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Resume Keywords: What They Are and How to Use Them

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There’s tons of advice about creating a resume that gets results. And one of the common topics is resume keywords. Most advice says using keywords on your resume is crucial. And it is. The right resume keywords can and do play an important role in the recruitment and hiring process.

But there’s also a lot of misinformation about resume keywords and how they are and aren’t used. This guide will help separate fact from fiction so you can understand the best way to use keywords on your resume:

What Are Resume Keywords?

Often, job seekers are advised to look through the job posting and identify the words and phrases that are repeated frequently or describe essential hard and soft skills. Using these keywords on your resume gives you a better chance of getting an interview. And some advice even says you should use some of the keywords more than once throughout your resume.

But keywords are simply the words that describe your professional skills and abilities. As senior recruiter Jonathan Harbison says, “Resume keywords are specific words used in a resume that are relative to the role an individual is applying to.”

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So, it’s safe to say that if the job posting includes the word “database” six times, the recruiter is looking for someone who can work with databases. But including the word “database” one or more times on your resume isn’t necessarily enough to get an interview.

Will Resume Keywords Help You ‘Beat’ the ATS?

Let’s start with the basics of applicant tracking systems (ATS). “There is a common misunderstanding that it is the ATS that qualifies or disqualifies candidates in the initial stages of the application process. ATS systems are simply utilized to organize and track candidate information,” Harbison explains. “If a candidate is no longer being considered for a role, it’s not due to the ATS alone. A person has assessed the application and resume and made the decision to not continue with the candidate.”

So, ATSs don’t scan your resume for certain words and reject your application because you didn’t include the right keywords the right number of times on your resume. Instead, a human being evaluates your resume and decides that you are or are not a good fit for the role. Ultimately, using resume keywords won’t help you beat the ATS any more than using the wrong ones results in the ATS rejecting your application.

How Recruiters Use Resume Keywords

But if resume keywords don’t get you past the ATS, why bother using them at all? Does it really matter if you say “Worked with databases,” over “Worked with MySQL” on your resume?

It can. “Keywords can help grasp the attention of the recruiter, leading them to examine the resume further,” says Harbison. Beyond grabbing a recruiter’s eye, resume keywords can help recruiters find your resume in the future — even if they’ve never seen it.

Consider that most ATSs are giant, searchable databases. And when recruiters have an open role, they may search for candidates before posting it on job boards. “Recruiters use an assortment of databases to find candidates that match the open roles they have. One of the many tools used to source candidates is a Boolean String search. Using a combination of keywords and operators, recruiters find and filter candidates,” says Harbison.

Here’s how it works.

A recruiter wants to find someone for an information systems manager role. The recruiter might search the ATS, job boards, or even do a google search for someone with information systems management experience.

In the search box, the recruiter types: “information security.” That brings up all of the resumes with that keyword. However, a recruiter might also type in additional keywords, keyphrases, or even acronyms that are also related to information security. So, in this case, a recruiter might type:

“information security” AND “project manager” OR “project management” OR “leadership” OR “manager” OR “PMP”

A resume with any or all of these keywords will be pulled into the search results.

>>MORE: JPMorgan Chase & Co. Cybersecurity

While you probably wouldn’t include all of those keywords on your resume, understanding how recruiters use resume keywords to search for candidates can help you determine which keywords to use on yours.

How to Use Resume Keywords

While it’s important to use resume keywords, keywords alone won’t help you land the interview. “In essence, keywords can get [a recruiter’s] attention, but keywords alone won’t keep it,” says Harbison. “A resume is a candidate’s way to express who they are as an employee and what unique characteristics they possess,” says Harbison.

The trick is to use resume keywords to support and explain why you’re the right person for the job.

Locate the Right Resume Keywords

Start by reviewing the job description and keep track of which skills and experiences are mentioned. This will likely be a combination of hard and soft skills, so don’t focus on one set of skills over the other. 

Once you’ve identified what the employer is looking for, review your experience to see which of your skills are a good match for the role, and highlight those on your resume using the same or similar keywords. For example, if the job description mentions that the person hired for the role will need to make presentations, you’ll want to highlight your presentation skills as well as verbal and even written communications skills. 

Think Outside the Keywords

It’s easy to get so focused on figuring out which of your skills and abilities match the keywords exactly that you might overlook your transferable skills. Think about all of your skills and how you can explain them with the right keywords.

For example, you may have a ton of experience with Google Suite (like Gdocs, GSheets, and Gmail), but the job description exclusively talks about Microsoft products (Word, Excel, and Outlook). Fortunately, the two systems are similar, and framing your transferable skills with resume keywords can help the recruiter see how you’re qualified for the role.

So, instead of saying:

Created mail groups in Gmail

You could say:

Created email distribution lists

You’re still highlighting your skills and abilities, but framing them in a language that signals to the recruiter you have the skills they’re looking for.

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Don’t Overdo It

Some resume writing advice says that not only should you use the exact same keywords from the job description in your resume (think, saying “client” instead of “customer”) you should also use the keywords a certain number of times. For example, if you see the word “client” four times in the job description, you should consider using it four times in your resume. 

Likewise, some advice says in addition to using the main keyword, you should also squeeze in a variant whenever possible (like saying, “manager,” “management,” and “managing or managed”).

But both of these techniques could be considered keyword stuffing. And, even if it’s not, Harbison notes that, “The purpose of a resume is to paint a succinct picture of your experience that can be comprehended quickly.”

Harbison says you can include keywords throughout your resume, as long as you use them naturally and don’t force them in. He also notes that using language from the job posting is OK but will probably only make a small difference in helping your resume stand out. And, if you do use the job posting as a keyword guide, “it’s important not to do a copy and paste.”

Highlight Your Achievements

However, merely including the keywords is not enough. “The wrong way to use keywords is by creating a list of keywords without context or supporting information,” warns Harbison. Instead, he advises job seekers to use keywords that help “highlight outcomes achieved in previous positions, projects, or education.”

For example, if you’re highlighting some of your soft skills, like your verbal and written communication skills, you could say, “Excellent verbal and written communication skills.” But that doesn’t tell the recruiter anything about how you use your excellent verbal and communication skills or how you will put them to work for the employer. And it doesn’t explain the kind of writing skills you possess. Is it creating a marketing deck? Copywriting? Corporate ghostwriting?

To help you explain how you use your skills, use the STAR method. While it’s primarily used in interviews, the STAR method can also help you write your resume. When you include a keyword (or keywords), explain how you used your skills to accomplish something related to it:

Rewrote all marketing decks used in sales pitches, which increased buy rates by 48%

The words “marketing,” “deck,” and even “sales” could all be considered resume keywords, and they might be words a recruiter would search for. What’s more, this bullet supports the idea that you possess excellent writing skills because your marketing deck increased buy rates by 48%. That helps the recruiter understand how your writing skills could help them boost sales.

>>MORE: Is Marketing a Good Career Path?

Frequently Asked Questions

What are resume keywords?

Resume keywords are specific words and phrases you use on your resume that are related to the role.

What do resume keywords do?

Used correctly, resume keywords can help an employer understand your value as an employee.

How do recruiters use resume keywords?

Recruiters generally use resume keywords to search for candidates for their open roles, but they also use keywords to see how well you potentially fit the role.

Can using the “right” resume keywords help me beat the ATS?

Nope! An ATS is a giant database that organizes and tracks candidates. If you aren’t scheduled for an interview, it’s because a human recruiter decided you weren’t a good fit, not an ATS.

If I include enough keywords on my resume, will that improve my chances of getting an interview?

Unfortunately, no. This is known as “keyword stuffing,” and a recruiter will recognize it. Only include the keywords that make sense for you as a candidate and use them naturally on your resume to support and explain why you’re the best person for the job.

Image credit: Canva

Rachel Pelta is the Head Writer at Forage. Previously, she was a Content Specialist at FlexJobs, writing articles for job seekers and employers. Her work has been featured in Fast Company, The Ladders, MSN, and Money Talks News.