How To Find The Right Keywords For Your Resume

Rachel Schneebaum

In today’s job market, most applications are submitted online, and many employers simply enter all the resumes they receive into searchable databases. Developing technology allows sophisticated software (called an Applicant Tracking System, or ATS) to scan all resumes in the database for keywords specified by the employer or hiring manager. This initial scanning process makes it easy for employers to cull those resumes that don’t contain the right search terms—no matter how qualified your resume might prove you are. (Check out our article on why and how to use keywords in your resume for more information about these database programs and the best practices for using this technology to your advantage.)

However, even armed with knowledge about how using keywords can get your resume noticed by the right people, it’s equally important to figure out which keywords to use in order to make you look as appealing as possible for the position you want to apply for. Although I can’t provide magic insight into exactly which keywords you should use for any job application, if you follow the steps outlined and explained below, you should have a good chance of creating the kind of keyword-rich resume that your hiring manager—and/or her database search—is looking for.

First, study the job post for the position you’re interested in in detail. This includes the job description, position responsibilities or duties, minimum employee requirements and qualification, additional desired (though not mandatory) skills or qualifications, any information about the company/employer, and anything else you can find. Make a list of everything you think might potentially be used as a search term. When making this list, note that it’s better for your initial list to have too many keywords than too few! Eventually, you’ll narrow down your list to include only those keywords that you’ll actually use in your resume. However, not including a potential keyword that actually does end up being a search term can make the difference between being selected for interview or being rejected right off the bat.

Let’s work with an example: say you’re applying for an entry-level position in marketing. The first thing you’ll do is study the relevant job listing, so here’s a hypothetical example of a listing for a “marketing and public relations assistant” position:

MARKETING AND PUBLIC RELATIONS ASSISTANT

We are a nationally known marketing agency, hired by some of the biggest-name companies to track and analyze market environments for their products as well as to build their customer base via promotion campaigns, brand development, and social media. Our company is expanding rapidly due to customer satisfaction and increased name recognition, and we are looking for entry level employees with the drive and dedication to take advantage of this incredible professional opportunity!

All entry level employees will receive additional training in marketing, including advertising, public relations, promotions, event planning, and even management. We’re looking for driven, self-motivated individuals with leadership experience and enthusiasm to help us grow and expand our business—and to help our clients do the same!

JOB RESPONSIBILITIES:

  • Developing campaigns—including monitoring progress while analyzing market conditions, as well as coordinating other involved coworkers
  • Presenting a professional face to our clients and representing them professionally in all capacities
  • Staying informed about the market environments for our clients’ products and services; adjusting plans in light of market changes in order to best serve our clients’ needs
  • Creating promotional materials for our clients

QUALIFICATIONS

All applicants MUST BE:

  • Self-starters who are willing to work tirelessly to help us expand our company
  • Determined to serve and satisfy our clients in every aspect of marketing and brand development
  • Excellent communicators, both orally and in writing
  • Friendly and professional at all times
  • Eager to take charge and serve in leadership positions as needed
  • Able to work in a fast-paced environment with hard deadlines and quick turnaround—demonstrated multitasking skills a plus
  • Team players and motivated individuals
  • Ready for an incredible opportunity!

Starting from this listing, you’ll create the most complete and comprehensive list of search terms that you can. So, for this particular position, your initial list of keywords might look something like this:

  • Marketing
  • Tracking market environments
  • Market environment tracking
  • Analysis of market environments
  • Market environment analysis
  • Market environments
  • Building customer base
  • Customer base
  • Promotions
  • Campaigns
  • Promotion campaigns
  • Brand development
  • Social media
  • Customer satisfaction
  • Name recognition
  • Increasing customer satisfaction
  • Increasing name recognition
  • Drive
  • Dedication
  • Professional
  • Advertising
  • Public relations
  • Event planning
  • Events
  • Management
  • Self-motivated individual
  • Self-motivation
  • Leadership experience
  • Leadership
  • Enthusiasm
  • Business growth
  • Business expansion
  • Campaign development
  • Development of campaigns
  • Development
  • Analysis of market conditions
  • Market conditions analysis
  • Monitoring and analysis
  • Analysis
  • Client representation
  • Client service
  • Customer service
  • Professional representation
  • Planning and adjustment
  • Planning skills
  • Market changes
  • Knowledge of market changes
  • Promotional materials
  • Design
  • Creation of promotional materials
  • Design of promotional materials
  • Promotions creation
  • Promotions design
  • Self-starter
  • Tireless worker
  • Determined individual
  • Determination
  • Communication skills
  • Written communication skills
  • Writing skills
  • Personal skills
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Public relations
  • Service
  • Leadership position
  • Leadership
  • Leader
  • Fast-paced environment
  • Deadlines
  • Hard deadlines
  • Multiple deadlines
  • Deadline juggling
  • Quick turnaround
  • Multitasking
  • Multitasking skills
  • Multi-tasker
  • Team player
  • Motivation
  • Opportunity

Whew, that’s a lot of keywords! Now, you should notice several things about this list: first, many of the keywords are copied exactly from the job listing. Copying keywords directly is a good idea because employers write job listings with very specific needs and qualifications in mind. This means that when it’s time to do a database search, they’re likely to search for the same terms they used when writing the job listing.

Next, you’ll notice that many of these keywords are redundant: just different ways of phrasing the same skill or qualification. It’s a good idea to include different terms that convey the same information: this is because even though a job listing can give you a good idea of the skills and qualifications that an employer is looking for, it can’t tell you with certaintly what terms or phrasing the employer will use when searching a database of resumes. Phrasing the same information in multiple ways is a good tactic for covering your bases.

Second, once you’ve mined the job posting you’re applying for for keywords, do the same thing with other listings for similar positions.

It’s possible that an employer will search for skills that might be implied but not actually listed on their job description. Searching similar listings will also help you identify—and include—different ways of phrasing your skills and qualifications, as mentioned above. Doing these searches can be repetitive and boring, but they can really pay off: he more job postings you search for keywords, the more complete your own list of keywords will be. And, of course, the more relevant keywords you include in your resume, the more likely you are to get the job you want—or, at least, to get an interview!

Third, once you’ve searched and listed keywords from job postings similar to the one you’re applying for, do the same thing with listings for slightly higher-level positions.

So, if you’re applying for an entry-level position, search job listings in your desired field for junior- or middle management jobs: the jobs that your direct bosses and supervisors will have. Just as you did before, make a list of all potential search terms included in these job listings. If you can honestly include any of the skills, achievements, and so on required for these higher-level positions, great! Again, more keywords = a better chance that your resume will be highly rated by an ATS system. Having (and listing!) additional non-required skills is also an excellent way to make your resume stand out after it’s been selected by an ATS system, when it reaches the point where it’s read by an actual human.

Note that there might be some keywords on the list you made after searching higher-level positions that you can’t include in your resume as skills, achievements, or experience that you have. Still, you can use these keywords by writing a “career objective” section at the beginning of your resume. Here, you can describe your goals to move up in your industry using specific terms from your keyword search. Again, including these higher-level keywords can make your resume stand out in a database search. Including key industry-specific information in your description of your objectives or goals can also stand out to employers: this shows potential employers that you’re motivated, serious, and knowledgeable about your desired career, even if you’re just starting out.

Fourth, some listings provide an additional bonus: several listings include keywords of their own, usually all the way at the bottom of the page, after application information. Keywords are sometimes included because job postings, too, are subject to keyword search! After all, you probably used some combination of keywords entered into a search engine in order to find the job listing in the first place. Often, many of the keywords that job seekers use to find job openings are the same keywords that employers use to find candidates. So if you find a job post that includes a list of keywords, take advantage of it! Use as many of those keywords as you can in your resume. (Note, thought, that this isn’t always an option: only some job postings on some job boards include lists of keywords. However, if you have some web development knowledge, you might be able to find a list of keywords in the job post’s source code.)

Finally, once you’ve compiled a comprehensive list of keywords, you just have to turn that list into a resume that stands out both to computer database searches and to human employers/hiring managers. For more tips and information about this part of the process, you can refer back to our article describing how to use keywords in your resume. Also, check out the rest of the general resume advice on this site.

About The Author

Rachel Schneebaum

Rachel Schneebaum is a PhD candidate in philosophy, with a graduate minor in cognitive science, at the University of Arizona. She graduated from Williams College in 2009 with Bachelor of Arts degrees in both English and Philosophy. Rachel hopes to more effectively help students decide on, prepare for, and eventually succeed at their dream jobs.

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