How to Use Resume Keywords to Get Past Online Screeners

When was the last time you printed out your resume and handed it to an actual human being?

These days, many job seekers don’t interact with a real, live person until they get past an electronic screening round.

More companies are using automated applicant tracking systems (ATS), also known as talent management systems, to find job candidates.

While ATS systems are efficient, they eliminate resumes that are missing important keywords. That means you might get passed up for amazing job opportunities simply because your resume and cover letter aren’t optimized for an algorithm.

We asked career coaches and HR experts for tips on how to ensure your resume gets past auto-screeners programmed to look for certain keywords.

We’ll also cover other ways to make your digital resume stand out in the world of online job searching.

Play to the Resume Keywords

Resume keywords are specific words or short phrases that describe the skills, abilities, credentials and qualifications hiring managers are looking for in an ideal candidate for a particular position.

They are buzzwords, action verbs and concise language that pops on a resume and lands you closer to a job interview.

But how do you pick the right words and key phrases?

Here are a few tips.

Different Types of Resume Keywords

There are two main types of resume keywords employers and computer software programs look for: job-related skills and action verbs.

Job-Related Keywords

Job-related resume keywords describe your primary soft skills and hard skills.

This includes your certifications, industry knowledge, credentials, abilities and previous work experience.

  • Examples of soft skill keywords: communication skills, team building, detail-oriented.
  • Examples of hard skills: technical reporting, computer science, accounting, legal, sales, Microsoft Office Suite, WordPress, financial analysis, Quickbooks.

Action Verbs

Action verbs detail what you did or how you did it. They help describe your skills and accomplishments.

Here are some solid action words to use in a resume:

  • implemented
  • maximized
  • communicated
  • operated
  • streamlined
  • managed
  • integrated
  • overhauled
  • facilitated
  • orchestrated
  • navigated
  • improved
  • executed
  • optimized

Scrutinize Job Listings

You have a better chance of getting an interview If your resume uses keywords from the job description of your desired role.

It makes sense: Hiring managers want candidates with relevant skills that match the position.

You can take two different approaches:

  1. Examine job descriptions that are similar to the positions you’re applying for and identify patterns of keywords to incorporate into your resume.
  2. Tailor your resume to each job listing you apply to, using specific keywords and language from that job description.

If you draw inspiration from several job listings, make a list of common keywords and phrases. Refer back to the list as you revise your resume.

If you write a targeted resume, it should include precise language from the job ad. For example, if the company uses “BA,” you should too. If they say “bachelor’s degree,” go with that resume keyword instead.

Never plagiarize entire sentences or copy whole sections from job ads verbatim.

If you borrow too much content from the job description, your resume might get auto-rejected. Go for a more natural approach and sprinkle keywords from the job ad throughout your resume.

Review the Company’s Website for More Resume Keywords

You can learn a lot by reading a company’s About Us page.

How does the company describe itself? What’s the culture like? Which core values does it emphasize?

Reviewing a company website for keywords is a great way to personalize your resume and increase your odds of landing an interview.

You can also look for resume keywords on: 

  • The company’s LinkedIn page.
  • Employee LinkedIn profiles.
  • Industry organizations and trade websites.
  • Competitor websites.
  • Google “[industry] resume keywords” for more specific suggestions.

Searching Google is a great way to find resume keywords that align with your background and experience.

To find more inspiration, try searching for resume buzzwords based on:

  • The position (i.e. content creator keywords, journalist keywords, nursing assistant keywords)
  • The industry (i.e. advertising resume keywords)
  • Seniority (i.e. management keywords, entry-level position keywords)

Tips on Using Resume Keywords

You’ve found some great keywords — but now what?

Relax, you don’t need to rewrite your entire resume from scratch. Instead, here are a few tips to keep in mind when optimizing your resume.

Be as Specific as Possible

If you’re a pro at Photoshop or WordPress, call the programs out by name instead of saying “photo editing experience” or “worked with content management systems.”

Sprinkle Them In

Don’t just cram as many keywords as possible into the skills section of your resume. Spread them throughout the document. Integrate them naturally into your resume summary statement and past job descriptions. You can also create a separate “relevant skills” or “core competencies” section that lists out relevant keywords.

Don’t Lie

This is obvious, but don’t include keywords unless you have the skills and experience to back them up. You might sneak past the ATS, but lying on your resume won’t fly with the hiring manager.

Mix It Up

Include a variety of job-related resume keywords and active verbs. Consider mixing in synonyms of keywords you’ve already used. For example, instead of writing “created weekly production reports” twice, you can try “facilitated technical paperwork.”

Add Keywords to Your Email and Cover Letter

It never hurts to use some power words and industry buzzwords in your email and/or cover letter to the hiring manager. If a job posting instructs you to include a specific phrase in the email subject line, absolutely do it. Your resume may get screened out otherwise.

Adding a skills section is another good way to call attention to specific talents and tools recruiters are looking for during the hiring process.

The Old One-Page Rule Still Applies

Remember in high school when you first learned about resumes? Rule No. 1 was keeping your resume to one page.

That still applies, says Michelle Quinn, placement director for HireMinds LLC, a hiring and placement agency in Boston.

The one-pager, she says, is the first test of a person’s “ability to clearly articulate a wealth of information on a limited canvas.”

But, she says, if you think the stuff you leave off is still important for a hiring manager to see, put it on your personal website and add a link to it.

Readability Is Critical to Both Humans and Algorithms

Whether it’s reviewed by a hiring manager or an applicant tracking system, your resume must be easy to read.

Indeed.com suggests using a font like Arial or Times New Roman in size 10 or 12 for maximum readability. Skip fonts that look like handwriting or scripts.

If you want to showcase your design ability and work samples, the best place to do that is via your online portfolio. Make sure to include a link to it on your resume.

No matter what resume format you choose, don’t overload it with extra, unnecessary information. Tailor it to the specific job listing you’re applying for.

Also: Be aware of how much white space is on the document itself — too much makes your experience seem sparse, too little is overwhelming to the reader.

Rachel Christian is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance and a senior writer for The Penny Hoarder. Freelancer Elizabeth Carr contributed reporting.

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