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Most People—92%—Never Finish Online Job Applications

Experts recommend recruiters apply for their own company's jobs, improve application process

A man looking at a laptop.

​Like many employers, Home Depot is contending with labor shortages as it tries to fill open positions. The home improvement retailer recently announced it would transition to a new "accelerated hiring process," making job offers to applicants in as little as one day after applying.

But when interested job seekers click the "Apply" button on the company's website, they are presented with the login page for an applicant tracking system (ATS). Like many other employers, Home Depot requires applicants to first set up an account and password with the ATS before they can proceed with the application—likely leading many to just move on. 

Barriers in the online job application process have always been a problem, and while research shows that candidate abandonment is still staggeringly high, a recent audit of the Fortune 500 returned some interesting data points: Job application flow has improved, but there are still too many steps involved in getting applicants to the finish line.

According to Appcast, one of the industry's most respected recruitment data providers, the candidate drop-off rate for people who click 'Apply' but never complete an application is a whopping 92 percent.

"Candidate application volume has always been important and has always had its own unique set of challenges," said Christy Spilka, vice president and global head of talent acquisition at recruitment technology company iCIMS. "The events of the past two years have intensified the importance and the challenges. Candidates are consumers, and they want quick, easy and informative processes. Without that, they will move on. A strong talent attraction strategy and a great employer brand, combined with an engaging and authentic careers site and an easy application process, is critical."

Chris Russell, managing director of RecTech Media, a recruiting technology consulting company in Trumbull, Conn., has been beating the same drum for years. "You have to keep hammering this message home to HR and recruiters," he said. "Apply flow is so important because of the speed of hire that is necessary in today's hiring environment. Companies must streamline their processes. The faster you can get a candidate into the funnel, the faster you can hire them."

Karl Wierzbicki, vice president of marketing at InFlight, a user experience technology provider in Easthampton, Mass., added that when applicants drop out of the process, conversion rates go down and key recruiting metrics suffer. "A 90 percent drop-off rate will drive your cost per application up," he said. "It's going to drive your cost-per-hire up. It's going to increase your time-to-fill. It's hurting your quality of hire. Virtually every talent acquisition metric can be improved by improving your apply flow conversion rate. And the best way to do that is to make the apply flow experience better for candidates."

InFlight recently conducted an audit of the Fortune 500 companies by having researchers apply to open jobs to see what job seekers are facing. They timed the total experience from first click to application submission confirmation and counted the number of clicks it took to finish the application.

"There is obvious effort being made to create better job application experiences for candidates," Wierzbicki said. "But candidates are still having to jump through a lot of hoops to apply for a job."

Lots of Clicks

The InFlight audit found that the average time to complete an application is 4 minutes and 52 seconds, with the large, legacy ATSs returning the longest application completion times and the newer, more-flexible systems delivering faster results.

"On the positive side, applications on average took only 5 minutes to complete," Wierzbicki said. "But there are an exorbitant number of steps and clicks involved. After clicking 'Apply,' candidates must make nine more clicks on average before even getting into the application. Along the way, they are asked to create user accounts and passwords, they are being asked to answer the same question more than once, or they are being asked to enter data that is already contained in the resume that is also being uploaded."  

InFlight found that an average of 51 clicks are required to get through an application. Researchers even encountered a new barrier: requiring job seekers to authenticate their identity via e-mail before they can log back in to complete their application, presumably for security purposes.

"Given the recruitment marketing expenditure involved in attracting qualified talent, especially in a highly competitive labor market, having unnecessary roadblocks in place is counterintuitive and creates friction in the apply flow," Wierzbicki said.

Russell said progressive employers are shifting to a much simpler lead generation approach for the initial apply process and ditching the resume requirement. "They use a short form asking for name, phone number, e-mail and maybe a LinkedIn profile—that's it. Just get the basics. You don't need a resume, you don't need someone's SSN, you don't need their whole history yet. Recruiters can work from those leads to ask for more information if they want to move on with the applicant."

Many have advocated for the elimination of upfront registration and account creation altogether, tactics companies use to collect applicants' information for marketing purposes.

"Login pages are still prevalent, and that's a simple thing to get rid of," Russell said. "People have dozens of logins for dozens of ATSs. That's part of the reason why people feel job hunting is so frustrating."

But Spilka said user accounts can be helpful for applicants, as they allow them to track their application status. "They can log back into the site, look at their dashboard and see the status of any job for which they have applied," she said.

Sharing Branding

Almost half (48 percent) of the Fortune 500 feature ATS logos and branding within the application process, potentially creating confusion for the candidate as to where their information is going.

"Seeing the ATS logo on the application creates a jarring experience and the impression that a candidate is leaving the employer's site and going to another site," Wierzbicki said. "It's worse if the ATS portal is less polished. That uncertainty about which site they are on causes some applicants to drop off." 

If the transfer is done well, it's not that big of a deal, Russell said, but when "clicking 'Apply' opens up a new tab on your browser and the ATS site looks very different, that's not appealing."

Experts agree that the application experience should be consistent and that employers should ask their ATS partners to remove their vendor branding and update the look and feel of the ATS pages to mirror the employer's careers site.

"Companies invest heavily in their brand, and it should be authentically demonstrated throughout the entire talent experience, even going beyond the application, to all candidate outreach," Spilka said. "It shouldn't feel like you're moving to a totally different website. At iCIMS, we work with the employer to [feature their branding] in the application portal to maintain brand consistency."

Continuous Improvement

Experts recommend that talent acquisition practitioners experience their own organization's application process. "See how long it takes you," Wierzbicki said. "When you're done, ask yourself how you felt about the experience. Then simplify the process, simplify account creation, and remove redundant and unneeded questions."

Spilka said everyone involved in hiring, including recruiters and a focus group of representative hiring managers, should evaluate the application process, noting areas to improve and opportunities to engage more with applicants.

But she said it's important to track the applicant drop-off rate and other conversion metrics first, so measurements can be compared once changes are made.


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