The Importance of Resume Keywords

resume keywordsYears ago, when résumés were still sent to employers by mail, job seekers hoped things like a high-quality paper stock and unique, professional formatting would catch the eye of an employer. These days, things are a little different.

First of all, it's rare that employers even accept paper résumés anymore -- the snail mail method of sending in a résumé is basically obsolete.

Second, and more importantly, it's not even the employer's eye that job seekers should hope to catch anymore -- more likely, they're trying to get noticed by an Applicant Tracking System (essentially a résumé search engine), now commonly used by employers to pre-screen résumés and separate the qualified candidates from unqualified ones.

This digitized version of candidate screening brings with it a whole new set of résumé rules. No longer are human resources managers scouring résumés looking for intriguing phrases on luxurious linen paper. Now, résumés are downloaded into a database and digitally searched for specific keywords. If your résumé doesn't contain the keywords the employer is looking for, consider yourself overlooked.

So how can you ensure that your résumé makes it past square one? Below are a few things that every job seeker should know about résumé keywords:

1. Include words from the job description

More than likely, many of the keywords résumé databases will be searching for are the functions that are listed in the job description. For example, if you're looking for a bookkeeping position, and the job description calls for someone with experience managing accounts receivable, bank reconciliations and payroll, then all of those words should appear in your résumé.

An even better way to make sure you include relevant keywords, is to look at various job postings for positions similar to the one you're applying for, advises Laura Smith-Proulx, a certified professional résumé writer and author of 'Solving Your Toughest Résumé Challenges.'

"To maximize your résumé's effectiveness, I recommend looking in detail at several job descriptions (not just one) that represent your ideal role. For example, an operations manager might find productivity, Six Sigma, process improvement, and sales operations in most job postings for a position at their level. Job hunters can also search through LinkedIn profiles of other professionals in their field to gather even more keywords," she says.

2. Always assume your résumé will be scanned by an applicant tracking system

Companies both large and small are using keyword-search software in their hiring processes these days, so it's important to make sure you always send out a search-ready résumé.

"While applicant tracking systems are more common in large corporations, due to the volume of résumés received and the impossibility of reviewing them all manually, some smaller companies may also have installed these systems to help with hiring," Smith-Proulx says. "My point is that you'll never know if your résumé actually needs to pass a keyword scan -- so it should be ready for this step!"

3. Don't just add a list of keywords

While adding a "skills" section to your résumé is the easy way to make sure keywords are included, a list is usually not enough to get noticed by the search engine.

"Be sure that this common suite of keywords is used in your résumé, but not merely in a list," Smith-Proulx says. "Many ATS systems look for the frequency of keywords that are sprinkled throughout the text of a résumé, rather than listed by themselves. Therefore, 'Leveraged Six Sigma principles to improve productivity,' or 'Led process improvement project that resulted in 23 percent gain in sales operations efficiency,' will not only impress the human reader, but fulfill the keyword requirements at the same time."

Lastly, says Proulx, be sure that your résumé doesn't completely abandon the qualities it takes to attract the human eye as well. "Like any other marketing effort, a job search is most effective when you plan to address the needs of all audiences you might encounter. Your chances of being selected for an interview are much higher when your résumé satisfies both audiences -- automated and human."

Next: Do You Know the Most Important Part of a Resume?

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In my experience with technical industries, ATS actually can be a very valuable resource. When an organization needs very specific technical domain expertise, it's a waste of time and resources to manually read through resumes and conduct interviews of people who MIGHT be a good match. An ATS can perform very targeted searches to precisely pinpoint the required skills. Plus, it does it nearly instantly. Of course, your mileage may vary, but I'd hesitate to call ATS the slow death of common sense. Common sense tells me to avoid spending weeks upon weeks conducting interviews that yield nothing if the ATS can pinpoint the exact skills I need in less than a minute.

January 14 2011 at 5:14 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

You must be kidding. What does this silliness have to do with finding the right person for a job? All that I can see is that the front desk flak catchers can imagine that they're in charge and that their business school 'key words' and 'buzz words' are guarantees of job security for them. A good boss would fire them and use common sense in hiring. A good long talk with applicants is all that is necessary. Few jobs, save engineering or scientific, really need pre-trained people. In fact, an employee trained from zero or near-zero will learn to do things the way that they are done at that company. Geez. I would not waste my time applying to any company who would make decisions about me based on a computer scan of my resume, even if only in part.

November 12 2010 at 8:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Dean Daggett

You must be kidding. America is done for if this is how one applies for a job. Common sense has died a slow death. There was a time when a competent principal had a long talk with an applicant, and that was all that there was to it. "Skill sets" and "keywords" are tools for puffery and and the scanning of resumes by computer is ludicrous in the extreme. I rarely use this language, but here goes. Fucking assholes. Get a life.

November 12 2010 at 1:51 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Rob Pellegrino

Many times resumes are being collected with NO job available at all by HR. Why? Several reasons - it makes a failing company look like it is doing well to advertise for jobs, the perception is if they are hiring, they must be doing well ... Secondly, when companies look for funding or loans they first must put all their ducks in order. A marketing campaign is one of those ducks and the calling for new jobs (which do not exist at all) is one way to make the banks "think" the company is stronger then it really is. Also, the constant calling for resumes has a psychological affect on the current staff - they become scared into submission and take the attitude "I'm glad I have a job, I don't care if I don't get a raise"
The calling for resumes is 50% actual need for someone at 50% PR.

Make no mistake that HR is working for the company to drive down costs and project a positive image. They people sending in resumes are being used and abused and its high time that some laws are put into effect for the job seekers protection. Remember, the calling for resumes DOES NOT mean any job exists at all. HR will pass it off by saying, "when I get a call for a job, I place the resume request on the job boards" But if you ask them exactly how many interviews have they done, they start to stutter...

If you can't get HR on the phone or to return your call, now you know why.

They have no jobs!

But if you want to help them get that loan or reduce wages, keep those resumes coming.

November 11 2010 at 10:46 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
over looker

it's just a new wrinkle on the 'good old boy' network. Now, if you know right keywords (different for each company) your resume flies to the top of the pile. You get in, others lose out, all thnks to keyword "secret handshakes".

November 11 2010 at 5:40 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I have to agree with Paul's statement, "A job seeker should be judged on his or her qualifications for a position, not for his or her ability to construct an "eye-catching" resume." I guess that means a lot of fiction writers or those who can creatively write will get all of the jobs. No joke. It means those that are not really qualified for executive management positions will be running our companies. I guess that explains why a lot of Americans with doctorate and master degrees in business are unemployed. There should be a law against companies utilizing an ATS system, but I guess having it, the company is being more cost effective in HR operations. Yes I truly believe the submission through the internet for jobs land in some computer box in a open field in India. JeanGrace you're not alone, it happens to many of us. Who has the time to restructure their resume each and every time they are submitting for a position. What happened to the days when an actual person opened the mail to peruse the resumes and call the candidate in for an interview. Now it's the temporary agencies that have taken that role and they are lousy as well when it comes to matching a person's work experience with the perfect fit position. Anymore it is all about who you know and that person has to know you very well to put their butts on the line to bring you into their company. Drawback - they don't have to and could be apprehensive in fear that you'll take their jobs if you out perform them. Employers should hire candidates on what they know, not who you know. You can build networks of people thru Facebook, and professional clubs/organization.etc. That is a dead end too. What is the real solution to the unemployment crisis in America? It not an ATS HR system thats for sure.

November 11 2010 at 3:24 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The article is true and accurate, albeit sad. I have been applying for a couple years now with no success yet. I learned early on about all the "keywords" bs and I do get through to the first round at least half the time. It usually takes me 3-4 hours to readjust my resume to make it fit the right keywords; Unfortunately, what I have been finding is that they advertise the jobs by law because they have to, but they usually already have a candidate picked out before hand. I spent 3 hours last nite on an online application only to have it not save any of the information I put in even though I continually tried to "save and continue". Who has time for this???

November 11 2010 at 1:13 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I mean really....HR wasn't worth much before, but now they are pretty much finding ways to not even have a job any more. How lazy is using a scannig system. Unreal...

November 10 2010 at 11:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to J's comment

The H.R. department is now in India

November 10 2010 at 11:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This is a crock. I just submitted my resume to a company in my area. I had EVERY ONE of the "keywords" for the position. It didn't even take 24 hours to get a "kiss off" letter from HR. My guess is, if your salary requirements are too high, it doesn't matter WHAT skills and experience you list!

November 10 2010 at 11:21 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
jack lyons, oh yes, of course

my goodness ! many thanks for an outstanding article on resumes ! I am truly grateful, espec.
since I retired some years ago and am just now finally deciding to leap back into meaningful and huuuugely lucrative employment (hmmm... ).
Again, thanks heaps, and best wishes.
jack lyons, himself, you know

November 10 2010 at 10:31 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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