Your Applicant Tracking System May Be Driving Great College Students Away

One of the biggest complaints we get from college students and grads is that they need to fill out long applicant tracking system forms when applying for jobs. This becomes a bigger issue for students when they’re applying to 10-plus different employers (the norm these days) with each organization using a different system. These systems may help employers stay organized, but they also hurt the candidate experience and can even scare away good applicants.

If you’re talking about students and grads in computer science, engineering, and allied health, you can bet that these students will most likely forgo applying to your organization and will take one of the many offers that are already being put in front of them.

Here are some factors to consider when telling entry-level candidates to apply to your organization:

Use email address instead of your ATS. It’s much easier for someone to email you their resume and profile than to have them fill out a cumbersome form. Consider creating email filters for each job for which you receive applicants. Email platforms come with more search functionality these days, making it easy to organize and forward candidates to others in your organization.

Offer ATS integration. As an organization, you’re most likely using two or more media partners (e.g. us or Facebook) to attract and source candidates. If so, offer the ability for your vendors to integrate with your ATS in order to provide a seamless application process for users. A good ATS will offer tools for third-party vendors to pass candidate information to them. If the media vendor is able to integrate with your ATS and pass candidate information seamlessly, make sure you have an ATS that is willing and able to integrate. The burden should be on your ATS or on your media vendors to do the work.

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Career fairs and info sessions. These on-campus venues are very popular with students, and are two of the top ways students like to connect with employers on campus. When meeting students, especially top prospects, offer to accept their resume if they have one on hand. The worst thing you can do is tell them to go online and submit their resume via the ATS. IF you’ve put in the effort to show up on campus, you should take those resumes and make sure they go where they need to go.

Even in a soft job market, competition for top college talent remains fierce. Make it easy for college students and grads to apply to your jobs. Use an email address instead of an ATS to get applicants. If you need to use an ATS, offer seamless integration to your media partners that will be delivering the candidates. If you’re on campus, take the opportunity to collect resumes. First impressions count, so make your application process a welcoming experience.

Roberto Angulo is CEO of AfterCollege, the leading career network for college students and recent grads. He founded the service while at Stanford University, where he obtained his B.A. degree in economics. He is a co-author of U.S. Patent 7,213,019, covering AfterCollege’s proprietary recruiting and matching technology. He has collaborated with President Obama’s Administration on various initiatives, including the launch of Summer Jobs+, which helped lower youth summer unemployment in 2012. His previous projects include Intuit’s Quicken Beta website, which was the first software beta testing service of its kind. He was also involved in rolling out the first interactive course website in the U.S. for a class at Stanford. Previously, he worked at BBN/Verizon as a project manager. He enjoys traveling, running, and developing new product ideas and partnerships for AfterCollege.


23 Comments on “Your Applicant Tracking System May Be Driving Great College Students Away

  1. Roberto,

    I think focusing on the candidate experience is a great way to attract top talent, however I have to disagree with you about having candidates send their resume to an email.

    When a hiring manager is overwhelmed with resumes in their inbox, it’s easy to forget the basics of crafting a good candidate experience like acknowledging you have received their submission or taking time to follow up with each candidate. It’s also very easy to not look at every single resume and application that is sent to you which results in losing potentially great candidates.

    A good ATS won’t deter the candidate and instead will improve the experience. Trust me, as a recent college grad I was always hesitant sending a resume to an email for fear it would be lost in the “resume black hole.”

  2. Roberto,

    You hit a sore spot with “Use email address instead of your ATS” suggestion. This is just simply impractical and a potential nightmare for record-keeping purposes.

    Aside from that, your point about ATS integration is spot on. There are a lot of companies offering this to some degree but there is no clear cut industry standard, which is what recruiting desperately needs (i.e. BlueRay, MP3, etc.).

  3. Candidates don’t have issues applying to Applicant Tracking Systems, they have issues applying to long applications. You don’t need to switch to email to apply to simplify the process. The good thing about ATSes is that the screeners and the process is customizable. Minimize the screeners. Minimize the pages to your apply process and you will increase the amount of job seekers applying to your job.

    Too many screener questions is not a good thing. It weeds out passive candidates and other desirable candidates that don’t want to go through a 30 minute apply process. Instead you are left with job seekers with stamina – which many times are the desperate job seekers that are just applying to every job out there.

  4. @ Jon: Well said. A career site/ATS should:
    1) Let interested people find potential jobs within 60 seconds of logging on.
    2) Let interested people pre-apply to potential jobs within an additional 60 seconds of logging on. This involves answering 5-6 “immediate-answer, can’t-be-gamed, vital-to-the-job” multiple-choice questions. If they pass, they apply with a resume upload and go on their way. If they don’t pass, the get a “Thank you, try another position, etc.” message.

    This combines speed & ease of application for the applicant with pre-screening and avoiding a flood of unqualified resumes for the recruiter.


    Keith “Available to Solve Other Major Recruiting Problems” Halperin

  5. I don’t see how it’s much more cumbersome for grads than any other hire. When we implemented our ATS last year, our goal was to keep the application simple and ensure that it was a process that could be accomplished in about 5 minutes. We had email addresses before we had the ATS and that was a nightmare. Also, we are talking about the most tech savvy generation ever, so systems shouldn’t be bothersome for them. Like anything else, just keep it simple.

  6. Everyone, thank you for the comments. I wrote this post from the perspective of college students and grads looking for jobs. I understand employers have specific reporting needs, including OFCCP compliance requirements that require the use of an ATS.

    There are good systems out there and there are bad ones. My intention is to knock the bad ones. A bad ATS is one that provides a terrible user experience (e.g. long form, many questions) and one that doesn’t provide easy integration options with media that deliver applicants to employers.

    Employers you should be demanding that their ATS integrate with their media partners and that they provide a good simple way for applicants to give the data needed in the least amount of time possible.

    Paul, you bring up a good point. Having an industry standard for exchanging data is key. There is HR-XML but it’s not heavily used. Employers need to put the pressure on their vendors to make this happen.

  7. Did you know that there is at least one company that will very affordably handle these and other aspects of candidate care for you, so you can concentrate on higher value-add recruiting activities?


  8. Frankly, I am not sure I want the candidate that isn’t willing to fill out an application. I feel that if we as recruiters have to accommodate them in this manner, it is the same as enabling the entitlement era of candidates that I would rather pass on. If they want to cut corners here, then they will do the same on the job. I haven’t met a great candidate yet that didn’t completely understand and comply with the processes we have in place. If you are serious about the job, then you will have no issues with this.

  9. @Michelle – You haven’t met one yet because because they were turned off by the long application process.

    Even if a shorter application attracts 300 more resumes, I’d much rather deal with looking through them all and finding the best candidate than making them go through a long process and having my requisitions open for longer periods of time or settling for less than 100% ideal candidates.

    And don’t forget about mobile job seekers. Roughly 35% of internet traffic originates from a mobile device. The trend is no different for job seekers. If a job seeker finds your job online and the process is more than a few minutes long, you’ve lost that job seeker.

    I saw a recent study that stated roughly 75% of job seekers have used a mobile device to look for a job, but something like 20% of them have actually applied online. That’s because these long apply processes are screening them out. Do yourself a favor and make the job seeker want to apply for your jobs, not dread the experience!

    Study was in this presentation –

  10. @ Jon: Michelle may have a point. If your company runs on dysfunctional corporate BS (like long, difficult applications, multiple rounds of interviews with large numbers of interviewers, and lack of adequate candidate care & communication) you might want to weed out from the start people who expect decent, professional treatment. Employers of choice are often known for this sort of thing, because they can treat almost everybody badly and still get the “pick of the litter”. The people overseeing such practices either have avoided them (by having their paths smoothed ahead of them) or have gone through them and regard doing so as some sort of perverse initiation ritual which others should endure as well.



  11. It’s interesting that the assumption is that the process is considered dysfunctional BS. Our company application process is actually quite mild and it takes only about 10 minutes or so to apply. Fairly painless as we only collect information that is necessary… Not only for our own needs but as to not unnecessarily waste the candidates time either. We are considered an employer of choice, listed on Fortune Magazines best places to work list. But we didn’t get their by making it difficult to get in… But rather by identifying hard working and dedicated individuals who do what it takes to get business done for our clients, no matter what it takes. If you complain about filling out a simple form to tell me a little about yourself and why we should consider you as we’ll as allow me to collect this data that is consistent, reportable and of sound recruiting practices, then you don’t fit the kind of individuals we want. It’s not just the capabilities that matter in a candidate . It’s also the attitude and values that matter to us. If our values as a company don’t match those of the employees, then we will just be a job to those people. So those who aren’t willing to fill out a simple form, yes, please move on. This isn’t the place for you. It’s reserved for those who understand the big picture.

  12. I agree Michelle – our application process only takes 5-10 minutes between filling out a few pieces of information (like your home address – wow, how difficult) and uploading a resume. I can’t believe we think we need to get to the point where someone has to just submit a name and we’re supposed to track them down and get their qualifications in some other way. They can even follow us on Twitter, get the job alerts, and follow the job link and apply from there. To imply that we’re dysfunctional or too bureaucratic when we have hundreds of openings and applicants is kind of absurd, especially when we all have legal requirements to adhere to.

  13. @ Michelle & Kim: The harder/longer you make it to apply, the fewer people you’ll actually get, including some that you’d want. A study (Not scientific and it was by a company) indicated that the rate of application declines dramatically when the application process takes more than about two minutes.

    Also, it sounds that your company doesn’t feel it needs to do everything it possibly can to make potential and actual applicants valued and special, and to me that includes minimizing the time and effort needed to apply for your jobs- it also points to a certain arrogance in your corporate cultures… Furthermore, I would expect that if it takes awhile to apply, it probably takes a while to hear back (maybe not at all) and a while to interview (quite possibly substantial numbers of interviews with large numbers of interviewers) and a while to hear back (maybe not at all) about the interviews. Now, NONE of these may actually be the case, and your respective firms may have the tightest, most effective hiring processes possible, but you’ve left that impression in me. The application process is likely to be the first meaningful impression a company makes with a potential/actual applicant, and if you blow that, you may blow it all the way along the line.



  14. @Kim If you upload a resume – which contains your address – why on earth would you want them to manually type in their address? Sounds redundant. You think this weeds out the people that are unqualified? I would argue that the job seeker sees a redundant task like that and weeds you out as a potential employer.

    @Michelle – Have you ever been through your own apply process? It is not a 10 minute tops process. I understand that you need to gather the info in the process – it is all very relevant, but I would challenge you to actually go through all the steps as if you were a job seeker, see how long it takes and remove any redundant steps. Job seekers notice this stuff. Remember that this is a two way street and you are both testing each other out.

  15. Wow, how presumptive of all thinking the application process is such a pain. The reason we have them put in the address is because I hate those systems that “parcel” information and then ask to fill in blanks or correct information. Additonally, the address is a unique identifier in the ATS for the canidate, so that if we have agencies submit the candidate it helps us track how the candidate was submitted into the system first. We don’t pay agencies for candidates already in our system. Honestly, this is kind of insulting to be judged because some think taking 10 minutes to fill out an application is such a pain. I’ve tested my own process several times and it has never taken more than 10 minutes. I have also received very positive feedback from our candidates as I always make a point to ask those who I talk to how their experience with our system is. Because yes, I do care about the candidates, including ensuring they all receive notification one way or another to make sure we close the loop. Almost all have said it was easy and painless.

    In addition, I have a candidate care email set up where candidates can ask questions or ask for help and audit the ATS daily to ensure that candidates are being reviewed and moved. We are doing major hiring as an organization right now, and as you can imagine, we are managing hundreds of candidates a day, including a lot of submittals from contract agencies. Again, to ask someone to spend 10 minutes applying does not seem unreasonable, and if it is, I guess we are lucky because we never have a shortage of good people wanting to come work for us.

  16. @Kim – It sounds like you do a thorough job auditing your apply process and I applaud that.

    I can’t tell 100% what company you work for, but if my quick LinkedIn search has you linked to the right company, your apply process is nice and simple.

    My comment was more towards systems that make you manually type in each job and your name and address and references and everything, when a resume is already there to look at… Just a name and address manually entered in not too much to ask.

  17. @ Jon: Thank you.
    @ Kim: Honestly, this is kind of insulting to be judged because some think taking 10 minutes to fill out an application is such a pain.”…Let’s say one of your recruiters said to you:”I have a way of getting enough good candidates for what we need, but I’m likely to be turning off an unknown number of additional good or better candidates because it’s how I want to recruit, and it seems good enough.” What would you say to that recruiter?

    “I’ve tested my own process several times and it has never taken more than 10 minutes.” That makes sense:(1) You know how your system works, and (2) you’ve done it before, so you’re likely to gradually get better and faster at it.)

    “I have also received very positive feedback from our candidates as I always make a point to ask those who I talk to how their experience with our system is.” I don’t think you’ve spoken with all the people who never finished the interview process because it took too long, or the people who don’t bother responding, and you probably talk to an extra-large share of happy people or those at least want to have an opportunity to work for you at some time, so they may be wishing to give (perhaps even unconsciously) a “rosy” report. In other words, your observations are probably anecdotal and not statistically valid or representative.

    “We never have a shortage of good people wanting to come work for us.” This is good- it’s also the end of 2012 and we have high un(der)employment in most areas and places. Furthermore, you don’t know how many even better people you’d have if you’re application process were faster…



  18. Here’s some additional data for this post. This month we started following up with job seekers who click “Apply” on an AfterCollege job or internship listing and then get redirected to an ATS.

    -826 responses so far
    -12.11% of respondents did not follow through on ATS process and didn’t complete form.
    -Some reasons given for not completing process:
    –Something was broken on ATS
    –They didn’t have a cover letter ready
    –They meant to finish later but forgot

    We’re in the early stages of gathering this data and we expect to have some insights in the coming weeks.

  19. The problem is that we live in a bandwagon society. The latest bandwagon is making candidates fill out pages and pages of information online on platforms that shall remain nameless, but that are a pain. The poor candidate has to sit there at a computer for up to 40 minutes, depending on how much experience the person has and assuming that the platform and/or your PC don’t freeze up or bump you off, because if you lose all the data that you entered, you will have to start all over again.

    NONE of this should be happening. Candidates must be treated with respect. This means that a candidate should be allowed to submit his resume. THEN, IF there is interest in the candidate, he is called for a phone screen, and if there is further interest after that, the candidate can then fill the full-blown application.

    There is another issue with the online resume platforms, which is PRIVACY. Nobody seems to realize or to want to realize that when you apply online, ALL of that information is sitting on someone else’s server, which means that an entire group of other people now has access to your information. None of this should be happening.

    Recruiting efforts MUST seek to find qualified applicants, but also to PROTECT THE PRIVACY of the candidates. The fewer number of people who have access to your information, the better. ONLY the individuals to whom you wish to forward your resume should have access to it.

  20. Applicant tracking systems that go through someone else’s platform pose privacy problems and potential IDENTITY THEFT risks for candidates. This is something that recruiters and employers don’t seen concerned with; however, its is a very REAL threat. Due to the proliferation of those services, every applicant’s resume can be accessed by others to whom the candidate did NOT intend to sent his resume.

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