A recruiter's complete guide to Applicant Tracking Systems

Table of contents

If you clicked on this article, it probably means you’re looking to learn about or better understand Applicant Tracking Systems (ATSs), or you’re in the market for one.  Regardless of which it is, you’ve come to the right place. We’ve put together this guide to answer your burning questions about all things ATS and included insights from experts in the field.

Just a heads up, this is going to be a long (and good) read, so feel free to skip to the most relevant parts for you using our table of contents sidebar.

What is an Applicant Tracking System? 

An Applicant Tracking System is a software application companies can use to structure and customize their hiring into an efficient and scalable process. An ATS allows recruiters and hiring managers to attract, source, evaluate, and hire candidates better and faster.

What is the primary purpose of an Applicant Tracking System?

The primary goal of an Applicant Tracking System is to simplify the recruitment process and to make it more effective and efficient. This is accomplished by giving recruiters access to a powerful, centralized platform to collect and view applicants, track their progress, and filter them out based on their qualifications. 

Generally, more powerful ATS platforms are cloud-based SaaS (Software as a Service) solutions, which you can access anywhere and anytime. The scope and complexity of specific ATS platforms and the cost will vary depending on what type of business it caters to. On-site and SaaS solutions will generally be more expensive but offer significantly more features and services than open-source options. 

The three primary business types that an ATS serves are: 

  1. Enterprise-level companies 
  2. Recruitment agencies
  3. Small or medium-sized businesses (SMBs)

To give you an idea of how prevalent and effective ATS platforms are in recruitment today, consider these stats: 

The ATS definition included above is worded broadly because the capabilities of these modern systems affect nearly the entire recruitment process, especially: 

  • Candidate sourcing (automated job posting, application pages that integrate into the candidate database, and employer brand management.) 
  • Candidate management (automatic uploading of candidate information and application documents into a central database, adding scheduling and screening information to candidate files, and perpetual storage of current and former candidates to generate talent pools.)
  • Pre-screening candidates (keyword parsing of resumes and cover letters, automated screening of unqualified candidates, automated outreach, and interview scheduling.) 
  • Screening candidates (managing and hosting online tests and video interviews, storing and adding screening results to candidate files, and collaborating with recruitment team members on candidate profiles.) 
  • Extending job offers (generating and sending offer letters, collecting signed documentation, and adding them to candidate files.) 
  • Employee onboarding (assigning onboarding materials, tracking completion, and ensuring all compliance documentation is completed.) 
  • Recruitment process optimization (intelligence and metrics into every step of the recruitment process, allowing recruiters to identify bottlenecks and make efficiency changes.)

The ATS features above reflect only the most common capabilities available on most platforms today. There are many more that recruiters will discover once they integrate an ATS into their recruitment process

Why use an Applicant Tracking System?

The answer to “why” recruitment software is necessary is twofold.

First, it lessens the amount of repetitive and tedious tasks a recruiter must complete, freeing them up for more important duties. 

Second, automated systems allow for a better recruitment experience and results for the company and the candidates. 

Here are some of the primary reasons that modern recruitment software is necessary for today’s hiring landscape:

  • They improve the quality of a company’s hire, and good hiring is one of the best predictors of a company’s future success.
  • HR departments and managers are struggling to find and retain top talent. Recruitment software is a powerful weapon for helping to minimize this stress.
  • Poor HR technology has been the norm. Technological advances have leapfrogged recruitment software to the top of the SaaS market to the benefit of hiring teams.

That last point is a major driving force behind why more and more companies are adopting modern ATS platforms. An ATS was originally just a platform to store digital copies of resumes and cover letters. They could not automatically parse through that information and quickly deliver usable information to recruiters.

This ability to not only digitize but to automate and enhance the entire recruitment process is thanks to cloud computing, AI, and more powerful processing technologies. ATS platforms — and recruitment technology in general — are at the center of this renaissance, leading to numerous benefits for companies worldwide.

18 benefits of Applicant Tracking Systems

While this section focuses on ATS platforms, many of its benefits are shared across the other recruitment technologies on the market today. We’ll look at all the many benefits recruiters receive from implementing, executing, and maintaining an ATS tool in their HR department.

These benefits can be broken down into the following categories:

  • Decreased workload
  • Improved candidate experience
  • A more efficient recruitment process
  • Better hiring results

Let’s dive into each one.

Decreased workload

When deployed correctly, an ATS platform can benefit recruiters and hiring managers in the following ways:

1. Automatically upload job postings to various job boards in one click. Dramatically decreases the amount of time spent manually creating and posting ads.

2. Collection, storage, and aggregation of candidate information are automated. All data that the candidate provides in the application, plus information readily available on the internet, is automatically scraped and stored by the ATS, taking that burden off of the recruiter.

3. Automated or keyword-based parsing of resumes and cover letters speeds up the screening process. The ATS scans these documents to extract specific information and automatically stores the data so recruiters can quickly identify suitable candidates.

4. Easily schedule interviews with candidates. Automated emails from the ATS eliminate the time-consuming task of reaching out to each candidate and finding a time to meet manually.

5. Record the results of interviews and other screening activities. Stakeholders can access all screening information from the candidate’s profile. Recruiters or hiring managers no longer need to store this information manually.

6. Secure new hires with e-signatures. ATS platforms can quickly and securely send job offer documentation to new hires and store the signed documents in the candidate’s profile.

While these first six benefits help recruiters save time on manual and repetitive work, they also enhance the candidate experience in several ways.

Improved candidate experience

Streamlining your recruitment also makes it better for the candidate as they go through the hiring process. Here’s how.

7. Seamless communication from application to offer (or rejection). Consistent and timely communication at all stages of the hiring process signals that you value and respect your candidates. An ATS platform automates the critical steps of communication with the candidate, ensuring that the overall experience is as efficient and transparent as possible.

8. Quicker screening and better clarity of where they stand. Because of this efficient communication and scheduling, candidates move through the hiring funnel faster. Timely updates if they are chosen or rejected help candidates track their applications and decide on their next move.

9. Assurance that the hiring process is fair. Telling candidates what to expect during the screening process and keeping them informed throughout reduce uncertainty and allow them to feel confident that they are being treated fairly.

Each of these benefits to the recruiter and candidate is a direct result of improvements to the overall recruitment process, which is perhaps the biggest benefit of an ATS platform.

A more efficient recruitment process

ATS automation and data management impact the recruitment process in many positive ways. These impacts will vary greatly depending on the capacity of the ATS and how an organization uses it.

Here are some of the primary recruitment process improvements that can be attributed to ATS platforms:

10. Provides insight into the effectiveness of different processes. Recruiters get clarity into which recruitment techniques are working well and which need improvement. It enables them to make objective decisions about what they will continue or stop doing.

11. Tracks and reports on essential recruitment metrics. Tracking established KPIs within the ATS enables recruiters and managers to identify issues quickly and implement a solution using reliable data.

12. Automates critical recruitment processes. As mentioned, ATS tools automate tedious and repetitive tasks, ensuring that the recruitment process doesn’t bottleneck under too many resumes or insufficient human resources.

13. Stores all current and past candidates. Large cloud-based storage enables recruiters to keep track of all candidates, add them to jobs or talent pools, and delete candidate data when necessary.

14. Enables collaborative hiring. Team access to ATS platforms enables future co-workers and hiring managers to participate in the selection process. 

15. Provides an “always-on” platform to manage recruitment. Cloud-based SaaS platforms usually have 99.9% up times, meaning this mission-critical tool will always be there when needed.

All of these benefits lead to the final, core benefit of an ATS: better hiring results.

Better hiring results

The central goal of any recruitment process is to continuously improve the performance and retention rates of new hires, while also optimizing return on effort and investment.

To that end, “better hiring results” could be broken down into three primary fields:

16. Shorter time-to-hire. Hiring faster while maintaining quality reduces productivity downtime company-wide and time wasted within the HR department.

86% of recruiters say that ATS platforms helped them improve their time-to-hire.

17. Improved cost-per-hire. Getting better candidates faster and for less money improves overall company profitability in the long run.

18. Better quality-of-hire. Based on performance reviews, ramp-up time, turnover, retention rates, and hiring manager satisfaction, this is the master metric for how successful a recruitment decision was.

78% of recruiters say an ATS improved the quality of their hires.

Of course, each benefit is achievable if you have the right features for your organization and, most importantly, only if you have the right recruitment strategy.

Now that we’ve mentioned what an ATS can do and its benefits to recruiters, hiring managers, and candidates, let’s clear up some misconceptions about ATSs.

Four misconceptions about Applicant Tracking Systems

A few common misconceptions exist about what an ATS can do for its users. If you’re in the market for one, we recommend reading this section to learn more about what you can expect when purchasing an ATS. 

1. Buying an ATS is not going to get you an influx of candidates

If you’re currently struggling with attracting candidates for job openings, buying an ATS will not solve the problem. Attracting candidates relates to your recruitment strategy and employer branding, and no ATS will do that for you. 

It’s about the strategy and the processes that a recruiter and a talent team build where the ATS is the vessel that allows you to execute efficiently.
Karim Gharsallah
Global Head of Talent | Recruitee

It’s important to understand how the recruitment market in your industry works, what candidates are looking for, and how to best present your company culture to attract the best candidates. 

After you’ve conducted your research, built your strategy, and identified what you need to help you to achieve your goals, you’ll have a better idea of what functionalities you require. You can then start looking for an ATS that will help solve those issues.

Instead of investing huge amounts of money into your ATS, it’s worth having the conversation about how you’re going to fill the software with qualified candidates. Can the budget go some way to increasing the volume of qualified inbound candidates that will enable your recruiters to do a better job?
Nathan Jefferson
Co-Host of The Content Recruiter Podcast and freelance in-house recruiter

2. Buying an ATS will not solve all your sourcing challenges

Another common recruitment challenge is sourcing candidates. Some ATSs can post your job openings to multiple job boards and save you the hassle of doing this manually. But if you are not making a good first impression with your job descriptions and your application process is overly complicated, candidates will not be rushing to apply for your jobs.

Having an ATS in place is necessary for the success of your recruitment, but don’t mistake it for the success of your employer brand.
Szonja Zsiros
Recruiter at Recruitee

Your recruitment and employer branding strategies greatly influence candidates’ perception of your company and the candidate application process. Even if you could automate the distribution of your job openings using an ATS so that more candidates see it, it doesn’t guarantee any applications. That’s where the importance of employer branding and brand visibility comes into the picture.

Yes, technology is certainly growing by leaps and bounds, but there seems to be this idea that every ATS is super intuitive and will magically make it easy to source candidates. You still need to vet, connect with and do your homework to find top talent.
Jessica Arias
Senior Director of People and Culture at OnPay

The truth of the matter is that most sourcing practices are manual. While some tools and extensions may help you source candidates from websites such as Linkedin, some roles will require manual sourcing, especially if they’re niche and hard-to-fill positions. ATSs are there to accelerate and facilitate the hiring process, but they are not a substitute for the process itself. It’s important to keep this in mind when buying an ATS.

3. An ATS is not going to help you pick the best candidate for the job, nor should it

It doesn’t take a lot of effort these days to find conversations from both candidates and career coaches about how ATSs are responsible for rejecting candidates. While some companies utilize subpar AI functionalities to disqualify candidates, good recruiters and their hiring managers are looking at candidates’ applications, assessing them, and responding accordingly. 

A good ATS will give recruiters and hiring managers a better overview of all candidates and resumes, thanks to pipeline overviews and resume parsing.  But ultimately, recruiters and their hiring managers will be responsible for reviewing the applications and deciding on the next steps. An ATS cannot and should not be making these decisions. 

If your goal is to use an ATS to find candidates for you, you will be disappointed. And so will your candidates. When they receive rejection emails seconds after applying, candidates will realize that no one has reviewed their application. 

So before adding a shiny new recruitment tool to your tech stack, assess your long-term recruitment strategy and set up an effective process, and then look for an ATS that fits your needs.

Having an ATS that could function better filled with incredible talent is far more interesting than a near-perfect ATS gathering dust. Focus on attraction first. Once you’ve done that, there’s a business case to suggest that you deserve the best-in-class ATS to support candidate experience.
Nathan Jefferson
Co-Host of The Content Recruiter Podcast and freelance in-house recruiter

4. Buying or switching to a new ATS is time-consuming

The strangest myth, and oddly enough a prevalent one about ATSs, is the claim that it is too time-consuming.
Maciek Kubiak
Head of People at PhotoAID

HR and recruitment professionals are sometimes reluctant to implement or switch to a new ATS because they fear it requires a substantial time investment and might not be worth the sacrifice.

Some already have a process in place, are unsure about implementing something new, and are afraid of change. Others have had a negative experience implementing an ATS and now have hesitations about switching to another platform, despite being unhappy.

Researching and implementing an ATS does require some time and effort. But finding a solution that meets your organization’s needs and can scale with you as you grow will save you time in the long run — well worth the effort.

After you’ve conducted your research, built your strategy, and identified what you need to help you to achieve your goals, you’ll have a better idea of what functionalities you require. You can then start looking for an ATS that will help solve those issues. 

The truth is that choosing the right ATS that has an easy setup and requires minimal to no training will take a moment, but it will result in time savings in the future.
Maciek Kubiak
Head of People at PhotoAID

Now that we’ve covered what an ATS can and cannot help you achieve, we’ll dive into what to consider when buying an ATS.

What features does the best recruitment software have?

The features you need in recruitment software will depend entirely on the size of your company, your budget, and how complex your recruitment process is.

Luckily, whether it’s ATS, CRM, HCM, or one of the many other types of recruitment software, there is likely a platform to fit your needs. To help you get started, here’s a checklist of recruitment software features you should consider. 

  • Task automation
  • Candidate management
  • Interview scheduling
  • Job board posting
  • Searchable candidate database
  • Resume parsing
  • Customizable templates
  • Custom pipelines
  • Team collaboration
  • Careers site builder
  • Data centralization
  • Employee referrals
  • Talent pools
  • User-friendly, intuitive interface
  • Reports and analytics
  • Candidate import and export
  • Candidate tagging
  • Mobile recruiting
  • Integrations with other tools
  • Security and stability
  • Customer support
  • Compliance

Each feature will have its own subset of information that you need to consider when choosing the right fit. It’s important to do your due diligence when selecting an ATS or other recruitment technology, as this will form the core of your overall hiring process.

How much do Applicant Tracking Systems usually cost?

Here are the main ATS pricing models explained and why the prices vary. 

If you’ve been scouring the internet for your next ATS provider and haven’t been able to find a proper pricing page, that’s because most companies select their rates according to the number of job openings, business size, integrations, modules, and many other factors. 

Before pricing is adapted for you, you’ll probably be starting with one of the following models: 

Flat rate: This ATS pricing model means you pay one amount regardless of user count or any count. A flat rate is usually calculated according to company size and is best for large enterprises that can afford a multi-year-long contract at once. ‍

Pay per user: This model is suited for smaller companies since you get charged for the number of recruiters and other hiring stakeholders on the admin side of the Applicant Tracking Software. 

Pay per vacancy: This model depends on the number of active job openings. Pay per vacancy works well for small businesses with low hiring volumes. 

Pay per module: When the Applicant Tracking Software is part of a larger platform, this pricing model is typically applied. It’s an additional feature you can add to what you already pay, like a CRM or onboarding platform. 

When looking into the cost of an Applicant Tracking System, remember to involve every stakeholder in the process and draft a business case before vetting the best ATS solutions. 

Which ATS type is best for your company?

There are roughly 1400 unique recruitment software platforms on the market as of 2018. The ATS market alone is worth more than $12 billion as of 2019. As a result, choosing the right ATS platform can sometimes be confusing and daunting. There are simply too many options to choose from, meaning that you need a systematic and objective process for making this mission-critical decision for your business.

The two primary variables that will influence what ATS provider you choose are the platform (or hosting) type and the size of your company. 

For the platform type, the main ATS categories are: 

  • Software as a service (SaaS). These complete, turn-key solution providers host your platform and company data on a cloud-based server. They typically provide set-up, support, and ongoing customer success management to help you get the most out of the product. Many companies are moving to SaaS platforms due to their ease of use and 24/7 access-from-anywhere. 
  • On-site. These software platforms are hosted on the company’s own IT infrastructure. They provide benefits such as more customized security and data maintenance possibilities but require much more upkeep and IT resources. 
  • Integrations. These smaller, modular solutions integrate to create a complete ATS platform. ATS integrations are great for smaller companies with a more limited budget and allow for picking the ones that fit your requirements (and no more than you need). 

Company size and type generally include the following categories: 

  • Enterprise. Large corporations, typically with 5,000+ employees. They operate in multiple locations and have complex recruitment and data management requirements. 
  • Small or medium-sized businesses (SMBs). Companies with hundreds of employees, possibly in more than one location. They will typically require less powerful ATS features and data storage than Enterprise clients.
  • Agency. They will typically need large amounts of data storage and applicant processing capabilities due to higher volumes of job applicants. 

The first step in choosing an ATS is matching the above categories to your company’s profile so you can focus your product search on solutions that best fit your needs. 

A step-by-step guide to choosing an ATS

Follow these five steps to choose the ATS that’s right for you: 

  1. Assess your needs
  2. Set a budget
  3. Review options
  4. Test drive your picks
  5. Make a selection

We’ll now break down each step to help you reach the best choice for your company.

1. Assess your needs 

The first step in any decision-making process is determining your company’s needs. You can start this process by writing down all the requirements that you can think of that will improve your recruitment process.

Be sure to collaborate with your recruitment team members and significant stakeholders (like hiring managers) throughout the company. Conducting a simple survey via email or a platform like SurveyMonkey will give you great insight into what your company as a whole feels they need from a new ATS platform. 

The best way to facilitate this process is to take the time to identify and define the problem that you are trying to solve. You should clearly understand the issues you want to fix and improvements you’d like to make to your recruitment process. Collecting opinions from around the company will help clarify these problems and steer your search toward the platforms and features that will help solve those issues. 

At this stage, you should consider which functions you need and which you don’t (we’ll talk more about this later in the article). This will help guide your questions to ATS providers during the assessment and selection phases. 

2. Set a budget 

The next step in choosing an ATS is to lay out how much money you’re willing to spend on a new platform and your desired return on investment (ROI). Make a list of the core benefits that an ATS will bring to your company, and measure those benefits relative to the cost of the platform. 

You should know most ATS platforms’ standard pricing models at this stage. Typically, an ATS provider will charge on a cost-per-active-job basis. You pay a specific rate for each job vacancy you promote and process during the year. There may also be costs associated with customer support and maintenance that you will want to consider. 

Make a list of all potential costs, clearly identify how much you’re willing to spend, and then create a list of must-have benefits and KPI improvements needed to hit your target ROI. It’s essential to link your target ROI to a specific business-related outcome (i.e., reduced time-to-fill will lead to increased revenue) to make selling your pitch to company decision-makers easier.  

3. Review options 

Once you’ve firmly established your needs and budget, you can start researching platforms on the market. Knowing your company type and desired ATS infrastructure will help focus your search on platforms that meet your needs. 

Some key considerations to keep in mind here are: 

  • Ensure you focus on software that doesn’t make your job more complicated. 
  • The platform will need to integrate with any tools you currently have.
  • The ATS should address your core requirements. 
  • The ATS should improve your entire recruitment process, not just one or two parts. 
  • It should be easy to learn and use to ensure buy-in from your team. 
  • Look for a company that will be a partner, not just a provider. They should be reliable and available to help you continuously improve your outcomes. 

These are all lofty goals when you first start looking into ATSs. Luckily, there are many online resources you can rely on to help zero in on the highest potential platforms. Websites like Capterra, TrustRadius, and G2Crowd all provide detailed and authentic reviews from real customers, feature comparison tables, and deep insights into platform performance and reliability. 

After researching various ATS platforms, you’ll likely have a short list of options that you’re considering. Reach out to each provider to set up an introductory call, a demo, and, most importantly, a full-featured test drive. 

4. Test drive your picks 

Once you have a short list of ATS platforms, you should request that the providers set up an extended full-feature test drive of each. This will allow you and your team to test the platform in a real-world setting to determine how well it integrates with your workflow and how well your team is adopting the new tool. 

During this phase, try to use as realistic a test as possible. Note the performance of specific features, flag any concerns or unnecessary tools that may cause issues down the line, and make an overall assessment of the platform. Again, invite your team into this conversation to get as many perspectives as possible. 

From here, you should be able to narrow your list of ATS platforms to just one or two. Then, you can apply your ROI, and cost-benefit analysis to your final shortlist to determine which one will give you the best “bang for your buck.” 

5. Get started

Once you’ve selected your platform, it’s time to work with the ATS provider to get things set up with your IT department and recruitment team. Work through the implementation and onboarding process with the provider, ensuring that your team is involved at each stage. 

Once fully implemented, you should monitor your team’s usage of the platform for variables such as ease of use, process improvements, and overall recruitment results. Continuously track and monitor your core KPIs to justify your spending when it’s time to renew your contract. 

Questions to ask about ATS platforms

When choosing an ATS, you’ll want to keep a list of important questions to ask each provider. These questions relate to your core requirements and budget and will help you determine which platforms to dig deeper into and which to eliminate from your considerations. 

How you generate these questions — and track the answers — is entirely up to you. But, it’s good practice to focus on the following areas when creating your question list: 

  • Candidate engagement
  • Candidate management
  • Scheduling and interviewing
  • Reporting
  • Integrations
  • Security 
  • Support
  • User experience 

In this section, we’ll share a few sample questions from each topic. 

Candidate engagement

  • Can I source new candidates easily with this platform?
  • Does the platform enable us to promote our jobs on multiple job boards? Which job boards and social media sites can I post to using your platform?
  • What is the end-to-end process for posting job ads?
  • Is it possible to set up an employee referral program? 
  • What features does this platform have for employer branding enhancements?
  • Can you walk me through the candidate application process?
  • How does the platform parse, sort, and shortlist standout applications?
  • What features are there for communicating with candidates? Does it come with automated communication features? 

Candidate management

  • What kind of information does the platform store in a candidate’s profile?
  • What is the process for advancing candidates through the pipeline?
  • How does the platform manage job offers and documentation?
  • What task management features does the platform offer?
  • How does the platform enable collaborative hiring?
  • Can I sync my company email with your platform?
  • Do you have features that support unbiased hiring?
  • Do you have a mobile app for on-the-go recruiting?

Scheduling and interviewing

  • How does your platform support pre-screening? Can I customize this process?
  • Are there automated scheduling features for interview planning?
  • Will the platform sync with our calendar and meeting rooms?
  • What pre-made interview and scorecard kits are available?
  • How does the platform track interview results?
  • How does the platform collect and track comments and feedback for each candidate? 


  • What pre-made report templates do you offer?
  • Can you create custom KPIs to track?
  • Are there automated reporting options? 


  • What are the major recruitment and HR software platforms you integrate with?
  • Can you integrate with my current platforms?
  • What are other add-on integrations that we could set up later? 


  • Is the system compliant with all data and privacy laws?
  • Where is the data stored?
  • How is the data secured and encrypted?
  • In the event of a data breach, what is your protocol? 


  • What support do you provide for implementation and onboarding?
  • Do you provide training for all team members who use the product?
  • Will we be assigned an Account Manager and Customer Success Manager?
  • What are your support hours? Do you have a live chat feature?

User experience 

  • How easy is it to implement this platform?
  • What is a typical learning timeframe for new users?
  • Do you have case studies focusing on ease-of-use or overall user experience? 

Applicant Tracking System implementation

Preparing for implementation is one of the most overlooked steps when choosing an ATS.

Pay particular attention to these three areas to ensure a successful ATS implementation: 

  • Getting everyone on board the ATS
  • Deciding on hiring goals 
  • Identifying and using vendor help

Get everyone on board

When implementing a new system or replacing an old one, it’s important to ensure you get buy-in from everyone involved. 

It’s good to begin by highlighting how the new system will improve performance across the board. You can help your team focus on the benefits by using case studies or showcasing statistics on how other companies have benefited from using the selected ATS.  

You should also be looking at providing training for new users and making sure that your team can practice using the software before you go live.

Clarify goals

Clear goals and measurable metrics will help you stay on top of your hiring. To do this successfully, first figure out your success metrics: 

  • Make sure you have short and long-term hiring goals.
  • Create an ongoing plan to track measurements so that you can improve over time.

Companies measure recruiting metrics differently, so make sure your company uses the most up-to-date and relevant hiring metrics.

Identify and use vendor help

Vendors are experts in implementing their ATS, so they know what works and what doesn’t.

Many ATS vendors offer implementation help to varying degrees, usually depending on the size of the company or hiring team. 

Most vendors assign consultants to help with every step of the process for larger clients. Make sure to utilize this benefit to get as much help and support as possible during setup. 

Some vendors offer support articles, videos, quick start guides, and the ability to chat directly with customer support agents from within the ATS platform. 

A top-rated support team will share tried-and-true best practices, helping users succeed with the platform long after implementation.

Lastly, plan ahead! 

List your pain points, establish clear communication with your team and the vendor, ask for help if you need it, and then go live. 


ATSs are essential in simplifying and automating your recruitment process and help you become more efficient and effective in your day-to-day tasks. They also play a part in enhancing your candidate experience, decreasing your workload, and improving your hiring results. 

However, ATSs are not solely responsible for attracting, sourcing, or selecting the right candidates. These are related to your recruitment and employer branding strategies, and it’s important to have a solid strategy in place before buying one.

Before buying an ATS, assess your needs and budget, look into options that best fit these needs, and take them for a test drive. Utilize demo calls with vendors, ask them anything you have in mind, and have them show you how their product works to assess which ATS is best for you. If your vendor of choice also offers a free trial, sign up after the demo to get a feel of the platform yourself.

Once you have these core building blocks in place, you’re on the right track. However, the candidate journey doesn’t end here. Focus on the remainder of your talent management process, ensuring that hard-won employees stay with you for the long term.

Applicant Tracking Systems FAQ

What’s the history of the ATS?

An ATS was originally a simple system that helped recruiters scan paper resumes into a database to sort and screen them. Before these systems, recruiters would manually collect, organize and parse through each resume that came their way. 

Sounds exhausting and tedious, right? 

Well, it was. And that’s why a digital solution was created. Having a digital repository of resumes and applicant documents helped HR teams organize candidate information more efficiently and enabled compliance with labor and data storage regulations.

As the ATS evolved, it began to morph into a light version of the Candidate Relationship Management (CRMs) we see today (we’ll talk more about those later). These slightly more advanced Applicant Tracking Systems offered basic resume screening capabilities and could simplistically track an applicant’s path through the hiring process

This evolution has continued into the modern ATS platforms we see today, which have become integral to recruitment activities like resume parsing, candidate management, and more. 

The evolution of the ATS is largely thanks to the great strides made in big data, AI, and processing technologies, not to mention the introduction of cloud computing. 

Now that we’re up to speed with where the ATS is in its evolution let’s look at what a modern Applicant Tracking System is and what it can do. 

What is the primary purpose of an applicant tracking system?

The primary goal of an Applicant Tracking System is to simplify the recruitment process and to make it more effective and efficient. This is accomplished by giving recruiters access to a powerful, centralized platform to collect and view applicants, track their progress, and filter them out based on their qualifications. 

Applicant tracking system process flow

ATS platforms follow a consistent cycle for collecting, processing, and reporting on candidate data to accomplish this efficiency. This cycle typically looks something like this: 

  1. Job is created
  2. Job is published on the company website and/or job boards
  3. Job seekers apply
  4. Applicants are screened
  5. Interviews are conducted
  6. Applicant is hired 

The ATS automates the recruitment team's most tedious and repetitive tasks at each stage and handoff. This frees them up to make more important and impactful decisions on who to interview and hire. 

How does an applicant tracking system work in the recruitment process?

Applicant Tracking Systems are continuously active, automated platforms that are integrated with virtually every stage of the recruitment process. The full breadth of how an ATS works can only be understood by breaking this scope down into each of the stages of recruitment.

How an ATS works in the recruitment process

ATS in candidate sourcing

ATS platforms enable recruiters to create unique job descriptions and application forms for each vacancy they have. These pages are then placed on the ATS-driven careers page, where candidates can apply for the posted position. Applicant contact information and supporting documentation are collected through these forms and funneled into the candidate database for review. 

In addition to posting jobs, ATS platforms are integrated with most major job boards and social media websites that candidates use during their search. Through these integrations, recruiters can post many recruitment ads to a wide range of sites at the click of a mouse. Again, applicants are funneled through the ATS application page, after which their information is sent to the central candidate database. 

Finally, many ATS platforms offer turnkey solutions to create and manage the company’s careers page, employer brand, and wider candidate experience. This integrates with the trend of recruitment marketing and enables recruiters to monitor and improve their branding and image continuously. 

The best example of this optimization is the need for a mobile candidate experience. There are now two generations of candidates in the workforce who grew up as digital natives. 

There is much room for improvement in the industry and growing demand for mobile-friendly candidate experiences. Many ATS platforms today have identified this need and offer a fully mobile-optimized experience at each stage of the application process. 

ATS for candidate management

Once candidates have applied through one of the ATS-driven channels, a profile is automatically created for them within the database. This profile contains all of the information they provided in their application and anything generated later in the recruitment process. 

As the candidate works through the recruitment process, information and tags will be added to their profile to indicate their status and qualifications. Even if unsuccessful, candidates will remain in the ATS database, allowing for future consideration. 

This process is called creating a talent pool and is an invaluable asset for recruiters. As we’ll see later, this passive candidate data is invaluable when paired with a CRM platform to nurture inactive applications. 

ATS in pre-screening candidates

After a profile has been created, the ATS will automatically go to work parsing through the information to determine if the candidate meets the basic requirements to move on to the screening phase. This is one of the most significant ways ATS platforms help decrease workloads and improve recruitment efficiencies. 

At a basic level, an ATS can automatically leverage keyword and Boolean search principles to scan resumes and cover letters for specific skills, experience, education, and so on specified by the recruiter. Modern ATS platforms have begun integrating AI tools and natural language processors to dig even deeper into candidate information at speeds previously unavailable to recruiters. 

Once completed, recruiters will be given a list of only the candidates who met their specific basic criteria. This saves significant time on manually parsing through resumes, enabling recruiters to take on more important roles. 

This phase dramatically reduces churn and unproductive time, enabling the recruitment team to focus on overall efficiencies and process improvements.  

Once the ATS has done its pre-screening job and given the list to the recruiter, those applicants are then pushed to the screening phase. 

ATS in screening candidates

Depending on the ATS, these platforms can automate such jobs as sending out thank you emails, scheduling phone or video interviews, and storing the results of those interviews.

Some platforms, like Recruitee, also include modules that host online job tests or run video and phone screen interviews directly through the application. In these cases, the ATS platform can record the results of these screening activities and automatically append them to the candidate profile. 

Another benefit of some ATS platforms is that they offer a portal for collaborative hiring, bringing together the recruitment team, management group, and future colleagues. People who are important to (but often excluded from) the decision process can play an active role in reviewing candidates and sharing their opinions. 

Each of these capabilities enables the candidate to move seamlessly through the candidate experience, takes tedious administrative tasks away from the recruiter, and generates greater transparency around screening decisions. 

ATS in managing job offers

Once the recruiter and hiring manager decide who they want to hire, ATS platforms allow them to move quickly on extending a job offer. This is critical in locking down your candidate of choice, as statistics show that most job seekers accept their first offer. Recruiters who drag their feet or go radio silent at this stage — even for a few days — are at great risk of losing their chosen candidate and wasting their hard work.

To combat this, ATS platforms can instantaneously generate templated job offers (already cleared by legal). All the recruiter and hiring managers have to do is fill in the agreed-upon terms and hit the send button. If a candidate is given and accepts verbal confirmation of a job offer and receives the documentation on the same day, they’re far more likely to take that final leap of signing off on their new job and salary. 

Once the offer has been signed, all of the important recruitment and onboarding documentation is automatically added to the now-employee file within the ATS, eliminating the need for physical documents or files floating around the shared company drive.

ATS in onboarding 

Once a candidate has been hired, an ATS can be used to assign and track the progress of basic onboarding activities. This can apply to basic company-wide onboarding or role-specific onboarding activities. Specific tasks and deadlines can be tracked within the ATS to ensure the new hire is on track. 

Studies show that candidates who receive proper onboarding are 69% more likely to stay with a company for three years or more. It’s well known in recruitment that proper employee onboarding is critical to retention and performance. ATS platforms help manage the administrative side of this mission-critical activity. 

ATS in process optimization

At each stage of the recruitment process that was just outlined, ATS platforms are generating data and insights into a wide range of different metrics. This can be anything from which sourcing platforms are performing the best, how long certain steps are taking, and how much the whole process costs. 

Most ATS platforms today offer robust, visually-driven reporting platforms that can be used to measure and track a wide range of KPIs common to recruitment today. This reporting capability enables recruiters to identify bottlenecks in their process, inefficiencies in their sourcing, and spots within the workflow where they can find room for improvement. 

The data-driven nature of ATS platforms is the most powerful feature available to recruiters today. There is no need to guess anymore if certain techniques are or are not working. ATS platforms give recruiters access to continuous data that can and should drive their hiring decisions and processes. 

How does an ATS compare to other recruitment software? 

Applicant Tracking Systems are just one of a whole suite of recruitment tools available to hiring teams today. And recruitment software is only a small subset of the massive human resource management market that has exploded with technological improvements and the rise of big data.

Recruitment tools generally focus on the following pillars: 

  • Workforce planning: creating pools of internal and external candidates.
  • Sourcing: job ad management, promotions, and social media engagement.
  • Candidate acquisition: referrals management, screening, assessment, and candidate selection. 
  • Applicant tracking: interviewing, background checks, candidate communications
  • Onboarding: scheduling meetings, managing orientations, and training. 
  • Analytics: reporting on recruitment data and metrics. 

An ATS platform — depending on its size, scope, and complexity — can help accomplish all or some of the above “pillars” of recruitment, making them an integral part of this market. 

Recruitment software, and ATS platforms, in particular, are generally broken into the following buckets:

  • Cloud and SaaS solutions. The software, support, and data storage are all stored off-site in the vendor’s secure systems. 
  • Integrations and suites. Recruitment tools are added as modules within a large HRIS system, integrating with the wider human resources platform at the company. 

In addition to these two main infrastructure buckets, ATS platforms (and recruitment software in general) are often broken into tiers that reflect the type and size of the company they are geared toward. 

The most common ATS tiers are: 

  • Enterprise. The ATS is usually a subset of large-scale HR or ERP systems. 
  • Agency. Often similar to Enterprise in configuration, but require large amounts of storage for the various clients and industries inherent to agency recruitment. 
  • Small- and medium-sized businesses (SMBs). Simple and more economical solutions to recruitment automation. 

In general, ATS platforms represent one of the most widely used turnkey solutions within the recruitment software umbrella. The variety of options available to HR teams means that there will almost always be a recruitment tool that matches a company’s cost and abilities requirements. 

It’s interesting to note, though, that the recruitment tool most often compared to the ATS is Candidate Relationship Management (CRM) platforms. This is another popular recruitment software and one that is typically used in tandem with an ATS platform. 

What’s the difference between a Candidate Relationship Management (CRM) platform and an Applicant Tracking System (ATS)?

An ATS platform is built to make selecting and hiring candidates as streamlined as possible by eliminating tedious administrative tasks and systematically improving core recruitment metrics.

A CRM, on the other hand, is a system for both recruiters and job seekers, one that helps hiring teams build and nurture relationships with passive and active talent by serving as an intelligence hub for hiring teams to find and re-engage existing applicants. 

The difference between an ATS and a CRM

Many recruitment teams, therefore, use both an ATS and CRM as two sides of the same recruitment coin. Together, they can attract and engage passive candidates, help make the recruitment brand stand out, streamline competitive job offers, and make for faster and more engaging customer experiences. 

How does an ATS differ from other HR tools?

Anyone researching modern recruitment or HR tools can be forgiven if they’re confused about their options. The variety and scope of technology today means that there is a software or tool designed for virtually every human resources need imaginable. To put the market size into perspective, leading industry analyst Josh Bersin reported in November 2018 that he is tracking “more than 1,400 HR technology companies”. 

The biggest confusion is often around the difference between tools like an Applicant Tracking System (ATS) and general HR tools. To understand this, it’s important to take a step back and look at the general difference between recruitment and HR tools.

The tools needed for different phases and requirements of an employee’s lifecycle can vary significantly. Most notably in the recruitment phase. Recruitment teams focusing on finding, screening, and selecting qualified prospects will have different requirements than payroll or benefits teams. Then there are company-wide issues like performance, engagement, and legal compliance. 

Each of these areas of HR requires specific platforms that can be called recruitment tools, HR tools, or a variety of other names that we’ll cover in this article. 

What's the difference between HR tools and recruitment tools?

Let’s look at the fundamental difference between HR and recruitment tools. 

HR tools

HR tools, generally speaking, refer to a range of platforms that tackle one or multiple areas of human resource management. They are designed specifically to enhance the efficiency of human resources teams in a variety of different areas. These platforms rely largely on the easy management of employees and their data to streamline and automate common HR processes. This allows HR departments to work more efficiently on critical tasks and better planning around costs and targets. 

Large enterprise HR tools will often offer a modular setup, with specific tools designed to aid specific areas of human resources. Some of the key functions that HR tools focus on are: 

  • Employee onboarding
  • Managing and storing HR policies and documents
  • Managing employee contracts
  • Payroll and compensation management
  • Benefits administration
  • Performance, learning, and development 
  • Absence management 

You’ll notice that HR tools are primarily concerned with people who are already employed by the company, rather than candidates. Their job is to ensure that employees receive any support they need while taking the burden off of the HR department. 

Some more complex HR tools even contain their recruitment tools as standalone modules. Or, recruitment tools can be their own separate platform that feeds into the wider HR process. 

Recruitment tools

On the other hand, recruitment tools are software platforms used specifically to automate part or all of the recruitment process. This might include sourcing, selecting, shortlisting candidates, screening, and interviewing. 

They don’t usually provide functions beyond the onboarding phase and are specifically designed to maximize outcomes related to the recruitment and placement of candidates into job vacancies. 

As a recruitment tool, an ATS is designed to improve the candidate experience and to make managing large numbers of resumes easier and more efficient for hiring teams. 

Some of the key functions and features of dedicated recruitment tools include:

  • Candidate sourcing
  • Applicant tracking
  • Recruitment analytics and reporting
  • Pre-hire assessment (pre-screening, interviews, testing, background checks)
  • Onboarding

Many modern recruitment tools will also act as information aggregators, scanning social and search sites for information about new candidates. To that end, recruitment tools aim to provide as much information about candidates as possible and present, process, and make decisions on it effectively and efficiently to improve overall hiring results. 

The difference between HR tools and recruitment tools

Now that we’ve discussed the difference between HR and recruitment tools, let’s look at some examples of each. 

Examples of HR tools

As mentioned, HR tools are platforms that tackle one or several areas of human resources management. Let’s look at the eight most common HR tools in use today. 


This is the most common way for HR teams to input, store and track employee information. They are used to create employee profiles and track data around virtually all HR metrics. 

These HR tools are primarily data-driven solutions to create in-depth reports for auditing and management. They act as HR’s central platform and usually integrate with the company’s other HR tools. 

Performance management

Either a module or standalone tool, performance management tracks employee goals and progress, conversations with their managers, and feedback from co-workers. These HR tools are designed to track employees' performance relative to their goals and provide regular or periodic reviews. 

Payroll and compensation management 

These HR tools automatically calculate, track and deliver employee paychecks and bonuses. They will also automate tax deductions, paid time off, and other parts of an employee’s total compensation packages. These tools are designed to automate menial tasks and ensure accuracy in a highly sensitive area of the business. 

Benefits management 

Like payroll management, these HR tools are designed to automate and streamline the delivery of employee benefits packages. They handle activation and cancellation of benefits according to company policy and serve as a central platform for documentation and critical information.

Employee engagement 

Using techniques like pulse checks, surveys, and regular feedback, engagement tools aim to monitor a company’s culture and the general sentiment of the employees within it. They regularly collect and present information around engagement to give insight into what employees are thinking and what they want. 

Learning management 

Learning management platforms or modules provide a place for employees and managers to create and monitor the progress of professional development plans. Many enterprise solutions will contain large libraries of learning documents and integration with third-party resources. These HR tools ensure that employees continuously evolve their skills and knowledge. 

Succession management

Succession management refers to planning for vacancies in key management positions systematically and proactively. These HR tools help organizations identify future vacancies in key roles and employees who may fill those roles. It then helps provide a program for grooming that individual to move into the new position when necessary seamlessly. These are often modules of larger performance and learning management systems. 

Workforce planning

Like succession management, workforce planning tools aim to identify trends in retention and attrition and future company business goals to determine future HR needs. These HR tools provide teams with insights into what changes are likely coming in the organization and ways to deal with those new requirements. 

Examples of recruitment tools 

Now that we’ve looked at the main types of HR tools, it will be clearer how recruitment platforms like the ATS differ. 

There are three main types of recruitment tools plus some basic tools that can help automate communication, aggregate information, and write job ads. 

Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS)

An ATS is a central hub for processing job applicants, organizing job posts, processing resumes, and tracking interviews. The volume of resumes that companies receive thanks to online job placements has made having an ATS platform standard practice for recruiters. 

An ATS helps to automate and streamline repetitive and time-consuming tasks while maintaining clear and consistent records of every applicant that comes through the virtual door. 

Candidate Relationship Management (CMS)

CRMs, on the other hand, work alongside an ATS to actively source candidates by building and maintaining talent pools. These recruitment tools help nurture passive candidates through recruitment marketing so that, when vacancies arise, there’s always a backlog of qualified people to consider. 

While an ATS primarily focuses on applicants, CRMs focus on the larger potential candidate pool. Together, these two platforms can be leveraged to dramatically improve the effectiveness and efficiency of a company’s hiring process. 

Interviewing and assessment software 

The third recruitment tool, interviewing software, is increasingly integrated into ATS and CMS platforms. As standalone tools, they offer online, real-time interviewing capabilities via video or audio. They also allow recruiters to record interviews to review on their own time. 

Modern interviewing software can even provide data on each candidate by assessing word choices, speech patterns, and facial expressions to help predict how a candidate may fit in a particular role. 

Other recruitment tools 

Hundreds of smaller tools can be used by recruiters to enhance one small part of the hiring process. Some of these include: 

  • Recruitment chatbots which leverage AI to provide basic messaging services. This can include performing simple tasks like answering basic questions and scheduling interviews. They can be deployed after hours or to take the pressure off recruiters during peak periods. 
  • Social media scrapers that search over a dozen social media websites for specific words and phrases associated with a job opening. This can be used to find and contact candidates much faster. 
  • Text analyzers that read and review recruitment ad copy predict how effective it will be or if it risks turning certain demographics off of your posting. 

The options for the HR and recruitment tools today are as varied as the companies and individuals using them. It’s important to understand the difference between platforms and to have a firm grasp of your company’s specific needs. 

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