How To Use Keywords To Strengthen Your Resume

Rachel Schneebaum

As all job seekers have had to learn, in today’s job market, it’s important to do absolutely everything you can to make your resume stand out to employers. There are growing numbers of industry-specific job boards where job seekers can upload their resumes directly for employers and recruiters to search. On the one hand, this is great, because it means you don’t have to constantly be on the lookout and apply for every new opening in your field. Instead, recruiters and potential employers can find you before you even submit an application!

However, with so may resumes available to browse, employers need to be able to quickly and efficiently cull a lot of potential applicants. After all, no one has the time to read hundreds or even thousands of resumes in the hope of finding the perfect candidate for a single job opening! Instead, many employers and recruiters use keyword-searchable databases to scan these resumes for keywords that relate to particular job openings: this process is called an Applicant Tracking System (ATS). With the help of this technology, it’s easy for employers to simply eliminate those resumes that don’t include the right keywords from consideration.

(Before going further, it’s important to note that this isn’t the case in all industries or for all employers—in some fields, for example, your cover letter is the first thing about you a hiring manager sees, which means that that cover letter has a much bigger initial impact on your hiring chances than your resume. However, more and more companies—especially, for example, large Fortune 1000 companies—are relying on Applicant Tracking Systems.)

But how can you, as a job seeker, take advantage of this technology? How do you prepare your resume to be database searchable? These are the questions I’ll focus on in this article.

Once you know how keywords are used by employers to eliminate—or find!—applicants, you can use this knowledge to your advantage. I’ll describe what kinds of terms are most often searched for as keywords. I’ll also go over some of the best, most successful practices for including keywords in your resume.

Of course, it’s impossible for any job seeker to magically find out exactly which keywords any particular ATS will search for. However, there are a number of characteristics that most keywords share. For example, keywords tend to be nouns rather than, say, adjectives or descriptions of job responsibilities. This means that “project leadership” is more likely to be a search term than, say, “responsible for taking the lead on several projects.” Even though both of these phrases convey the exact same information, using the first term in your resume is more likely to make that resume show up in a database search. The second term, on the other hand, is less likely to be caught by the very same search algorithm, which means that your resume is more likely to end up in the discard pile—before anyone even reads it!

Ok, so using lots of nouns in your resume is important. What kinds of nouns should you use, though? First of all, it’s important to fill your resume with nouns that are relevant to the experience and skills that an employer in your industry would look for in an ideal candidate. These can be anything from very specific “hard” skills necessary in a particular field; expertise in relevant technologies; industry-related buzzwords, technical terms, the names of specific companies and products; and so on. Other common keywords are “soft” skills such as, e.g., “multitasking,” “customer service,” “troubleshooting,” etc. (For more information about how to figure out which keywords are most likely to be searched for in your industry, see our article about how to find the right keywords for your resume.)

Even if you’ve filled your resume with lots of keywords, though, remember that how you fit those keywords into you resume can be just as important as including them in the first place.

One easy way to fit keywords into your resume is to have a “Profile” (or “Key Skills,” or “Areas of Competence,” or similar) section at the beginning. Here, you can simply list those skills and experience you think are most likely to be search terms in your industry.

(When providing this advice, though, I have to note that some—thought not all—employers strongly dislike resumes that list skills without any further information or context. And, of course, your potential employer’s preferred resume style is something extremely difficult if not impossible to figure out before submitting your resume and receiving a response. Still, including a list of skills is one way to get your resume through at least the first round of database searching. Also, some employers love these profile or skill sections, because they make it easier to get a sense of what you have to offer as an employee—that is, once your resume makes it past the initial database search.)

However, since database searching technologies are becoming more and more advanced, some ATS systems are able to note when a resume includes lots of keywords at the beginning but otherwise lacks them almost entirely. These kinds of resumes are more likely to receive a lower ranking, even if you’ve included all the right search terms. Similarly, some ATS systems can determine whether keywords occur only in an isolated bulleted list, or if they’re embedded in context—descriptions of your past responsibilities and achievements, for example. These advanced databases are much more likely to rate resumes higher that include keywords not (only) in isolation, but within descriptions of your work experience, accomplishments, education, and so on.

Ok, so given all this information, what is the most important advice for crafting a resume that will be selected and given a high ranking by today’s ATS systems?

First, make sure your resume contains as many keywords as possible. It can be extremely helpful to make a list of possible keywords before you start writing your resume, so that you have something concrete to work from. Remember, these keywords should be nouns, and they should include both industry- or even company-specific terms as well “soft” skills that are important across industries and positions.

Second, make sure your keywords aren’t confined to a single section of your resume. Start out with a list of your areas of expertise, achievements, or even career goals. But, also make sure these keywords are represented within every other section of your resume, preferably within some sort of work-related context (or any context that illustrates your skills and achievements resulting from these skills within specific examples). Note that it’s ok—ideal, even—to repeat keywords (especially keywords you think are particularly important) throughout your resume. Many ATS systems note the “keyword density” of each resume: resumes with more keywords and more instances of each keyword are ranked higher by the software because of their keyword density scores.

Third, make sure you include as many forms of a particular search term as you can think of. For example, if one of your skills is management, don’t just include the keyword “management.” It’s possible that a particular database might be searched for the word “manager” but not the word “management.” If you’ve included both terms—as well as any other similar possibilities—you don’t have to worry about being rejected because you used the wrong word even though you have the right skills.

The growth of online resume databases and keyword searching technology in many different industries has made the process of applying for jobs very different from what it was years ago. However, armed with the knowledge of how keywords and ATS systems work, you can use these changing technologies to your advantage—hopefully giving you a step up on your competition!

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.

Leave A Comment