Ask Alexis | How to Beat an Applicant Tracking System

Ask Alexis | How to Beat an Applicant Tracking System was originally published on Idealist Careers.


I am a Psychology BS graduate who has been a volunteer victim services sexual assault advocate for five years now and I have basically put my life into making it my career. Unfortunately, the job that I’m pursuing is a government job and happens to be a highly coveted position. So I am up against a lot of people who have been in the field for years. How do I get past the applicant tracking system and get noticed?

I have all the qualifications but not the paid experience as a social worker. I can’t afford to go get a four year MSW, but feel like I’m not able to do anything with my BS in psychology.

Any advice?


Unemployed and in the Dark 


Dear Unemployed and in the Dark,

Ah yes … the applicant tracking system. Beating the robot is quite the feat (and not always possible), but there are certainly a few tips I can throw your way. But I’ll get to that in a bit.

Before we dive in, I do wait to raise an important point about government work (as a former government employee myself).

Some things to keep in mind when applying for a government position

  • While the majority of government positions do not require a civil service exam (80%, according to, you’ll still want to double check the job description and ensure that no qualifying civil servant exam is required for this role.
  • Even if the role doesn’t require you to take a civil service exam, there may be folks in the running (you mentioned that there are quite a few internal applicants for the position) who have already taken the exam. If they performed well, as an internal candidate, this will likely give them a leg up.
  • The process is a lot more formal than in the nonprofit or private sector (and more lengthy), so if you don’t hear back right away, or even within a month, don’t lose hope!

Pro Tip: It’s also important to keep in mind that while some requirements are absolutely flexible, others are not. There is a good chance that there’s just no way around missing a key bit of experience (like licensed social work). But you never know

About that pesky applicant tracking system

An applicant tracking system (ATS) is used by HR departments and hiring managers in order to automate the initial parts of a hiring process and provides an easy transparent system candidate tracking along the way.

While this can be a great tool for a hiring manager (trust me, I use one too!), they can cause some anxiety for job applicants, leaving many to wonder if their application will ever be reviewed by actual human eyes.

While you can’t really “beat” an ATS, there are definitely a few things you can do to help ensure you don’t get passed over during the automated parts of the hiring process:

  • It’s not all or nothing, even with an ATS. Even if you don’t meet 100% of the job’s requirements, most likely, the ATS has not been “programmed” to take you out of the running for that alone.
  • Don’t forget to proofread your materials. One thing that may result in your materials being removed from the proverbial pile is a big fat typo (or multiple typos). So be sure to check, recheck, and check again before you hit submit!
  • Be clear and concise. When your materials are being run through an ATS, it’s important that your biggest accomplishments and most relevant experience are clearly detailed in your resume and cover letter. If your format or word choice isn’t reader friendly, imagine how confusing it can be to an ATS.
  • Use keywords (sparingly). While it’s important to include relevant, sector-related keywords and jargon, you absolutely don’t want to overdo it. It very quickly becomes pretty obvious when an applicant is keyword stuffing, so even if you make it past the initial ATS screen, your application may not get too far beyond that.
  • Speak their language. In addition to using relevant keywords (especially those picked up from the actual job description), you’ll also want to be sure to use the same grammar and spelling as the organization to which you’re applying. If they refer to themselves as a “nonprofit,” don’t write how much you want to work at their “non-profit.”

Best of luck to you in your job search. Be sure to keep us posted on how things progress!