What is an Applicant Tracking System (ATS)?

Efficient hiring processes are crucial for attracting top talent. One key tool that many companies rely on is the Applicant Tracking System (ATS).  But what is ATS, and how can it streamline your recruitment efforts?

An applicant tracking system (ATS) is the core system used by HR and talent acquisition teams to manage the end-to-end hiring process. It serves as the centralized database for all job candidate records and often integrates with other tools used in the hiring process, such as video interviewing software, talent assessments, background checks, e-signature solutions, and more.

In this guide, we define ATS, outlining its core functions and advanced features. Learn how ATS platforms streamline hiring by distributing job postings, tracking applicants, and improving communication.

Explore modern features like AI integration, customizable workflows, automated scheduling, and advanced reporting to address common recruitment challenges and boost efficiency. Plus, get practical advice on choosing the right ATS, considering industry-specific solutions, company size, and budget alignment.

Table of contents

What Does ATS Stand For?

ATS stands for Applicant Tracking System. You might also hear talent acquisition professionals refer to their ATS as a hiring platform, hiring software, or recruitment software.

What is ATS? Applicant Tracking System Definition

Simply put, an applicant tracking system is where hiring happens. For organizations of a certain size, managing the hiring process requires a robust system to keep workflows, communication, notes, scheduling, collaboration, and more on track. 

Similar to how sales and marketing teams use solutions like Salesforce and HubSpot to manage their processes, talent acquisition teams use applicant tracking systems to manage and enhance the hiring process.

What Does an ATS Do?

What does an applicant tracking system do? Most would tell you that it helps talent acquisition teams manage the hiring process. And that’s true. But that also vastly understates the impact an applicant tracking system can have on an organization’s ability to hire the best people.

The hiring process has many challenges, and the best applicant tracking systems empower HR and talent acquisition teams to solve them. The right applicant tracking system helps recruiters be stewards of the hiring process by enabling them to optimize the candidate and hiring manager experiences.

At the most basic level, an applicant tracking system helps hiring teams:

  • Distribute job postings to multiple job boards with all applicants flowing back to a centralized dashboard
  • Track applicants through the hiring process with hiring workflows and status-tracking
  • Manage bi-directional communication with candidates
  • Parse uploaded resumes
  • Collaborate with hiring managers via shared notes
  • Show active job openings on an organization’s careers page

A Peek Inside Modern Applicant Tracking System Functionality

The basic functionality outlined above is essential for any applicant tracking system. However, the hiring landscape has evolved, and as a result, so has the applicant tracking system market.

An applicant tracking system can no longer just be a system of record. It must increase the capacity of the talent acquisition team, enable a dynamic and flexible candidate experience, create hiring manager accountability, and much more.

Modern Applicant Tracking System Features

What is ATS technology? Many HR software applications claim to offer features comparable to an applicant tracking system meaning they offer basic functionality, but the best will have modern features purpose-built for the challenges of hiring today.

Advanced ATS software is increasingly powered by AI to enhance various recruiting functions. To tackle today’s hiring challenges, modern applicant tracking systems have built features such as:

Customizable and Flexible Hiring Workflows

Hiring processes vary by job and hiring manager, so talent acquisition teams need an ATS that allows for customizing the hiring workflow on a job-by-job basis. Specific candidates may need an altered hiring workflow. 

For example, perhaps you receive an employee referral and want to fast-track the candidate to a later stage in the process. Your ATS should enable you to accomplish this. Customizable and flexible hiring workflows are essential features that an ATS must have to support the adaptability needed by talent acquisition teams.

Task-Driven Systems

The biggest challenge that talent acquisition teams face is keeping all of the stakeholders on track in the hiring process. If hiring managers and other stakeholders are not doing what they need to do when they need to do it, the hiring process stalls, resulting in lost candidates.

A modern applicant tracking system should be task-driven. Stakeholders should be able to log in to see their daily tasks. Completing these hiring tasks on time ensures a smooth hiring process and a positive candidate experience.

Automated Interview Scheduling

Have you ever spent days coordinating with a candidate to schedule an interview with you or a hiring manager?

One effective way to expedite hiring is to implement automated interview scheduling within your applicant tracking system.

  • Save time
  • Increase efficiency
  • Streamline the process

The best applicant tracking systems integrate with the top calendar apps, enabling recruiters and hiring managers to connect their calendars to the system. This makes it easy for candidates to find mutual availability with whoever they need to meet during the hiring process.

Interview Scorecards

Interview scorecards are a must to create structure and fairness in the hiring process. They allow the hiring team to define the core competencies, skills, experience, etc., that must be evaluated during the hiring process.

If you’re wondering what does ATS mean in recruitment? Interview scorecards are a key feature.

The top applicant tracking systems (ATS) will empower talent acquisition teams to create interview scorecards for each role and, better yet, enforce the completion of those scorecards by all hiring committee members. This will ensure a consistent and unbiased evaluation of candidates.

Embedded Assessment Offerings

There are hundreds of assessment vendors on the market. The choices are endless, from video interviewing to behavioral assessments, skill assessments, reference checks, and beyond. Implementing an ATS for recruiters that already provides some of this functionality is a great head start to reap these solutions’ benefits.

Using an ATS with embedded assessment offerings streamlines the hiring process and ensures that all necessary evaluations are conducted efficiently. It saves time and enhances the accuracy of candidate assessments.

Integrated with LinkedIn

There’s no way around it. LinkedIn is the premier destination for finding top talent. An applicant tracking system must be able to post your jobs to LinkedIn and integrate with LinkedIn Recruiter for proactive sourcing efforts. Understanding how applicant tracking systems work can help you leverage this integration effectively.

Integration with LinkedIn allows recruiters to tap into a vast pool of candidates and streamline the job posting process. It also enhances your ability to source passive candidates who may not be actively looking for a job but are open to new opportunities.

Advanced Reporting

Getting the data you need should a) not be a chore and b) not be cobbled between multiple systems/spreadsheets.

What is ATS reporting? It’s the capability to generate detailed analytics and reports to optimize the hiring process.

Applicant tracking system reporting capabilities can vary significantly from provider to provider. Finding an ATS with advanced analytics is key for a) optimizing your hiring process and b) showing the business impact of your recruiting efforts to other stakeholders within the organization.

Advanced reporting features enable HR professionals to track key metrics, identify bottlenecks, and make data-driven decisions. It also provides insights into the effectiveness of your recruiting strategies.

Artificial Intelligence in the ATS

There are so many applications of AI in recruiting, and the ATS is the #1 place to start. Whether it’s auto-generating a job description, interview scorecard, screening questions, or something else. Using AI in your ATS is a sure way to speed up some of the monotonous tasks.

Some modern applicant tracking systems have even started embedding AI to help you search and find the right candidates in your database without you needing to figure out the search queries manually.

AI in ATS can significantly improve efficiency by automating routine tasks and providing intelligent recommendations. It also enhances the candidate-matching process, ensuring that you find the best fit for each role.

The Bottom Line

Understanding what does an ATS means in HR and leveraging its full capabilities can transform your recruitment process. Investing in a robust ATS can lead to a more streamlined, efficient, and effective hiring process. By incorporating advanced features such as interview scorecards, embedded assessments, LinkedIn integration, advanced reporting, and AI, you can ensure that your organization stays ahead in the competitive talent acquisition landscape.

The Benefits of Using an ATS for Recruitment

What are the benefits of an applicant tracking system? In a nutshell, it’s all about solving the most common hiring challenges and bottlenecks that prevent you from hiring your next great employee. When HR professionals ask “What is ATS?” they’re looking for ways to optimize their recruitment process.

Below are the common hiring challenges that create the need for applicant tracking systems:

⚠️ Problem: Posting the Same Job Position Across Multiple Job Boards

🔥 ATS Solution: Applicant tracking systems (ATS) can distribute your job post to multiple job boards with a single click, and all applicants will flow back to your centralized dashboard. This eliminates the need for manual posting and organizing applications in your email inbox.

⚠️ Problem: Keeping Your Career Page on Your Site Current and Accurate

🔥 ATS Solution: An ATS will distribute your job to multiple job boards and publish the job (or unpublish it when closed) on your website. Hooking up your careers page to your ATS ensures you don’t have to manually update your website each time a job opens or closes. This is how applicant tracking systems work to maintain consistency across platforms.

⚠️ Problem: Drowning in Applications and Candidate Submissions

🔥 ATS Solution: An applicant tracking system provides a quick way to review resumes, make decisions, and automate the next steps of your process. Some ATS even offer one-way video interviews, allowing you to perform initial screening interviews asynchronously. This illustrates what ATS means in recruitment by streamlining the evaluation process.

⚠️ Problem: Scheduling Candidate Interviews

🔥 ATS Solution: An ATS with built-in interview scheduling lets recruiters and hiring managers connect their calendars so candidates can find mutual availability for interviews. This shaves days off the hiring process and is an example of how ATS for recruiters improves efficiency.

⚠️ Problem: Maintaining Spreadsheets to Track Candidate Status

🔥 ATS Solution: Rather than hacking together a bespoke system for tracking candidate status, an applicant tracking system lets you configure a hiring workflow so you always know who is at a particular stage at a given time. Define ATS in your workflow management for seamless tracking.

⚠️ Problem: Knowing What Channels Are Most Effective for Candidate Sourcing

🔥ATS Solution: Applicant tracking systems with strong analytics dashboards help you identify the channels producing the most and highest-quality candidates. This data helps you prioritize where to spend your time and money when sourcing for an open role. This is a prime example of ATS meaning in HR and strategic decision-making.

⚠️ Problem: Ensuring Consistency in Your Interviewing Process

🔥 ATS Solution: Configurable interview scorecards in an ATS create a structured approach for all hiring stakeholders. They help everyone know what to evaluate during interviews and make it easy to score candidates and make decisions. This is part of how applicant tracking systems work to standardize recruitment.

⚠️ Problem: Holding Hiring Managers Accountable for What They Need to Accomplish

🔥 ATS Solution: Perhaps the biggest challenge for talent acquisition teams is keeping hiring managers on track. If hiring managers don’t complete their tasks punctually, the hiring process will slow down, and the best candidates won’t wait around. An ATS with a task-based workflow can help hiring managers know exactly what they must do daily.

The reality is that there are 160+ points of failure in the hiring process, and having the right ATS can help you address many of them.

What are Some ATS Best Practices for Recruiters?

Maintain Clean Records

What’s ATS have to do with HR records-keeping? Good data hygiene is essential when working in an applicant tracking system (ATS). De-duplicating records, taking high-quality notes, and following the processes your team has built are all critical. 

Maintaining clean data helps run a better hiring process and ensures accurate ATS reporting. Gaining insight into ATS and its team-wide application will deepen your understanding of the significance of maintaining accurate records to streamline the recruitment process.

Build Templates

Build templates to create structure throughout the hiring processes for different roles—interview question sets, interview scorecards, candidate communication, job descriptions, etc. The more you “templatize,” the quicker you’ll work. You’ll also have an easier time figuring out what’s working and what’s not. Applicant tracking systems (ATS) can greatly benefit from these templates by creating a more efficient workflow.

Collaborate with Hiring Managers

The best way to get hiring managers to buy into using your applicant tracking system is to form a strong partnership with them. Your collaboration and the way you tie what you need them to do to how it impacts them and their team is crucial. The benefits of using an ATS tool for recruitment shows its true potential when hiring managers are actively engaged. Hiring manager buy-in to your ATS can make or break the speed and quality of your hiring process.

“If It’s Not in the ATS, It Didn’t Happen”

Be disciplined about logging everything in your ATS. Every interview, every candidate interaction, etc. The easiest way to cause chaos in your hiring process is to have an ATS full of gaps of missing information. 

Provide all stakeholders with visibility to the information they need by ensuring everyone on your team knows that “if it’s not in the ATS, it didn’t happen.” Train everyone on how to use and make updates in the ATS effectively. Knowing how applicant tracking systems work can help in understanding the importance of logging every interaction.

Relay Impact in Terms of Business Objectives

Whether you’re trying to show the impact of your recruiting efforts using your current ATS or attempting to justify switching to a new one, speaking with other stakeholders in the language they understand is important. This means tying the impact of your applicant tracking system to business objectives.

For example, rather than just talking about how your “time-to-hire” went from X days to Y days, talk about what that means for the organization in terms of the candidate you were able to hire by moving faster and how that resulted in the person becoming a contributing member of the team sooner. Understanding what does ATS mean in recruitment goals or how does your ATS impact onboarding metrics like time to productivity can aid in communicating its value effectively.

These best practices can help you optimize the use of your applicant tracking systems (ATS) to enhance your hiring process, ensure data accuracy, and align your recruiting efforts with your business objectives. This approach not only reinforces what an ATS is but also demonstrates its meaning in HR and effectiveness in recruitment.

How to Choose the Right ATS

Choosing the right applicant tracking system (ATS) can be daunting when you look at the market as a whole. There are hundreds of potential applicant tracking systems, so you can take a few steps to narrow your search for an ATS.

  1. Know the Difference Between an ATS and HRIS

Understanding what is ATS is crucial before making a decision. There’s a big difference between an applicant tracking system and an HRIS with an applicant tracking system. An HRIS with an applicant tracking system will have much more limited capabilities and, thus, will solve far fewer problems than a comprehensive applicant tracking system.

  1. Shortlist Applicant Tracking Systems for Your Organization Size

If you’re a small business, looking at enterprise solutions will be a waste of your time. Finding out which applicant tracking systems work with organizations of a similar size to yours will help you quickly limit the scope of vendors you’re looking at. This approach will help you understand how applicant tracking systems for small businesses compare in cost and functions to those scaled for companies hiring at high volume and frequency.

  1. Figure Out if There’s an Industry-Specific ATS for You

If there’s a niche ATS for your industry, that’s definitely a place to start, but still not necessarily the right fit. Either way, figuring out what applicant tracking systems are being used by organizations in your industry is a good way to kick off an initial search for an ATS. Determining the best applications for ATS in your industry can also guide you toward the right ATS tool for recruitment solutions.

  1. Determine the Core Problems You’re Trying to Solve

Don’t get caught up in a “feature war” between applicant tracking system providers. Every ATS will do something different than another ATS. You don’t want to start a “check the box” battle. Instead, when speaking with applicant tracking system providers, talk about your top 3-4 problems and get them to show you how they solve them. This will help you define ATS that fits your specific needs.

  1. Make Sure Your Budget is Aligned

Get alignment on your budget with finance before you start your ATS research. The last thing you want is to be far down the path with a couple of applicant tracking system providers and realize you don’t have the budget approval to move forward, which requires you to restart your search for an ATS. Knowing about ATS meaning in HR can also provide more context when discussing budget constraints.

Choosing the right applicant tracking system can be a wild goose chase without a plan, so use these tips above to guide you from the start. For recruiters and HR professionals, understanding what an ATS is and how it can streamline your recruitment process is essential for making an informed decision.

FAQs

How do you keep track of applicants using an ATS?

Generally, you keep track of applicants using an applicant tracking system (ATS) by creating hiring workflows. These workflows should include the different steps of your hiring process. When you move candidates to these various workflow steps, they serve as “statuses.” This means you can always see how many candidates you have at the different stages of your hiring process. Understanding how an applicant tracking system benefits your workflow can greatly enhance your efficiency.

What is an ATS score?

There are many misconceptions about ATS and its functionality, particularly regarding an ATS score automatically rejecting candidates. The reality is that many applicant tracking systems will score candidates based on how well their application aligns with a role and then prioritize that list for a recruiter. This doesn’t mean that a candidate is automatically rejected. Instead, it helps the recruiter act on the most qualified candidates on paper first.

Some applicant tracking systems do allow recruiters to add “knockout” or “qualifier” questions to immediately qualify or disqualify a candidate based on a very specific set of criteria. This feature is essential in defining clear ATS meaning in HR.

Does ATS read only specific types, formats, and lengths of resumes?

This depends on the applicant tracking system you are using. However, a best practice is to upload a Microsoft Word Doc or PDF and avoid image files like .png, .jpg, etc. Overdesigning a resume for submission to an ATS for recruiters can cause issues. For instance, the file can be too large, and/or the graphic elements can make parsing difficult.

The strong recommendation for candidates is to keep their resume simple, concise, and in a standard format. Knowing what does ATS mean in recruitment for the industry in which they are applying can help candidates better prepare their resumes to meet these criteria.

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