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
  • Competency SectionOffice 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.

Image by Jack Moreh on Freerange Stock

Article updated October 2018.

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Great info! You made this very clear and easy to understand. I find my clients often get confused when we talk about keyword optimization, I will show them your blog next time it comes up.

The Resume Writers and Career Coaches LinkedIn Group asked some good questions in their discussion thread. So, I’m following up with some commentary.

A strong resume should include both soft skills and hard skills to be most effective. These days, just about every role needs a range of competencies, not just technical or mechanical skills.

I prefer not to mix soft skills and hard skills in one competency list, just from a readability perspective. I want the recruiter to easily see each skillset.

There are ways to incorporate both competency lists under separate headings. You can simply list each in it’s own category (with a header) either one above the other or side by side. For example, an IT Executive might list LEADERSHIP COMPETENCIES and TECHNICAL SKILLS. An entry-level person might plainly list SOFT SKILLS and HARD SKILLS.

From a perspective on online search engine optimization, contextual algorithms are quite complex and robust. We know that many organizations are Googling prospective employees. So, online reputation management is key.

Resumes may play a different role in the future – more of a supporting document for employers. I still believe that we can use keywords in resumes to further optimize search results for organizations (both online and ATS systems).

Hi Sharon,

Kudos on a fine write-up on keywords- it is excellent! I love the way you have summarised the topic succinctly. Your article will definitely help job hunters who rely on resumes to open doors for them… get more interviews.

Paul Hill, Author, The Panic Free Job Search

Soft skills that work are typically nouns, not adjectives like “flexible”. Core values such as “reliable” or “team-oriented” don’t work that well either because they are overused and they are not typically something an employer searches for in an ATS.

It’s better to select phrases that a recruiter might enter when looking for someone in a specific position.

Soft skills like: customer service, written communications, group collaboration, corporate compliance, change management, team building, or conflict resolution tend to work better — especially if they are competencies specifically required by the job.

One way to determine an appropriate soft skill is to read it out loud starting with “knowledge of…” or “experience in..” If the phrase makes sense, it might be more effective in a resume.

A very comprehensive article covering a topic that some job hunters still don’t know about and thus don’t take into consideration.
I heard recently that the new or next generation of ATSystems is or will be looking for key words in context, which may eliminate the effectiveness of listing key skills in a table etc.
Thanks for the detail in this article, Sharon!

Good point, Stephanie. I have also heard that the next generation of ATS Systems will be looking for keywords in context. However, most organizations are quite a few years away from implementing those. If (and when) they will decide to invest in upgrading their system, it will be much more important to incorporate keywords into sentences. For now, a table and embedded keywords is likely to provide the most impact in diverse situations.

Hi Sharon,
I’m curious to know your source of information regarding ATS systems.
Thanks so much.

At Career Professionals of Canada, we have done quite a bit of research and training on ATS systems in the last year. I have learned techniques primarily through study and application, but I can provide you with a number of resources to get started.

We’ve run some free professional development sessions for members where we brought in invited speakers such as leadership from PrepTel.

CPC’s Resume Strategist Mastermind Group has also done some research and prepared some resources for people who want to get more in-depth on the topic:

At Graham Management Group, we wrote ASCII resumes for quite a few years; our practitioners are at the leading-edge of innovation in Canada and we did some research and professional development on resume technology used by recruiters and employers a number of years ago. This was before the term ATS was widely recognized. We did this so that we could stay ahead of the curve for our clients.

Last edited 1 year ago by Sharon Graham

Great information and this is similar with what I generally tell my clients, however, can you clarify one point? You write, “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. There is little benefit from repetition to an automated system, but a person reading your resume might notice it better.” A recruiter I know who works with ATS daily, said it is helpful for a candidate to determine the four or five most important keywords in a job description and repeat them four or five times since the ATS gives “credits” for the repetition of the most critical keywords for the job. Candidates shouldn’t go overboard with repetition, just a few times with the most important keywords which results in a higher ranking. Is this what you have also heard? Thanks for the input.

Hi Sharon,

Thank you for the excellent article on keywords.

I am learning about ATS and keywords, and was wondering if keywords are mainly nouns. After reading this article, I see that I got this part right, but still, I have so much to learn.

Gosh! I really need to get certified.

Thanks so much for your comment, Giselle. We all have loads to learn about ATS systems since technology is progressing so quickly.