Applicant Tracking Systems Keywords: Tuning Your Resume to the Right Keywords

How can you find and deploy the right keywords to aim your resume at the job you want?


Keywords: They’re buzzwords that identify an industry or a profession. They’re also the currency of the job search.

Keywords are the terms and phrases hiring managers supply to human-resources managers and recruiters to create job posts and find matching resumes for open positions. And in a modern job-search transaction, keywords can separate your resume from the rest of the pile or transfer it to the circular file. At most companies, applicant tracking system (ATS) software uses keywords to filter resumes before they’re ever reviewed by human staffers.

The importance of keywords in a resume can’t be overstated. They not only help connect resumes with current openings, they also ensure that searches for future job openings will pull appropriate resumes out of the database and put them in front of hiring professionals.

Ladders asked hiring professionals, ATS vendors and resume writers for tips on how to compile a list of winning keywords and employ them in a resume.

Keyword basics

Kathy Robinson, the founder of TurningPoint and a career and business consultant, recommends her clients figure out what kind of job their resumes will win. She then uses job boards to research keywords used for similar job postings. Here’s the process broken down:

a. Make a master list of keywords that appear in similar jobs.

b. Search as if looking for that job. Even if the candidate wants to stay local, she doesn’t limit this mock search geographically, since this exercise is intended to generate keywords, not locate specific jobs.

c. Go to Web sites that represent companies and associations related to the candidate’s target industry in search of other buzzwords.

d. Cull keywords from specific job descriptions for which the candidate is applying.

e. Search LinkedIn profiles of users who have similar jobs to see what keywords they’re using.

f. Go to association Web sites if there’s a “find a member” directory; see what keywords other industry professionals have used.

Boolean and location-based keywords

Nathan Shackles is the owner of Racarie Software, which develops a Web-based recruiting/applicant tracking product called ApplicantStack. According to Shackles, the most common feature his clients inquire about is keyword search – especially Boolean logic, which enables users to combine keywords in their searches.

Employers often use Boolean searches to seek local professionals. For example, if a company wants to hire a project manager in the Dallas area, it may conduct a search that looks like this:

” ‘project manager’ AND Dallas.”

The search will only return resumes that contain both terms “project manager” and “Dallas” and would reject any project managers who left out the “Dallas.” For this reason, Shackles recommends users include their town or region. “If you’re leery of putting down an address, leave out the street number and name, but put down the city, state and ZIP code to avoid getting overlooked,” he said. A phone number with an area code is also helpful.

Spell out the obvious

Many job seekers make a keyword mistake of omission: They assume the people who read their resumes will know what their job responsibilities comprise. It seems obvious, for example, that a litigation attorney has written briefs and legal memos, has done depositions and has handled discoveries, said Rahul D. Yodh, principal at Link Legal Search Group.

“Anybody who’s practiced law would know that,” Yodh said. But the hiring professionals on the front line who first see resumes tend to be generalists who may have little to no knowledge of a given job or duties, he said.

And like human-resource generalists, ATSes don’t implicitly know by scanning a resume that a lawyer has had experience with briefs, depositions or discoveries. Every term needs to be spelled out.

Every industry and function carries its own set of duties; make sure you unfold your job responsibilities to pull out those words that seem too obvious to mention.

Contextualize keywords

Many resume writers use sections titled “Professional Summary” or “Skills” at the top of a resume as a kind of corral for keywords. While it’s fine to use keywords in such a section, it’s important to use them throughout the resume as well, in the context of job responsibilities.

To understand why, consider your own Google searches. Google returns Web pages that contain the correct search terms, but many of the results are irrelevant to what you’re searching for; the search terms are scattered throughout a given page and in the wrong context. The best search results show the search terms grouped together in the proper context.

Similarly, Yodh said, if a hiring professional or ATS identifies a search term in a summary but not in a job description, the resume may well be eliminated. That’s why it behooves job seekers to use a given search term both in the summary section and in the job-responsibility description.

Here’s an example: If a graphic-design professional used Adobe Photoshop in her previous job, she would put that term in her summary. It would be a mistake for her to then say she used “publishing software” in the experience description; instead, she should once again use the term “Adobe Photoshop” in context.

Other keyword tips

  • Include acronyms, but also spell them out. That’s especially helpful since the person tasked with going through resumes might not know all the relevant acronyms, said Christine Bolzan, CEO of Graduate Career Coaching.
  • Include relevant professional groups or associations.
  • Embed keywords in cover letters in case they’re also being scanned.
  • Use keywords in social-media profiles as well as resumes. For example, LinkedIn provides a summary section for keywords and specialties. Bolzan noted that anywhere from 50 percent to 80 percent of employers are searching for keywords on LinkedIn, Facebook and other social-networking sites.

Search engines add more weight to keywords in bold, italics, and in Title and Header tags, so you can use that formatting to rank higher on the search-engine results pages for those searches, points out David B. Wright, author of Get A Job! Your Guide to Making Successful Career Moves.”