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Tapping the Power of Keywords to Enhance Your Resume's Effectiveness
by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
Imagine there was a way to encode your resume with magical words that would virtually ensure that employers would be interested in interviewing you. But the catch is that there's a different set of magic words for every job, and you have no way of knowing what the words are.
Such is more or less the situation in job-hunting today, which increasingly revolves around the mysterious world of keywords. Employers' use and eventual dependence on keywords to find the job candidates they want to interview has come about in recent years because of technology. Inundated by resumes from job-seekers, employers have increasingly relied on placing job-seeker resumes in keyword-searchable databases, and using software to search those databases for specific keywords that relate to job vacancies. This technological process is referred to as an employer's Applicant Tracking System (ATS); learn more in our Special Report on Applicant Tracking Systems. Most Fortune 1000 companies, in fact, and many smaller companies now use these technologies. In addition, numerous employers search the databases of third-party job-posting and resume-posting boards on the Internet. More than 90 percent of resumes are searched for job-specific keywords.
The bottom line is that if you apply for a job with a company that searches databases for keywords, and your resume doesn't have the keywords the company seeks for the person who fills that job, you are pretty much dead in the water.
Now, we suggested that job-seekers have no way of knowing what the exact words are that employers look for when they search resume databases. That's true to some extent. But job-seekers have information and a number of tools at their disposal that can help them make educated guesses as to which keywords the employer is looking for. This article and its sidebars describe some of those tools and tell you how and where to use the keywords you come up with on your resume and beyond.
So, how can we figure out what the magic words are?
First, we know that in the vast majority of cases, they are nouns. Job-seekers have long been taught to emphasize action verbs in their job-search correspondence, and that advice is still valid. But the "what" that you performed the action in relation to is now just as important. In the following examples, the underlined nouns are the keywords that relate to the action indicated by the verbs:
- Conducted cross-functional management for initial and follow-up contact.
- Coordinated marketing campaigns and special events.
- Managed customer database, product updates, and upgrades.
- Functioned in project-management role.
- Oversaw procurement, allocation, distribution control, stock levels, and cost compilation/analysis.
And what kind of nouns are sought? Those that relate to the skills and experience the employer looks for in a candidate. More specifically, keywords can be precise "hard" skills -- job-specific/profession-specific/industry-specific skills, technological terms and descriptions of technical expertise (including hardware and software in which you are proficient), job titles, certifications, names of products and services, industry buzzwords and jargon, types of degrees, names of colleges, company names, terms that tend to impress, such as "Fortune 500," and even area codes, for narrowing down searches geographically. Awards you've won and names of professional organizations to which you belong can even be used as keywords.
There are actually a number of good ways to identify the keywords that an employer might be looking for in any given job search, and we list many of them in our sidebar, Resources for Identifying Keywords. But the method that career experts most commonly mention is the process of scrutinizing job postings to see what keywords are repeatedly mentioned in association with a given job title. We offer two examples of how to find keywords in job postings in our sidebar Researching Keywords in Job Postings.
OK, so now that we have some good ideas about how to identify keywords, how should they be used?
One popular method has been a laundry list of keywords -- a keyword summary with no context -- toward the top of the resume. As we'll see, this method is problematic.
It still makes some sense to front-load the resume with keywords, however, partly to ensure you get as many as possible into the document, and partly for the phase of resume review in which humans will actually screen your resume (after the initial screening by the search software) and may be attracted to keywords that appear early in the document.
A section of keywords can use one of many possible headings, such as "Key Skills," "Core Competencies," "Key Proficiencies," and "Areas of Expertise." A big note of caution here: Keyword sections are beneficial on resumes when they are entered into Applicant Tracking Systems, but "disembodied" keywords do not rank as highly in the systems as keywords used in context. "More advanced ATS systems will evaluate the context in which each keyword is used," advises resume writer Karen Siwak, "and will give higher ranking to a keyword that is included within the description of a career accomplishment, compared to one that is included in a keyword table." Thus, also consider keywords in bullet points in your Summary of Qualifications/Professional Profile, if you have one, and in the bullet points under each of your jobs.
Instead of a mere list of words, the summary or profile section presents keywords in context, more fully describing the activities and accomplishments in which the keywords surfaced in your work. This contextual collection of keywords that describes your professional self in a nutshell will certainly hold the interest of human readers better than a list of words will. Ideally, keywords are tied to accomplishments rather than job duties, so a good way to make the leap from keyword to a nice, contextual bullet point to include in a profile section is to take each keyword you've identified as critical to the job and list an accomplishment that tells how you've used the skill represented by that keyword. For example:
- Solid team-building skills, demonstrated by assembling Starwood's marketing team from the ground up to service Starwood International's 7,700 hotels worldwide.
- Savvy in e-commerce marketing concepts, having participated in design of two company Web sites, and conducted a symposia series to instruct hotel executives in the value of Internet marketing.
Keywords should also appear in the rest of your resume beyond the profile or summary section. Most applicant-search software not only looks for keywords but also ranks them on a weighted basis according to the importance of the word to the job criteria, with some keywords considered mandatory and others that are merely desirable. The keywords can also be weighted and your resume ranked according to how many times mandatory words appear in your resume. If your document contains no mandatory keywords, the keyword search obviously will overlook your resume. Those with the greatest "keyword density" will be chosen for the next round of screening, this time by a human. Generally, the more specific a keyword is to a particular job or industry, the more heavily it will be weighted. Skills that apply to many jobs and industries tend to be less weighty.
Since you also don't know the exact form of a keyword that the employer will use as a search criterion, it makes sense to also use synonyms, various forms of your keywords, and both the spelled-out and acronym versions of common terms. For example, use both "manager" and "management;" try both CRM and Customer Relationship Management.
And remember that humans can make certain assumptions that computers can't. A commonly cited example is the concept of "cold-calling." People who read the phrase "cold-calling" in your resume will know you were in sales. But unless "cold-calling" is a specific keyword the employer is seeking in the database search, search software seeking "sales" experience may not flag your resume.
To determine the keyword health of your current resume, highlight all the words in it that, based on your research of ideal positions in your field, would probably be considered keywords. A good goal to shoot for is 25-35 keywords, so if you have fewer than that currently, try to beef up every section of your resume with keywords, varying the forms of the words you choose.
You may be starting to get the idea that a good keyword resume must be specifically tailored the each job you're applying to. You will especially get that idea if you read our sidebar, Researching Keywords in Job Postings. Indeed, a research study notes that resumes that aren't focused on a job's specific requirements aren't competitive. Does that really mean you need to create a separate resume for every job you apply for? Yes and no. It's probably not practical or realistic to totally revamp your resume for every opening. But you can tweak elements such as your professional profile, thus adjusting some of your more important keywords for each job you apply to. Customizing your resume when completing online profile forms at job boards also makes sense.
More Resume Keyword Tips and Cautions
- Consider using a service that analyzes resume keywords. Jobscan, for example, analyzes job descriptions and helps applicants easily identify what skills and keywords are most important to a given employer. Jobscan ranks the most important and most frequently-occurring keywords in each job description. Preptel is fee-based, with fees ranging from $49.95 monthly to $89.95 every three months; a limited free version is offered.
- Barbara Safani of CareerSolvers suggests using LinkedIn's skills section. "Go to your LinkedIn profile," Safani writes, "and click on the more tab to locate the skills section. Type a skill into the search box and a pull-down menu will appear with alternative skills that are similar to the one you typed in the search box."
- If you post your resume on Internet job boards, be sure to avoid emphasizing keywords that relate to jobs you don't want. If you have jobs in your employment history that are unrelated to what you want to do next, go easy on loading the descriptions of those jobs with keywords. Otherwise, your resume will pop up in searches for your old career and not necessarily your new one.
- Don't forget about "soft skills," such as interpersonal and communications skills that relate to many types of jobs. Although soft skills are difficult to substantiate on a resume, they are often listed as requirements in job postings. They tend to be transferable and applicable across various jobs/careers, as well as desirable personality traits.
- Some job boards have a feature that enables you to see how many times the resume you've posted has been searched. If your resume hasn't been searched very many times, odds are that you lack the right keywords for the kinds of jobs you want.
- Keep running lists of keywords so that anytime you come across a word that's not on your resume but that employers might use as a search parameter, you'll be ready.
- If you've published your resume on your own Web page, keywords can boost that version, including in the resume's internal coding, since employers may use search "bots" and search engines to scour the Internet for candidates that meet their criteria. See our article Resume Found: Keys to Successful Search Engine Registration.
- Use keywords in your cover letters, too. Most employers don't include them in resume databases, but a few do. And keywords in cover letters can be important for attracting the "human scanner." If you're answering an ad, tying specific words in your cover letter as closely as possible to the actual wording of the ad you're responding to can be a huge plus. In his book, Don't Send a Resume, Jeffrey Fox calls the best letters written in response to want ads "Boomerang letters" because they "fly the want ad words -- the copy -- back to the writer of the ad." In employing what Fox calls "a compelling sales technique," he advises letter writers to: "Flatter the person who wrote the ad with your response letter. Echo the author's words and intent. Your letter should be a mirror of the ad." Fox notes that when the recipient reads such a letter, the thought process will be: "This person seems to fit the description. This person gets it."
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker's Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers, is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers, edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and blogs about storytelling in the job search at A Storied Career. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). Visit her personal Website or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)quintcareers.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.
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