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The Essential Guide to Buying an Applicant Tracking System

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The Basics of Buying an Applicant Tracking System

Applicant Tracking

noun, (sometimes referred to as an Association Management System, or AMS) Software to manage and automate the recruiting and hiring processes. An ATS allows you to track a candidate all the way through job posting, to resume submission, performance in interviews, and hiring.

According to an Aberdeen Group study, of the companies that perform the best when it comes to hiring and retaining top talent, 84% invest or plan to invest in best of breed ATSs.

What do these companies know that others don't? Why are over 50% of them planning to increase investment in recruitment technology over the next 12 months?

As the Aberdeen report concludes, “Best-in-Class organizations recognize that these systems provide an understanding of how to handle complex recruiting needs and a way to improve the experience of recruiters, hiring managers, and candidates.”

Consider this eBook your guide to navigating the world of Applicant Tracking Systems so you can improve your whole recruiting and talent selection process. There are over 203 ATS solutions out there, and trying to figure out which one is best for you can seem a daunting task. With the tips on the following pages, however, and by completing a few simple steps, you can easily winnow down those numbers to a much more manageable shortlist and make a final selection

Taking the step to formalize your hiring and candidate selection process is a big deal. How do you know you're ready? Is an ATS even what you really need? And most importantly, which Applicant Tracking System is going to actually make things easier and improve the hiring experience in your organization?


Over the course of this guidebook we'll cover…

  1. How to determine it's time for an ATS
  2. How to identify and evaluate your ATS needs
  3. How to select the best ATS for your business

Ready to get started? Or are you feeling unsure? Let's take a placement test to see where you stand…

Chapter 1

ATS Readiness Screening

There are a lot of great reasons to buy Applicant Tracking Software….and a few bad ones. Do you have all of the necessary requirements? Answer “yes” or “no” to these questions to find out if you're ready….

  1. Do you spend more time shuffling papers than talking to quality candidates?
  2. Do you take too long to fill positions with quality people?
  3. Do you struggle to track and report compliance activities and data?
  4. Do you have a hard time measuring the effectiveness of the recruiting and hiring process?
  5. Do you receive a lot of resumes but have no way to efficiently accept, review, and manage them?
  6. Do you consistently have a large number of job opportunities or seasonal positions to fill?
  7. Do you still use manual processes and paper to find, screen, and communicate with applicants?
  8. Do you have an in-house person or team to manage and “own” the hiring process?
  9. Do you manually post to multiple job boards to try to find candidates?
  10. Do you have or want to have a database of previous qualified applicants so you don't have to start each job opening search from scratch?

Tally up your "yes" answers to determine your readiness score.

Decoding Your Score


An ATS may or may not be what you need right now. Let's review some of the basics before you move on.


You're most likely ready for an ATS, but keep looking over the material so that you're completely prepared.


You're at the top of the class! Skip ahead to Chapter 2 and get started!

Score lower than you thought? Don't worry. You may still be ready for an ATS even if you're not the "usual cnadidate".

Most companies don't receive thousands of resumes, hire big batches of employees, or have tons of seasonal positions to fill. Many times, just having one of those criteria is enough to require an ATS, and two or three means you'll definitely benefit from an ATS.

Additionally, manually posting to multiple job boards doesn't necessarily mean you need an ATS, but if you find you have to do this regularly, an ATS may help cut down the time spent.

If you find yourself saying: “We need to get more applicants” or, “Our turnover rate is horrible” … you have other issues to address before you buy an ATS.


Here's what an ATS CAN do

  • Save time recruiting by automating job board posting, resume submission, and pre-screening.
  • Standardize hiring so you don't have to keep reinventing the wheel.
  • Prevent lawsuits by ensuring your recruiting process is compliant with hiring laws.
  • Increase employee retention with better screened and qualified candidates.
  • Identify better candidates due to standardized metrics and access to a pipeline of previous applicants

Here's what an ATS CAN'T do

  • Hire for you. You'll still need to be present during the process and make the tough decisions on qualified candidates.
  • Fix your recruitment process. If you have fundamental flaws in where or how you look for applicants, an ATS will only highlight those flaws.
  • Stop the “brain drain.” A lot of people jumping ship is an indication of fundamental issues within your organization that new software won't solve.


During your search, you will also encounter numerous software solutions available that either compliment and/or integrate with applicant tracking software to help you manage recruiting, hiring, on-boarding, performance management, and human resource management, such as:

Candidate management software: another term for applicant tracking software and focuses on internal hiring.

Staffing software: another term for recruiting software and used by outside agencies.

Talent management software: an application that covers a broader set of processes: recruiting, hiring, on-boarding, and performance management. Applicant tracking is typically included as part of talent management. May also be referred to as human capital management.

Human resource information/management systems (HRIS / HRMS): an application that covers the full range of human resource related processes. HRMS solutions may or may not have applicant tracking functionality included.

Applicant Tracking Software? Recruiting Software?

Which is it?

There are two types of Recruiting and Applicant Tracking software:

  1. Software used by corporate HR departments and organizations to manage their hiring process (internal)
  2. Software used by recruiting agencies, executive search firms, and/or recruiting process outsource (RPO) firms to manage the hiring of employees for other organizations (external)

To avoid confusion and ensure that you're looking for the appropriate software, Capterra has differentiated the two types as follows:

  • Applicant Tracking software (ATS): used internally by corporate HR
  • Recruiting software: used by external staffing agencies

Note: It is common for software vendors to use the terms, “Recruiting” and “Applicant Tracking” interchangeably. In fact, the majority of functionality is the same in both types of software. Some vendors, however, will focus more heavily on one user type or the other.

Chapter 2

Preparing Your CV of ATS Goals

Now that you've taken the screening test and know that you're ready to buy, it's time to dig into the meat of our guide- identifying your ATS needs. With hundreds of Applicant Tracking options and features available, clearly establishing your requirements will ensure that the ATS you ultimately select makes the cut.



Define Your Recruiting and hiring Process

In order to figure out which features you'll need in an ATS, your organization should set down on paper your ideal process for hiring qualified candidates

Make sure you cover all these steps in order to have a more informed and productive conversation with ATS vendors:

  1. Applicant selection/application
  2. Initial screening
  3. Do we have any volunteers?
  4. Interview process
  5. Additional pre-employment assessments (if any)
  6. Offer of employment
  7. Background check/references check/drug screen

Ensure, too, that you have carefully defined the different roles of who may be involved throughout the process (recruiter, manager, candidate).


Create example use cases

Develop detailed examples of the different types of positions you expect to fill. In each case, include what type of tracking and compliance functionality you would need.

Use the ideal process developed in Step 1 to inform each of your use cases. This way when you talk to an ATS vendor, you can paint them a clear picture of what you need the software to do

Note: It's best to develop these use cases for the most common hires, rather than the one-time-per-year hire, otherwise you may waste money on “cool” features to deal with exceptions.

For example: Incredible Doodad Inc. needs to hire extra shift workers for the manufacturing plant in the two months leading up to the holidays, due to increased demand for their product. They will need to hire at least 60 extra seasonal workers by October 30th, and all the workers need to be certified to operate their heavy machinery. Additionally, each worker needs to pass an E-Verify check and a drug test.

Incredible Doodad Inc. wants to use online job boards, as well as their database of previous seasonal workers to select applicants, and plans to have an automated initial screening for new applicants but not for candidates from their database. The person responsible for the hiring is the floor manager in the manufacturing plant, and he will collaborate with the HR Director on interviews and rating resumes


Identify your required feature

There are hundreds of features in an Applicant Tracking software solution. Some you will need, most you will not. Focus on the top 10 – 15 that you really need, and don't get hung up on the flashy features that you'll only use once, if ever. Instead, write down a separate list of “nice-tohaves,” but don't let these make or break your selection decision.



  • Requisition management
  • Applicant profiles, filtering, and ranking
  • Resume database and search/ parsing
  • Interview tracking and scheduling
  • Job application management
  • Candidate matching
  • Contact management
  • Jobs board / careers website
  • Pre-screening
  • Pre-employment testing/ assessment
  • EEOC and compliance management
  • Workflow management


  • On-boarding
  • Background screening
  • Certification tracking
  • Referral management
  • HR integration
  • MS Outlook integration
  • Social network recruiting tools
  • Candidate self-service
  • Offer letter automation


Smart ATS: This is becoming more common, and refers to an ATS with selection tools like online skills testing built in.

Self serve assessments: Tests which allow candidates to validate their skills and fit for the position, without having to interview with eight different recruiters first.

Social recruiting: Many ATSs now integrate with social networks and allow you to share jobs, find talent, and even conduct interviews on places like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Mobile recruiting: In a market where, according to a Comscore survey, 77% of jobseekers use smart phones to find jobs, it will soon become necessary for your company's jobs portal and your ATS to be smart-phone optimized.

Cloud enabled: It used to be that an ATS was only used by the biggest enterprise companies, and it was tied to an install at the office. This has changed and is continuing to change dramatically as the number of ATSs hosted in the cloud and aimed at small and midsized businesses is exploding.

Collaborative hiring: Share notes and impressions about applicants and have your entire team be able to view them instantly.

77% use smartphones to find jobs

Another ATS “feature” to seriously consider is its platform. Do you want a web-based or an onpremises solution? There are pros and cons to both, so ask the software companies detailed questions about security, backup/recovery, and data ownership.

Here are some pros to each kind:


Web-based: accessible anywhere with an internet connection, can be used on most computers/devices, maintenance and upgrades are handled by the vendor, lower initial investment.

On-premises: greater ability to customize, greater access to data, easier integration with other installed systems, greater flexibility with deployment, potentially lower lifetime investment.


The 5 Most Commonly Requested ATS Features

  1. Resume Search
  2. Candidate Management
  3. Contact Management
  4. Serves Staffing Firms
  5. Interview Management

*Based off of Capterra ATS buyers in 2013.

Now that you know what you want, it's time to start selecting promising candidates. But be warned…just like interviewing job applicants, you can't simply ask a few basic questions and expect to find the perfect fit. Your first step is to prepare for the interview process by creating a list of possible software options for your organization.


  1. Which of these options is smarter?


    Spend days researching ATS solutions and enter your findings into a complicated spreadsheet


    Use an online tool that does all of this for you

  2. Do you really need to demo every ATS on the shortlist?


    No. Demos are just sales pitches that don't tell you anything new.


    Yes. You wouldn't hire an employee without interviewing them.

  3. Who should be involved in an ATS demo?


    Your HR staff and hiring managers


    Your managers and team leads who will be interviewing prospects


    Your IT department

  4. How much does an ATS cost?




    $1 million


#1: If you want to make through first round interviews, the answer is B.
#2: B. Demos let you get past the sales buzzwords and actually see the software in action.
#3: All of the above. Each of the stakeholders have different goals for the software and all should be included in selecting it.
#4: Neither. ATS pricing varies a lot, but don't worry; we'll break it down for you so you can compare products easily.

Chapter 3

Interview Tips for Buying an ATS


Create a short list

Capterra's Applicant Tracking Software Capterra's ATS software directory has all 203+ applicant tracking systems listed in one place. Use the filtering tool to check off your must-have features and narrow down the list to a much more manageable size.

The goal is to create a list of 3–5 ATS solutions that you'll evaluate more closely. But if your requirements are pretty basic, narrowing your results could still leave you with 15, 20, or even more viable options. Alternatively, your needs could be so specific that after filtering the list down, you're only left with 1 result. That's why in Chapter 2 we said to only focus on your top 10–15 features… hopefully those should leave you with a manageable amount of options to evaluate.

If they don't, or if going through this process is overwhelming— or even just a pain— we're happy to do the work for you. Search our software directory, and we can get you halfway to your perfect solution in a matter of minutes.


Demo your options

Now that you have your handful of options, it's time for the fun part— demos! Software demonstrations are the best way to determine which applicant tracking software fits your needs. Some of these demos happen one-on-one with a sales person (like second round interviews), while others are webinars with groups of potential buyers (like a panel interview). Either way, the demos and conversations you'll have with each software company should answer the following questions about your remaining ATS contenders:

  1. Does the solution satisfy your most important requirements?
  2. Does the vendor offer excellent support and speedy service?
  3. How user-friendly is the solution?
  4. How compelling are the vendor's testimonials/reviews?
  5. How easy is the implementation?
  6. Does the solution require changes to your business processes?
  7. Does the vendor have customers similar to you?
  8. How customizable is the solution?
  9. How innovative is the solution compared to others on the market?
  10. Does the solution satisfy some of your less important, "nice to have" requirements?

Helpful Tip

In order to compare products, you may want to quantify your answers to the questions so that 1 is "not at all" and 5 is "absolutely."


Interviewing Advice

Live, one-on-one demos are best because you can control the conversation and ensure that your specific questions are answered.


Get buy-in

When you're demoing and selecting an ATS, make sure to gather answers to the following questions from each involved party:


  1. How easy is the system to use?
  2. How flexible and configurable is the system?
  3. What reports are available and what do they look like?
  4. Can the system import my existing list of candidates and resumes?
  5. What job boards and databases does the system integrate with?
  6. How will the system integrate with my other HR software?
  7. What does the application process look like for a candidate?
  8. Is there a separate portal for internal recruiters and employees?


  1. How easy is the system to use?
  2. How do I enter my comments about a specific candidate?
  3. How do I advance a candidate to the next stage in the hiring process?
  4. How can I search through candidates and resumes to find potential matches for a job?
  5. How do I create and promote a job opening?
  6. Can I download candidate data easily?

IT DEPARTMENTS (If you have one)

  1. Will the ATS solution be web-based or on-premises? Can we handle one better than the other?
  2. How much customization is needed?
  3. How do we integrate content from other systems?
  4. How do we rollover from our previous hiring system?
  5. How much maintenance and ongoing administration will be necessary?


Compare Pricing

There's no simple answer when it comes to ATS pricing. Besides the fact that there are several different pricing models, your specific requirements are also a big factor in how much you'll pay. However, it's important to know the various pricing models so that when you get quotes, you can compare apples to apples.

Here's a breakdown of how most ATS providers charge for their software:


This is the most common pricing model and means you pay a flat fee each month based on the number of recruiters and hiring managers you have using the system. There may also be a onetime setup fee.

Price Range: Around $60-$99/user/ month.

Solutions with This Pricing Model: Bullhorn, CATS, Taleo, Zoho


Many ATSs price based on the size of your organization, and use number of employees as a measure to gauge that.

Price Range: $4-$7/month/employee However, costs go down significantly (to the $0.20 range) as employee numbers rise into the thousands.

Solutions with This Pricing Model: Applicant Pro, Bamboo HR, Jobvite


Some ATSs will price based on how many jobs you have open at once, or how many total applicants/resumes you have in the system. This can be used with another pricing model like number of recruiters, one-time setup fee, etc.

Price Range: $5-$19/job opening/month and $0.01-$0.20/resume/month

Solutions with This Pricing Model*: Applicant Stack, Hiring Steps, The Resumator

* Additional pricing models you may run into include one-time flat license fee (ex. Newton Software), and free, but with premium HR and recruiting services on offer (ex. iKrut).).

The great thing about the ATS hiring process is that you don't have to go it alone—you can bring this ebook with you to every interview (demo) and callback. Asking yourself the right questions and taking the time to examine your organization's specific needs will ensure you end up with an applicant tracking system you love and that helps you get the best talent out there.

nd remember – just because you're the one doing the hiring doesn't mean you can't employ outside headhuntersp


Let us be your ATS consultants. We've done this software section process thousands of times and can help you pick the right applicant. Search our software directory, and we can get you halfway to your perfect solution in a matter of minutes.


ATS Buzzwords and Jargon

We've covered enough to get you started, but as you're going through demos you might come across terms you aren't familiar with. Here's a cheat sheet to help you translate.

  • Resume parsing: The ability to search through and organize resumes based on similar characteristics or which ones best fit a specific position you have open.
  • Social resume: Another term for social media recruiting and application. Often this means using social media profiles to fill in relevant portions of work experience in an online application.
  • Career portal: A branded career site that you can use to advertise your open jobs from. Most ATSs feature this functionality.
  • EEO/OFCCP/AA Compliance: This functionality ensures compliance with government Equal Employment Opportunity, Federal Contract Compliance Programs and Affirmative Action laws. Usually this is done by tracking and providing reports on specific applicant data.
  • HRIS: Many ATSs will integrate with Human Resources Information Systems in order to pass employee data on after someone has been hired.

Getting Started

Capterra provides lots of free resources to help you get started in your search for Applicant Tracking software.


Who is Capterra?

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