Keywords in resumes are used by employers to screen electronically-submitted resumes, and you can use them effectively to give your resume more impact. Let’s start with a description of Applicant Tracking Software, or ATS. When we refer to ATS, we’re talking about automated computer programs that employers are using to extract, sort, and rank data from resumes. A major component of ATS is the use of keywords—an employer can program software to look for specific words and phrases in a resume, and then sort the resumes based on the occurrence or absence of those keywords. Keywords are usually nouns or noun-based phrases.
Recent employment statistics show that, each month, more and more companies are changing the way that they hire employees. Just a few years ago, less than ten percent of resumes were being submitted electronically. These days, however, companies are more likely to use web-based tracking systems to recruit and rank job candidates—the software is ultimately faster, and much less expensive, than having an actual person read each job application. And, with dozens of reasonably-priced ATS products now available to employers, even small companies are taking advantage of these new technologies. In fact, many employers have already completely switched to automated employment systems.
If you are actively seeking work, you will have to “play the game” based on each potential employer’s specific rules—and that means understanding how ATS systems work. You may be able to send some resumes out as hard paper copies, or even by fax. However, if you intend to send out a lot of resumes, then you will probably be required to submit some of them electronically. By exactly following each job posting’s application instructions, and by expecting your resume to be ranked and sorted by an ATS system, you can avoid the pitfalls that might otherwise exclude you from getting an interview.
Doing research as part of each job application can help you to identify which keywords to include in your resume. Before you can effectively incorporate keywords into your resume, you have to figure out which keywords to use. There are several very good ways to identify keywords for your resume—and the best place to start is with the actual job listing, or advertisement. Understand that the same person or people who wrote the job listing probably also had a hand in deciding which keywords the company’s ATS system would look for. Therefore, the job listing probably includes several keywords. A great first step, when researching keywords, is to get a piece of paper, and start making a list of all the keywords that you see in the job posting. Keep in mind that keywords are not always single words—they are sometimes phrases. When examining the original job listing, find as many specific phrases from the listing as possible that you can fit into your resume.
Another great resource for researching keywords is the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook. This document, which is published and regularly updated by the United States Department of Labor, contains vast amounts of employment information. You can find the Occupational Outlook Handbook through the Department of Labor website, www.dol.gov. This government publication offers both an alphabetical index of different occupations in the United States, as well as a search field. Both features make the Occupational Outlook Handbook a valuable resource for those seeking employment. When using the Handbook to research appropriate keywords for your resume, first find your occupation, and then identify common words and phrases that are associated with that field. For example, when Mary Cessna uses the Occupational Outlook Handbook to research keywords within the field of accounting, she may find phrases such as “Certified Public Accountant,” “Internal Revenue Service,” and “Admitted to practice before the IRS.” By listing these key phrases, she can work them into her resume.
It is important to be creative when researching keywords for your resume, because there are a lot of different possible resources that may be helpful to you. Consider the different resources available within your industry, such as association publications, websites, meetings, newsletters, news articles, and even popular media. Learn the various “buzzwords” within your industry—the more you practice identifying key words and phrases during your research, the more you will recognize them when you see them.
Using Keywords in Your Resume
Generally speaking, you want to include somewhere between 25-30 keywords in your resume. The best way to incorporate keywords into your resume is really very basic: Print out a copy of your resume, as well as a copy of your keywords and key phrases, and look at them side by side. This may seem like a simple tactic, but doing this is the easiest way to see where key phrases can be inserted into your resume. If, for example, your resume includes a bullet point which says, “Created spreadsheets,” and the job posting includes a job duty which says, “Must be able to create multimedia spreadsheets,” you can very easily insert the word ‘multimedia’ into your resume’s bullet point. The theory behind doing this is that the company’s ATS system will rank your resume higher if you match the phrasing exactly, rather than matching part of the phrase. In fact, some ATS systems won’t even recognize a partial phrase at all.
When incorporating keywords into your resume, there are a few things which you should never do. First, never include a “Keyword Summary” as a section of your resume. Doing so displays a blatant attempt to manipulate an employer’s ATS system, which won’t reflect favorably on you once a human reviews your resume. In fact, many ATS systems are now programmed to disqualify applicants who include a disembodied “laundry list” of keywords anywhere in the resume. Second, never put all your keywords in one place. Your resume will “rank” more highly if the ATS system extracts key phrases from throughout your resume. Finally, don’t be tempted to try including “invisible” or “hidden” keywords in an electronically-submitted resume. ATS systems have become incredibly advanced, and you are likely to be excluded for attempting to manipulate the employer’s software.
In summary, keep a few things in mind when incorporating keywords into your resume. First, include your keywords and key phrases as part of complete sentences—not as bullet points or as part of a list. Second, distribute keywords throughout the resume—not all in one place. Finally, include as many keywords and key phrases as possible.