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What Is an Applicant Tracking System?

An applicant tracking system (ATS) is software for recruiters and employers to track candidates throughout the recruiting and hiring process. This software can come equipped with capabilities ranging from simple database functionality to a full-service suite of tools that makes it easy for businesses of any size to filter, manage, and analyze candidates.

Why use an applicant tracking system?

Every organization is unique, but each one thrives on attracting, hiring, and maximizing top talent. Many businesses face major challenges at some point in the hiring or onboarding process. An ATS can offer a variety of capabilities that can help the organization find, hire, and retain the best candidates. Some of the benefits of an ATS include the following:

Source and attract qualified candidates

Some organizations lack the reach to connect with top job seekers or to a cast a wide enough net in the marketplace. Others are missing critical data on the right channels to find specific candidates; other organizations may lack brand recognition and the means to develop it. An ATS can help address these critical candidate challenges. Some systems can be enriched with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to create a profile of an ideal candidate, assess and identify skills, and predict success factors to maximize each hire. This helps organizations better understand candidate behavior, amplify brand recognition, and target specific job seekers on the platforms and channels they use most.

Increase candidate engagement

Moving a candidate through the journey from first contact to start date can be a high-touch process. It can be all too easy to lose a top candidate because of slow response times or poor engagement around interview schedules. An ATS creates greater visibility across the applicant lifecycle, so touchpoints don’t fall through the cracks.

Improve efficiency and lower costs

A reliance on inefficient manual processes, poor collaboration across the recruiting team, and miscommunication with key hiring stakeholders means that applicants move slowly through the hiring process. This leads to high cost-to-hire and time-to-hire ratios. An ATS creates opportunities to automate manual processes, increase visibility into the hiring cycle for the entire recruiting team, and increase opportunities for communication throughout the candidate journey.

78% of recruiters using an ATS report that it has improved the quality of the candidates they hire.2

Take a deep dive into the many features of a robust ATS (4:02)

Remain competitive

As of 2019, 99% of the Fortune 500 companies used an ATS in their hiring process.1 These companies already have the brand recognition and resources to compete for top talent; an ATS can level the playing field by creating better, quicker access to candidates.

Optimize the onboarding process

The right ATS can also assist in onboarding, ensuring that candidates who accept employment have all the information they need to start making an impact from day one, increasing overall productivity and retention.

Benefits of an applicant tracking system for candidates

In a competitive job market, recruiters and hiring managers look to leverage every potential advantage in the race for the best talent. As many organizations pivot to remote work, this need is even more critical. The competitive field has broadened: The barrier of geography has been removed, giving the best applicants even more choice. An ATS can be a key differentiator for discerning candidates. Here are a few of the benefits:

Enhanced candidate experience

Job seekers expect a frictionless digital experience during their search. The best ATS automates many of the most cumbersome aspects of job hunting by providing auto-fill online applications; self-service interview scheduling; and seamless, consistent communication across recruiting teams.

86% of recruiters reported that using an ATS has helped them hire faster.3

Explore the advantages of an enhanced candidate experience through the ATS journey (12:19)

Greater efficiency in the hiring process

Low candidate engagement is often the result of disconnected recruiting teams that cannot collaborate effectively, lack visibility into where the candidate is in the hiring process, or can’t provide critical information to a candidate. This is a major frustration for top applicants, who make decisions on whether to accept a job or not based on every aspect of the experience. An ATS can help avoid any negative issues, getting applicants hired faster, and creating more positive word-of-mouth for the brand.

Immediate impact after the hire

The best people want to hit the ground running. An ATS not only assists in recruiting and hiring, but it also offers dozens of tools to streamline the onboarding process. This makes the transition from candidate to full-time employee a smooth one.

The best applicant tracking system: benefits for recruiters and employers

The right ATS can have an enormous impact on effectiveness for recruiters, helping them to:

Create stronger job descriptions

Organizations create a job requisition because they have identified a critical business need that current staffing levels do not address. The job description must translate this business need into core responsibilities. But it must also capture the attention of the most qualified candidate. An ATS has keyword-rich templates for job descriptions that attract the right attention, at the right time, and in the places where top candidates are looking.

Extend recruiter reach and reduce friction

An ATS allows recruiters to match job requisitions to the job-posting sites and the social media channels most appropriate for specific candidates. An ATS also maximizes visibility for internal job boards, while requiring fewer clicks and eliminating barriers for prospective employees.

Automate and increase efficiency

An ATS can transform and automate manual processes across the hiring cycle with tools like automated job posting and communication, and digitized, flexible interview scheduling. Employers can reduce their dependence on decentralized, paper and email processes. Doing so prevents qualified candidates from falling through the cracks. It also eliminates mistakes and slowdowns while moving applicants more quickly through the hiring funnel to improve cost-to-hire metrics. Digitizing and centralizing sensitive data also improves the security of that data.

Improve visibility and collaboration across recruiting teams

Just as candidates have become more dispersed, so have recruiting teams. Many organizations struggle with efficiency because of poor collaboration caused by inconsistent processes and ineffective tools. An ATS allows entire recruiting teams to see where a candidate is in the process, what touchpoints have occurred, and remaining next steps. Alerts can be established so no critical responsibilities are overlooked and so good candidates aren’t lost.

What to know when selecting an applicant tracking system

With a wide range of ATS options available, organizations must evaluate several factors before deciding on the best tool to maximize their investment.

Understand the problem that needs to be solved

With so many ATS options, it’s critical to isolate the true pain points the solution should target. For example:

  • If the organization struggles to identify and recruit high-end talent, they should look for an ATS solution that creates dynamic job descriptions, automates pre-interview skill assessments, and uses AI to create a robust skills profile.
  • Organizations that struggle with communication and candidate engagement throughout the hiring process should identify an ATS that provides more human touchpoints and progress benchmarks along the candidate journey.
  • An ATS can offer even more niche services like multiple language support for organizations hiring globally.

Match investment to organizational capability

As with any software or technology investment, start with a clear understanding of the organization’s capabilities. Employers should know their business’ appetite for change and willingness to adopt new tools. They must also be firm on budgetary restraints and have acuity regarding the expected return on investment in dollars and time.

Understand your IT infrastructure

ATS options can vary in scope. More comprehensive, full-service offerings can be quite complex. Most advanced ATSs are not out-of-the-box solutions, so it’s critical to ensure that the business has the time and IT resources to dedicate to a process that could take months or even years. The implementation and integration of processes can also stretch beyond existing IT infrastructure. The ATS may need to interface with outside software that is often critical to the hiring process but isn’t included in tracking systems. This includes things such as pre-employment drug screenings and background checks. Employers must know their environment to identify the right solution.

The future of applicant tracking systems

Applicant tracking systems are robust tools that continue to innovate to match the pace of change and demand in the workforce. The best systems are meeting this challenge now, but they will share the following common features in the future:

Mobile-first, information-rich, rapid adaptability

The needs of a multigenerational workforce are constantly changing, and your ATS must be flexible and adaptable to meet those expectations. Top candidates demand seamless, fully mobile interaction, and the leaders in the ATS marketplace are meeting them where and how they search and apply—on their phone and on the go. Job seekers also expect detailed answers to a litany of pre-employment questions, driving ATSs to become more searchable, provide live support or employ bots to tackle FAQs, and be customizable to address new needs in real time.

An enriched user experience

ATSs will continue to refine and optimize the candidate journey. More intuitive, simpler interfaces; the ability to pull information automatically from resumes; and self-service for scheduling interviews are and will continue to be differentiating features for prospective employees. Recruiters will also benefit from a more seamless experience in everything from job posting to task management.

Improved ability to leverage social platforms

Social networks are essential to the recruiting process, and ATSs will be more fully integrated with social media to identify top-end passive and active candidates while also helping organizations build a strong social brand.

Amplified effectiveness with AI

AI is essential for creating greater efficiencies. An ATS that incorporates AI can process complex data sets, helping identify the skills that differentiate top performers within an organization. By isolating the factors that determine success, employers and recruiters can create more targeted job postings, screen and assess skills on a more granular level, and help address weaknesses in the hiring process. Refined algorithms will provide a more nuanced, detailed portrait of an ideal candidate, and create a more personalized, frictionless experience for job seekers.

A cloud-based, fully integrated ecosystem

The future of ATS will be in the cloud, eliminating the need for on-premises maintenance and management while leveraging third-party infrastructure, scalability, and security capability. Leading ATSs will also integrate with the broader technology stack, allowing employers to better understand the ways in which recruiting processes impact the business.

Stronger diversity and inclusion

Not only do a diverse workforce and an inclusive culture strengthen an organization, but they’re also an expectation for employers and candidates. An ATS will use data and hiring patterns to identify and eliminate intrinsic bias in the hiring process, opening businesses to a more diverse set of skilled applicants.


1 Linda Qu, “99% of Fortune 500 companies use applicant tracking systems (ATS),” Jobscan, November 7, 2019

2 Karen McCandless, “Recruitment strategies report: Invest in employee referrals and promote your brand better,” GetApp, Oct. 3, 2017.

3 McCandless, “Recruitment strategies report”