Rethink Résumé Keywords and Key Phrases
By Sharon Graham.
Résumé keywords and key phrases are words (or strings of words) used to identify good prospects for a position. Keywords help recruiters and employers search through a batch of résumés to select appropriate candidates. Companies, search firms, and job boards often use Applicant Tracking System (ATS) software to automate this process.
In the last decade, the job search has become increasingly competitive. By applying the right keywords, a job seeker can dramatically increase the chances of being selected for an interview.
Keywords are Nouns That Reference Core Competencies
Keywords and key phrases are typically nouns that reference core competencies – skills that are seen as central to the targeted job, company, or industry. Soft skills (people skills) and hard skills (technical, mechanical, or hands-on skills) are typically strong keywords. However, keywords are much more than just skills. They might be certifications, degrees, or job titles. Keywords can also be names of companies, associations, schools, hardware, software, or other products. Acronyms, initials, and abbreviations also apply, and it is best to spell out the words as well.
What keywords are not:
- Adjectives, such as dynamic, are not usually keywords.
- Adverbs, such as effectively, are not usually keywords.
- Verbs, such as organized, are not usually keywords.
An ideal keyword is a technique, trade, or talent that is highly desirable to a potential employer, enhances job performance, and is reflective of the candidate’s abilities. Some examples:
- Soft Skills: Problem Solving, Customer Service, Team Management, Conflict Resolution
- Hard Skills: Inventory Control, Report Writing, Policy Development, Mechanical Engineering
- Job Titles: Store Manager, Marketing Consultant, Filing Clerk, Team Leader, Cashier
- Company Names: Hewlett Packard (HP), Tim Hortons, General Motors Company (GM)
- Associations: Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA), Career Professionals of Canada (CPC), Canadian Marketing Association (CMA)
- Schools: Milton District High School, McMaster University
- Certifications: Certified Community Service Worker (CCSW), Certified Résumé Strategist (CRS), Certified General Accountant (CGA)
- Software: Microsoft Office (MS Office), WordPress (WP)
- Hardware: Circuit Boards, Laptops, Monitors
- Product: Office Supplies, Designer Apparel, Apple iPhone
Look Beyond Job Postings and Towards Actual Needs
Job seekers often include competencies solely based on their background. However, for a résumé to be effective, it must include elements required by the employer in the current market.
Typically, keywords and key phrases are found by studying a job posting. Then, those keywords and phrases are incorporated into the résumé. But using this standard approach does not generally help to distinguish one applicant from the next. A better, more effective approach is to dig deeper and find less known competencies that a recruiter or hiring manager might key into an ATS.
Along with including keywords from the job posting, do your research and select a few more words that may be meaningful to the potential employer. Think about the language they might use. There is nothing wrong with using industry or technical jargon in a résumé – as long as the recruiter needs that competency. By incorporating meaningful keywords that others do not use, the chances of a candidate being selected increase significantly.
Consider words that might be typed into an automated résumé search system when someone is looking for the ideal candidate. Think like a recruiter. Recruiters are more likely to search for nouns than verbs. Rather than entering managed, the recruiter might be looking for a manager.
Use a Variety of Appropriate Keywords and Key Phrases
It is not necessary to keep the keywords used to a minimum. For example, a recruiter looking for someone who speaks French might type in the keyword bilingual. If you incorporate both words, the résumé is more likely to be selected.
Incorporate long-tail keywords – three to five words that are strung together to create a phrase that is very specific to the needs of the company. For example, the keyword customer support might be too broad, but technical customer support specialist may hone in better.
Focus Keywords and Key Phrases on the Future
When writing a résumé, focus on the future. Rather than selecting old skills that are no longer in demand, consider what the employer might need in the years to come. To determine these, you need to understand the future requirements of the job, the company, and the industry. You also need to know about potential changes in the labour market and the external economic and social landscape.
When identifying keywords and key phrases, refer to competency areas that are in demand in the 21st century:
- Analytic Thinking, Quantitative Skills, Technical Literacy
- Social Awareness, Emotional Intelligence, Cultural Sensitivity
- Communication (Oral and Written), Multiple Languages
- Abstract, Innovative Thinking, Creative Problem Solving, Sense-Making
- Continuous Change, Adaptability, Transition Management
Incorporate Keywords and Key Phrases Effectively and Ethically
Keywords must penetrate ATS technology and resonate with humans.
Don’t scatter keywords haphazardly throughout the résumé. Place competencies and keywords strategically for maximum impact. The final text should flow naturally and with ease. The document should be easily read and understood by all.
From an ATS selection perspective, it is not necessary to list keywords together, but many people include an aesthetically pleasing keyword listing. One way to create a list is to categorize it under competency headings. For example, you might want to create a title such as Technical Skills, and then include a listing of keyword applications such as Windows 10, MS Office, and Outlook.
It is never a good idea to mislead a potential employer about competencies, talents, and strengths. Don’t include any and all keywords just because you think the reader wants to see them. You can include certain keywords and still be truthful. For example, when targeting a position in office management, rather than changing a previous position title, strategically include the key phrase in one or two other places such as:
- Headline – CAREER TARGET: Office Management
- Tagline – ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT WITH OUTSTANDING OFFICE MANAGEMENT EXPERTISE
- Competency Section – Office Management, Administrative Support, Records Management…
- Responsibility Section – Perform office management and other related duties.
- Achievement List – Supported three executives in office management, successfully streamlining administrative functions in the head office.
- Education Section – Courses cover Office Management, Administration, Accounting…
- Volunteer Section – Performed various office management duties to support the overall success of the program.
When using this technique, don’t repeat a keyword many times. This undesirable tactic is known as “keyword stuffing.” A search engine only needs to see a keyword once. If you include it more than a few times, you might risk being penalized by the system or the reader. You can repeat important words, but don’t overuse them. An automated system assigns no additional value to keywords that are repeated, but a person reading the résumé might pay more attention.
The Value in Engaging a Certified Career Professional
Qualified Canadian career practitioners can provide job seekers with advanced résumé development skills. The best résumé writers and employment strategists know how to go far beyond basic concepts. They are part of an exclusive group of practitioners whose training and skills help position job seekers so that they stand out over the competition.
- Professional association for career practitioners and résumé writers: Career Professionals of Canada
- Canadian credential for top-level résumé strategists: Certified Résumé Strategist (CRS)
- Professional development for career practitioners: Advanced Résumé Development Certificate Program
Article updated October 2018.