Years 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."