpack how they work and where they feature.


When you apply for a position, your application information goes into the database (ATS) of the company or recruiter. Understand that very few recruiters will read every application – there frankly isn’t enough time. More effectively, a keyword search will be conducted by the recruiter on the bulk of applications and he/she will use this method to start compiling their shortlist. Right here is the first place where CVs begin slipping through the cracks. If your application does not contain keywords the recruiter uses, they will unfortunately not see your CV.

Recruiters prefer to use active search techniques to compile their shortlist rather than relying on “ad response”. As a recruiter, I checked my ad response only once every three to four weeks – I rarely relied on ad response. Understanding this eliminates a major headache.


Like all computer systems, some have preferences for the type of information they “like”. If you have you ever opened a corrupt document, and it looked something like this:

Non ATS Compliant Documents In An ATS System
Above is the result when your editing program doesn’t “talk” to the ATS. And it’s not great news.

Even though I only advocate a 20% reliance on being found through an ATS. If your application is found, you want to make sure that your documents are legible!

So this should be simple, right? Just figure out what the ATS likes, and comply accordingly?


Because there are so many ATSs out there, it is virtually impossible to compile a single conclusive list of dos and don’ts for ensuring ATS compliance. Every system is different, and each one has its unique quirks – these differences can very quickly run into the hundreds. To create a CV complicit with every ATS out there:

  • Firstly we’d have to know which system each company was using – which is virtually impossible since it’s a back-end system and rarely visible.
  • Then, create a CV for every system – which is just as difficult due to the number of different versions.


Some don’t like formatting, others don’t like images, yet others don’t like tables or columns, and others still don’t like serif fonts. The list goes on.

The workaround? Create a simple document. Steer clear of heavy formatting. If you want pretty, do pretty on your LinkedIn profile. But when it comes to your CV, keep it as simple as possible. Save a Word and PDF version, and then go to it.

My rule of thumb is as follows:

  • Black text on white paper
  • Calibri or similar sans serif font
  • No tables or columns
  • No images, graphics or colours
  • Plain round bullet points
  • For emphasis – use only bold, underline or italic
  • When applying online, submit in the requested format – word or PDF

And that’s it. That is how you create an ATS compliant CV.


Imagine, for a moment, that for every application you submit, you have to walk into a big warehouse and file your CV somewhere for the recruiters to look at it. The warehouse has aisle and shelf labels, but you’re not sure what some mean; you do the best you can and put your CV on a shelf that makes sense to you.

Now it’s time for the recruiter to come along and access your application, so she starts searching. She’s had advanced training in this warehouse and knows how to find needles in this haystack.

But we’ve forgotten one thing – she didn’t file the document; you did, and you don’t have the training she does!

The haystack is the ATS, and the labels are the keywords. Now imagine the recruiter’s looking for a receptionist. She will use various keywords, but “receptionist” will likely feature large in her repertoire. Although you’re suited for the role, you’ve never been a receptionist, or perhaps your last company named the position differently. That recruiter will never find your CV simply because you’ve never used the word in your CV.

Or perhaps you’ve completed your industry and sector field in reverse? Remember, it’s just a computer system. If you understand a field to mean something, but the programmers understand it differently, you are already lost in translation.

My advice, do what you can to ensure you’ve used the right keywords and completed the correct fields. Then sign up for the Digital Masterclass and learn how you can maximise your applications and…


Remain mindful of the people in the system whilst you’re navigating all of these complex and unreliable technologies. There’s a reason that up to 80% of all hires are word of mouth; it’s all about the people. If you don’t learn how to: network effectively, maximise your applications and circumvent the tech, you’re almost dead in the water.

My final bit of advice – in a digital world, go analogue. Your future self will thank you for it 😉