What are résumé keywords, and why do they matter?
Securing an entry-level position in today’s job market means clearing a series of hurdles, from lengthy online applications to multiple phone, video, and face-to-face interviews. But before any of that can happen, you need to defeat the robots.
Most large employers, and an ever-increasing number of small ones, use applicant tracking systems (ATS) to scan résumés. ATS are programmed to match keywords from job descriptions to words in applicant résumés. If enough keywords match, the résumé is forwarded to a human recruiter. These tracking systems act not only as gatekeepers but also rank applicants before a human recruiter even sees them.
This means you need to craft your résumé with two audiences in mind—the ATS and, if you’re lucky enough to make it that far, the human hiring manager. The following tips can help make sure your résumé makes it past this first important checkpoint in the hiring process.
1. Customize your résumé
You should create a résumé template as a starting point, but make sure to always tweak it for each job you apply for. As you craft your résumé, look at several job ads for the role you’re seeking. Evaluate them by focusing on skills they share and on common keywords used to describe those skills.
Use those keywords to describe your own skills and experience, then tweak accordingly for each new job you apply for. A recent CareerBuilder survey found that 54% of job seekers don’t customize their résumé to mirror each job description, so tailoring yours could put you ahead of more than half your competition.
2. Copy the exact language and phrasing of the listing
Pay close attention to the required and preferred skills, as well as the required education and responsibilities, of the job description. Many ATS can’t decode similar phrasing, so make sure the phrasing used to describe these elements in your résumé matches the job ad exactly. Scatter the keywords and phrases throughout your résumé—in your professional summary, skills section, and the descriptions of your past positions.
Changing the wording from a job description even slightly—for example, from “project management” to “project manager”—could cause ATS to eliminate you. In addition, many ATS can’t recognize common abbreviations such as “CPA,” so avoid using them. If you can think of a more elegant way to express the same skill or experience, employ it in your cover letter.
3. Think about the next step
Mimicking keywords and phrases from job postings is important, but be careful to describe your experience and skills in a way that flows logically. Stuffing your résumé might get you past the ATS only to have your résumé quickly eliminated from consideration when it finally gets into human hands.
As you craft your résumé, you need to think about the two audiences simultaneously, so make sure your keyword-loaded résumé is written clearly. Focus on design clarity, and use vivid narratives that highlight how you’re positioned to benefit the employer. Avoid crafting uniform paragraphs and long blocks of type. Instead, aim for short, varied lines of copy with plenty of white space, and use strong verbs, direct sentence structure, and clear, concise language.
4. Frontload your résumé
Recruiters spend an average of six seconds on each résumé before making a decision. The first 15–20 words of your résumé are the most important, because that’s how many words the average person can read in those six seconds. This means the top third of your résumé often determines whether a hiring manager chooses to keep reading and that the personal summary is the section of your résumé a recruiter is most likely to read.
Begin with a brief summary that starts with a title, preferably one tailored to the job description. Follow your title with two to three concise sentences or bulleted items that highlight the skills and experiences that will make you an asset to the employer. Study the job description to determine what problem the employer is trying to solve with this hire, and make sure you’ve demonstrated that you can solve their problem within the first third of your résumé.
5. Stick with a classic design
Since ATS often fail to recognize unusual résumé designs, fonts, or headings, it’s best to stick with time-tested formats that use standard categories, such as “Work History,” “Skills,” and “Education.” In your descriptive sections, don’t worry if lines or bullet points end in the middle of the page—a little white space will help guide a hiring manager’s eyes from top to bottom. Condense information wherever possible so there are no more than four or five bullets under each skills section or job title. Use numerals to add tangible proof to your claims and break up the type.
For font, use 12-point type with 120%, leading to ensure plenty of white space and legibility, and use a classic like Times New Roman or Garamond. For a bit of flair, consider dressing up the presentation of your name with a rule line or slight change of font size or style. This will make it stand out from the rest of the résumé and create a branding effect.
Don’t send a PDF of your résumé, as scanners can misread them. Include hyperlinks to your LinkedIn profile and digital work samples, and make sure these links are live and customized.
6. Consider using a functional résumé format
Applicants who are new to the job market can have success using a functional résumé format that emphasizes all the skills and technical know-how you’ve attained in the classroom without broadcasting that your work experience is limited. The bulk of the résumé following your professional summary can be divided into areas of experience or expertise—for example, skills and accomplishments or tech skills and leadership. Include a “Work Experience” section that lists your professional experience from most recent job title to earliest. A brief “Education” section should be included just before or after the “Work Experience” heading.
7. Include a cover letter
Automated job applications often indicate that a cover letter is optional. It’s not. According to a 2016 CareerBuilder survey, 40% of recruiters said they were more likely to pay attention to applications that included cover letters.
In addition, a cover letter that’s customized for each job can increase your chances of getting your résumé into the hands of a human recruiter, because most ATS search your letter for keywords just as they would a résumé. Since many candidates will omit a cover letter if it’s not required, including one will give you an edge.
Looking for more résumé and job search advice? Check out our Internships and Careers page!