What Candidates Need to Know about Applicant Tracking Systems

by Andrew Hibel

Article content is provided by HigherEdJobs.
Many colleges and universities use applicant tracking systems in their recruitment and hiring efforts. Understanding these systems is critical for hiring committees as well as for job seekers. In this month's interview Heather Murray, director of Strategic Partnerships for Higher Education at PeopleAdmin, discusses the role of applicant tracking systems, how job seekers can best utilize these systems, and her work with PeopleAdmin.

Andrew Hibel, HigherEdJobs: Ms. Murray, many colleges and universities are using applicant tracking systems (ATS) in their recruitment efforts. Describe what an ATS is and how colleges and universities are using them.

Heather Murray, director of Strategic Partnerships for Higher Education, PeopleAdmin: An applicant tracking system is the tool that facilitates recruitment, selection, and hiring processes -- all activities that typically fall under human resources or are a collaboration between human resources and hiring managers.

In higher education, a robust applicant tracking system will also include functionality that allows search committee members to capture all of their notes and conversations during the interview and selection process for faculty and staff. It will also simplify tracking and reporting on a candidate's journey through the selection and interview process, which is helpful for DE&I efforts as well as equal opportunity and affirmative action reporting.

The depth and accessibility of data captured during the recruiting and hiring process is what really determines how much value an applicant tracking system delivers. Beyond providing a measure of defensibility during an audit, applicant tracking data should empower colleges and universities to identify gaps. If the data are complete and accurate, we should be able to look at our campuses holistically to identify opportunities where training, for example, could strengthen the recruiting, interviewing, selection, and hiring processes.

Hibel: Share some background on PeopleAdmin and some statistics on how many colleges and universities utilize the tracking system.

Murray: PeopleAdmin has partnered with higher education institutions for nearly 20 years and serves more than 700 colleges and universities. We offer highly configurable solutions designed to facilitate the recruitment, hiring, onboarding, managing, development, and retention of talented faculty, staff, and student populations.

Hibel: Although there may not be a "one size fits all" approach to formatting resumes, how can a candidate effectively prepare their resume to be best utilized by an employer using an ATS?

Murray: First, make sure your resume is clean and concise. A good applicant tracking system will use resume parsing to pull information into the various fields of your electronic application, so take the time to ensure all the information transfers accurately and make corrections when necessary.

It's also always a good idea to tailor your resume to the position you're applying for. Job postings usually indicate what skills and experience the institution is looking for, so you should try to highlight the parts of your resume that speak to their priorities. This applies to your cover letter, as well.

Hibel: There is often advice for job seekers to include searchable "keywords" in their resume. How does a job seeker determine what and how many keywords should be included?

Murray: It really comes down to paying attention to the job description. I wouldn't go as far as telling a job seeker to cut and paste a certain number of keywords that appear in the description into their resume, but I would certainly recommend paying attention to what the posting indicates is important and highlighting those aspects of your skills and demonstrated experience.

Hibel: In a previous article that HigherEdJobs published in 2014 regarding applicant tracking systems, some do's and don'ts were discussed in terms of submitting applications. For example, making sure to keep information updated, uploading PDF files when possible, adding text instead of bullet points, and making sure the application is completed thoroughly. What has changed in the past few years in terms of advice you'd give?

Murray: Out of what you listed, I wouldn't change much. You still need to make sure your documents are clean, you want to review the information you're submitting before you hit the send button, and the application should be completed thoroughly. I know sometimes applicants are required to complete a form and they don't want to essentially regurgitate the information from their resume, but some institutions see this as an indicator of whether or not you're serious about the job.

I think the biggest change over the past several years comes from the prevalence of social media. Many positions now allow you to apply with your LinkedIn profile and offer options to include links to other social media profiles, so it's very important for candidates to consider how you are representing yourself online.

Hibel: Sometimes the best way to understand a two-sided process is to put yourself in the position of the person on the other side of the process. What are the biggest concerns for colleges and universities in managing the faculty and staff recruitment process?

Murray: On the faculty and staff side, there are so many moving parts. An HR practitioner is going to need to engage the search committee members and ensure they are taking full advantage of the applicant tracking system they're using. This can be particularly challenging because some members may not have participated in a search in the last year or even the last three years.

And then of course, diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts are always top of mind during faculty and staff recruitment. There is much thought that goes into ensuring the integrity of the recruitment and hiring process.

Collaboration and communication are also major priorities when recruiting both faculty and staff. You need to understand what the search committee chairperson or hiring manager is looking for and how they envision this process going, then create a plan and use tools, such as your applicant tracking system, to facilitate those processes and hire the best candidate for the job.

Creating a backup plan is another concern. Sometimes your original plan does not yield the results you expected, and you must be agile -- whether that means re-starting the recruitment process, rethinking the position, or finding alternative sources to expand the candidate pool.

Then once you make your hiring decision, the focus switches to ensuring the hiring manager or search committee chairperson is ready to help you facilitate an effective onboarding process that gets the new hire started on the right foot.

Hibel: What do you enjoy most about your position of partnering with institutions to help in managing their recruitment process?

Murray: Being part of PeopleAdmin and providing solutions that meet the needs of our end users is very gratifying for me. I love that we empower colleges and universities to be progressive in how they recruit and employ talented faculty and staff in a holistic manner. Our tools really help human resources, academic affairs, supervisors, faculty, and staff work together to advance their institutional mission. And for me, having worked directly in higher education, I understand how important this is to these institutions, as well as our industry.