Smart job seekers know they should tailor every cover letter and resume they send out. But tailoring your application doesn’t mean talking about how much you love the XYZ company and that you’d be a great fit working there because you know the XYZ company loves team players…and you’re a team player!
Customizing your resume and cover letter means using the right resume keywords!
But how do you find the right keywords to use in a resume? How do you know they’re the best ones? And how do you use the right keywords to get your resume noticed? Are there other ways to use keywords during a job search?
What Is a Keyword?
You’re probably very familiar with keywords. At its broadest, a keyword is an important word (or string of words). It’s the word(s) that matter most in a sentence.
If you’ve ever searched for something on the internet, you’ve used keywords. Whether you’re searching for dogs, vanilla ice cream, or what glass is made of, you’ve entered your keywords into a search box and hit “enter.”
Keywords tell the search engine what the searcher is looking for. The search engine then attempts to pull the best results based on the keywords. If you search “Chihuahuas,” you’ll get one set of results, and different ones if you search for “Great Danes.” You’ll also get an entirely different result if you look up “best dogs for apartments” versus “best dogs for kids.”
Sometimes your search results are spot on, whereas other times they’re imperfect. This usually has to do with the keywords you enter in the search engine. Enter the right keywords, and you’ll likely find what you’re looking for. Enter the wrong keywords, and you’ll end up with incorrect results.
Why You Should Use Keywords (and Where!)
Just like searching for Great Danes brings up search results about Great Danes, using specific resume keywords can help you find jobs you’re a good match for and help recruiters find you when they are searching for amazing candidates.
And though using the right keywords on your resume is crucial, there are other places you can—and should!—use keywords to help you connect with and land the job.
Use Keywords to Find Jobs
Using the right keywords can help decrease the time it takes you to locate and narrow down the list of jobs you want to apply to. Pro tip: Use a variety of keywords for job titles, qualifications, skills, and duties. This helps ensure your search isn’t too broad or too narrow.
For example, if you’re pursuing a career in human resources, search for “human resources” as well as “HR” to capture the most jobs in your interest area without overburdening you with marginally related job postings.
Beat Applicant Tracking Systems
Many companies use applicant tracking systems (ATS) to help hiring managers sift through resumes and decide which ones make it to the next stage (read: a human recruiter). The ATS is programmed to look for keywords in cover letters and resumes. If the application doesn’t include the right keywords, it will end up in the “no thanks” pile.
Catch a Hiring Manager’s Interest
Even if a company doesn’t use an ATS, most hiring managers spend approximately seven seconds scanning your cover letter and resume. What are they scanning it for? You guessed it! The right keywords.
You might be the perfect candidate for the role, but if the hiring manager is looking for someone with “sales” skills (and searching for that particular word) and you talk about your “deal-making” skills, there’s a chance the hiring manager will skip right over your sales skills and pass on you.
Help Recruiters Find You
Just like you would use keywords to find dogs, ice cream, or jobs, recruiters and hiring managers search for job seekers (like you) on places like LinkedIn. Using the right keywords can help ensure you show up in their candidate searches.
For example, if someone is searching for an “editor,” but you only talk about your writing skills on your profile, you likely won’t show up in that recruiter’s search results, even if that might have been the perfect job for you.
How to Use Resume Keywords
When you search for something, you know what you’re searching for and why you’re searching for it. The same can be said of hiring managers. You know what they’re looking for (hopefully you!), and you know why they’re searching (they have an open position).
But, the trick to connecting with hiring managers is making sure you know how they’re searching for candidates. And that’s where keywords come in.
How to Identify Which Keywords to Use in a Resume
The first step is identifying which resume keywords you should target and use on your resume. Start by reading over the job description. Make a list of any words or phrases that are repeated throughout the description.
Then, reread the job description and think about each word or phrase on that list. What does the word describe or define? Is it related to the position and its responsibilities? Do the words have something to do with the core requirements for the role? If yes, then you’ve identified a keyword you should include on your resume.
If you’re not sure you’ve identified the right resume keywords, gather up a few job postings for similar positions, and create separate lists for each one. Then, compare your lists. If you see similar words on the list, you’ve likely identified the best keywords.
Use Some Variety
Once you’ve identified the right resume keywords, the best thing to do is use each keyword exactly as it appears in the job posting. However, that’s not always possible, so don’t shy away from using a keyword variant.
For example, say one of your keywords is “market.” It may not be possible to use the exact word and tense in your resume or cover letter. In that case, use “marketing” or “marketed.” It’s the same word and concept, just a different tense.
When to Use the Exact Keyword on Your Resume
Sometimes, though, it’s better to use the same keyword from the job posting exactly as it’s written, instead of a variation.
The first case would be to make sure you speak the right language. If you have extensive customer service experience, but the job description consistently refers to “client services,” you’re better off using “client services” on your resume. It’s clear that this job calls customers “clients.” Therefore, it stands to reason that if this company uses an ATS, it’s programmed to look for “client” not “customer.
And, if they don’t use an ATS, the human recruiter reading your resume will, of course, connect the dots if you say “customer,” not “client,” assuming they see it at all. However, if you use the word “client,” the hiring manager might think that you are more qualified for the job since you speak the same language.
In the second case, if you notice that a job description uses the same tense consistently throughout the job post instead of variations, you’re better off using that same tense throughout your resume because the ATS is likely programmed to look for that exact keyword tense. This will likely require you to make some simple rewrites on parts of your resume and cover letter.
For example, the job description uses “marketing,” but your resume says “market.” Instead of saying “used marketing skills to sell product to physicians,” rewrite that to, “market product to physicians.” It may not be as smooth as your original, but it’s a better match to the job description and more likely to make it past an ATS.
Don’t Overdo It
Keyword stuffing is when you“stuff” as many keywords as possible into a single sentence (or paragraph). For example, let’s say you’re applying for an account manager position, and your keyword list includes “account manager,” “client management,” and “project management.” A keyword-stuffed sentence (or bullet point on a resume) might look like this:
Managed client accounts using excellent account manager skills to improve client retention through project management and client management.
While this sentence would probably make it past an ATS, it wouldn’t make it past a human hiring manager.
Though space is at a premium on a resume, sometimes it’s better to break up bullet points and sentences for the sake of clarity and to avoid keyword stuffing. A rewrite of this might say:
Account Manager Skills:
- Used client management skills, including building relationships and addressing client concerns, to improve client retention rates.
- Leveraged project management skills to oversee client product launch from beginning to end; ensured projects stayed on time and under budget.
While that takes up more space, it’s a much better use of the resume keywords!
Beyond the Basics
Those are the basics of identifying the right keywords to use in a resume. Beyond that, though, consider including the following keywords in all of your resumes to match with more search results.
Your professional name, that is. While your name isn’t technically a keyword, make sure that whatever you go by at work matches all of your other online professional data. That means your resume, your social media profiles, and email signatures. You may think, “what’s in a name?” After all, you’ll answer to both Robert and Bob. But it does make a difference.
Like it or not, hiring managers will Google you (that’s just a fact). The same name across all of your professional profiles makes it more likely that your professional results will rise to the top of the search results. It will also make it clear that yup, that’s you every time.
Are you bilingual or multilingual? Adding these skills to your cover letter, resume, applications, and social media profiles will help pull your name up in search results when employers are looking specifically for these skills.
Include your college degree and school. You might include your major if it is relevant to your current or desired career field.
This includes past job titles, your current job title, and any desired job titles. Using these keywords will help employers find you during a search. Whether you are found by previous job titles, your present job title, or the title you’re working toward, employers will have their eyes on your resume.
Volunteer work isn’t only a great way to gain skills and experience. Including these activities and organizations adds more keyword depth to your application.
Licenses and Certifications
Include the licenses that will qualify you for the job you are seeking. Provide dates for the license as well as the organization that did the licensing. If a job or company requires a certification, they are likely going to use those keywords. By listing your certifications, you’ll be more likely to show up in search results.
Publications or Patents
Include industry or job-related publications where your work can be found. If your creations have been patented, include the patent, patent numbers, and keywords related specifically to the patent. These are great ways to demonstrate your expertise.
Find Your Target
Incorporating the right resume keywords takes effort, but it is well worth it in the long run. You’ll save time by narrowing your search and only applying to the jobs you’re a great match for. And, using keywords will help you sail past ATSs, into job interviews, and right on to your next job!
For expert advice on customizing your resume, consider meeting with a FlexJobs career coach. They can help you create a tailored resume that highlights why you’re the best candidate for the job.
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