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How to Make Your Resume Better With Keywords & Phrases

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This post is part of a series called How to Create a Great Resume (Ultimate Guide).
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Are you sending resume after resume, but still not getting called for an interview?

MRI Network’s 2015 survey of more than 400 recruiters revealed that we’re in a candidate-driven market. Applicants are more confident to reject a job offer in lieu of a better one.

If that’s the trend, you’re probably wondering why you don’t have a job offer yet.

Perhaps there aren’t enough vacancies in your industry?

A 2015 survey from The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) shows that 48% of small businesses report there were none or few qualified candidates for the positions they tried to fill.

So what gives?

The NFIB’s finding gave a hint: few qualified candidates.

When a company or small business posts a job ad, they screen applications manually or with the help of Applicant Tracking System (ATS) software. The screening process finds applications that contain keywords used for measuring an applicant’s compatibility to the position.

Resumes that don’t contain these keywords don’t appear in the search results, so they’re not read. In recruiter lingo, these resumes are stuck in the ‘black hole of applications.’

That means you have to include these keywords in your resume to increase the chances of your application showing up in the recruiter’s search.

How to best use resume keywords and phrases
Use resume keywords and phrases to stand out in job application searches. (graphic source)

In this comprehensive guide, learn how important keywords for resumes are, as well as the process of how to research and find the right ones to use on your resume. Then dig into how to best to incorporate keywords and phrases into your resume to beat ATS software and improve your chances of landing the next job you apply to. 

Also, get killer resume keyword tips, a useful list of keywords to use in a resume, and resume keyword examples that you can make quick use of. Let's get started with a description:

What Counts as a Keyword for a Resume?

Keywords are mostly nouns.

You’ve been taught to use power words or action verbs like ‘created’, ‘solved’, or  ‘trained’ to emphasize your skills and achievements. A recruiter won’t use these words to search for their next hire.

The ‘what’ emphasized by the power words are the keywords to use in a resume. In the examples below, the words in italics are power words, while the ones in bold are the keywords:

  • Created a training program for new-hires
  • Coordinated product launch campaigns and outreach events
  • Developed a budgeting software using JavaScript and HTML

For example, if a startup is looking for a programmer with Ruby on Rails experience, they’ll include Ruby on Rails or Ruby in their resume keywords list. They might also include HTML, CSS, and JavaScript in their keywords to narrow down the search, since these programming languages are related to Rails.

Types of Keywords for Resumes

What keywords should you use on your resume? Here's a quick starting point to begin considering the types of keywords to include on your resume: 

  • Industry-Specific Skills - Bookkeeping, product launch, and proposal writing
  • Soft Skills - Problem solving, communication, sales, and team management
  • Hardware and Software Used for the Job - Dreamweaver, SQL, and VOIP
  • Job Titles - UX Designer, Business Development Manager, and Full stack Developer
  • Training and Certification - Six Sigma, Project Management, and ITIL
  • Education - MBA, PhD, and BS
  • Industry Jargon - Asset management, A/B Editing, and digital video editing workflow
  • Impressive Terms - Fortune 500 and top salesman
  • Company Names - Big name companies are sometimes used when finding applicants for top positions.
  • Locations - Zip codes, city or state names used to narrow down searches to a geographic location

Resume Keywords List (Free PDF Download)

Here we have a quick reference PDF Resume Keywords List to download for free. You can use it as a handy guide to help find the right keywords and phrases to use in your resume. 

Resume keyword list - free PDF download
Resume keyword list - free PDF download.

How Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) Works

Now you might think inserting all the relevant keywords you could think of is enough. But ATS software is more sophisticated than you think. It can be programmed to:

  • Search for resumes that have the keywords employers want
  • Count the number of times each chosen keyword appears on the resume, and then rank the applications in order of keyword frequency
  • Assign a weight to a particular keyword. If design skills are more important than problem-solving for a certain job, the recruiter can tell the ATS to put more value on keywords like “Adobe Photoshop”, “Illustrator”, or “Typography”
  • Detect keyword spamming

Advanced ATS software can detect keywords used in context. It can give a higher ranking to a keyword used in a sentence with related skills, compared to one that’s listed on a table or beside other non-related keywords. 

You can’t just trick the ATS into thinking you’re the best applicant because you included a bunch of keywords on your resume.

How to Find the Right Keywords for Your Resume

Now you need to figure out the resume keywords and phrases used for your target position. The best keywords for resumes are specific to the position you're applying to. Figuring out what those keywords are though, requires some work.

The truth is, you have no way of knowing the exact keywords hiring companies and recruiters use. But with enough research, you can arrive at an educated guess that comes close to their actual resume keywords list. Apply these research techniques to find the right keywords for your resume:

1. Review Job Posts

Read ads for the same job title. Scour job portals (Monster, Indeed, Glassdoor, etc), trade publications, and company websites to collect at least 10 advertisements for the same position.

How to Analyze the Job Ads

  1. Read each ad then highlight the keywords that could be used in the employer’s criteria. Use the types of keywords listed previously as a guide. The skills and experience mentioned in the first paragraph are usually the most important.
  2. List all the keywords you’ve highlighted after reading all of the ads. Then pick the keywords that are common—or at least appears in most—of the job ads. These are the ones likely used for that specific position.  

Use a word-cloud generator if you don’t want to look for keywords on each ad manually. Just paste the whole ad into the system then select the most prominent ones in the word-cloud. The number of times a word appears in the ad is listed beside each word.

For example, here are the keywords for a resume applying to this Front End Developer job: 

Use a Word Cloud Generator to analyze resume keywords
Use a Word Cloud Generator to analyze keywords for your resume.
  • Building
  • Interface
  • Responsive
  • Teamwork (team, work)
  • Code
  • User

2. Other Strategies to Find Resume Keywords and Phrases

Use the process described above. But instead of job ads, look for keywords in:

LinkedIn’s Skill Section

Visit your LinkedIn profile, scroll down and then click “Add skill.” 

LinkedIn skills section
Find keywords for resumes in LinkedIn's skills section. 

Type a skill in the search box then you’ll see a drop down menu showing related skills. In the example below, entering the phrase "social media" showed related skills like "social media outreach" and "social media optimization." This is a good way to find skills related to what you’ve already listed on your resume.

Linkedin - related skills
Find related skills in Linkedin.

3. Review ‘One-up’ Jobs

Look at three to four job ads a step above your current position (i.e. junior designer to senior or lead designer). The skills mentioned across the different ads are the keywords for that position.

If you have some of those skills, add them in your resume. Doing this gives you a leg up from other applicants who don’t have those next-level skills.

Quick Tip: Don’t have any of the skills you found? Add an ‘areas of interest’ section at the bottom of your resume and put the keywords there.  

4. Talk to an Insider or Recruiter

Ask a recruiter or someone who currently works at your target company for an informational interview. Learn how to conduct an information interview: 

Recruiters will frown upon questions about their ATS resume keywords list, but there’s no harm in asking about the professional experience, background and skills they want for a specific position. The jargon and specific skills they mention are likely used to screen applicants on their ATS.

Where and How to Insert Keywords on Your Resume (With Examples)

1. Resume Summary Section

The summary, executive summary, or professional summary—whatever you want to call it, ‘sets the hiring manager up with background information about you. It’s one of the best places to include relevant keywords to establish your professional brand, says Joanne Munekawa, Career Services Manager at Employment BOOST.

Keywords in the summary section are also presented in context, so it’s ATS and human friendly.

“The ‘areas of expertise’ section below the summary, is an area where you can list skills and experience—keywords—that aren’t mentioned many times throughout your resume”, adds Munekawa.

It’s a good way to increase a keyword’s density in your resume, as in this example: 

Resume executive summary example with keywords underlined
Resume executive summary example with keywords underlined.

2. Work History on Your Resume

Stand-alone keywords, such as skills and industry jargon give your resume a boost in Boolean searches on an ATS. But these aren’t enough for more sophisticated ATS searches.

Advanced ATS software detects context. That’s why you should also use keywords that could be associated to other skills or experience related to your job.

“Using these two methods ensures your application comes on top of search queries, whether on the ATS or resume database sites," says Dawn D. Boyer, PhD and CEO of Boyer Consulting.

In the example below, you’ll see that the main keyword, ‘X-ray imaging’, is written beside related skills like CT imaging and portable radiography:

Use keywords in close association
Use related keywords in close proximity for stronger association.

Keywords should also be tied to accomplishments. One way to do that is to write an accomplishment that describes how you’ve used the expertise represented by that keyword.

In the example below, the underlined keywords are made more impressive with the addition of brand names that establish the caliber of clients this editor works with. 

Work history example from JobHero
Work history example from JobHero, showing the power of tying brand names to resume keywords.

3. Resume Skills Section

The skills section is the most obvious part to insert your resume's keywords, specifically skills, hardware or software, and industry jargon. Organizing keywords into different sections relevant to your job gives it context for the ATS, while making it easy on the eyes.

Below is an example of a skill’s section for a photographer’s resume.

Example resume skills section with relevant keywords and speciality skills
Example resume skills section with relevant keywords and speciality skills.

4. Education and Training

A college degree or alma mater are sometimes used to screen applications. Ivy League schools, for instance, may be used to filter applications for high-profile companies and positions. A specific college degree, on the other hand, may be used for entry-level positions where the applicant’s degree is one of the primary considerations for getting an interview.

The training and certification section is another area where you can add skills, industry jargon, and specific training required for certain job titles. For example, a company hiring an experienced ECE might also require CCNA certification, so they’ll add it to their list of keywords.

Example of resume keywords in education and training descriptions
Place relevant resume keywords in your education and training section.

5 Quick Tips to Help Maximize the Power of Keywords in Your Resume

1. Using Synonyms and Acronyms on Your Resume

Again you don’t know the exact terms a recruiter or hiring manager will use on the ATS. So it makes sense to account for synonyms, acronyms, and other iterations of a keyword.

In the example above, the resume contains both “CCNA” and “Cisco Certified Network Associate” to account for both search terms.

The ATS also doesn’t automatically recognize common abbreviations. It doesn’t know that “MBA” also means “Master of Business Administration,” so the ATS won’t flag the abbreviated version unless the recruiter also typed it into the system.

2. Using Location Based Keywords

Recruiters also use city, states, or specific towns on ATS searches to find applicants for local positions. For example, an Austin-based company hiring a graphic designer will use the key phrases, “Graphic Designer” AND “Austin” so the ATS will only show applications that contain both key phrases.

It pays to include your city, town, and state into your resume. If you’re concerned about your privacy, just leave out the house number and street address.

3. Spell Out Obvious Skills Associated to Your Job

Yes, the ATS can detect context but only to a certain extent. For example, "a legal recruiter who sees the phrase "divorce lawyer" will know you have experience with divorce mediation and child custody disputes. But an ATS won’t flag your resume for those key phrases just because divorce lawyer is your job title," says Hossein Berenji of Berenji Family Law.

Because every industry and job title has specific responsibilities, it’s impossible for an ATS to connect all those tasks to every job title that exists.

4. Use Keyword Analysis Tools

Try Jobscan or Resunate, services that can compare your resume to the job ad you’re applying for. Just upload your resume into their system then paste the entire job description to start the comparison.

Jobscan gives you a percentage rate that shows how your resume compares against the job ad, and some tips for improving the keywords on your resume. Resunate uses a 10-point compatibility scale instead of a percentage. Both services offer a free trial.

If you want to know how often a keyword or phrase appears on your resume, use WriteWords.

5. Focus on Hard Skills on Your Resume

Soft skills are evaluated during interviews. An applicant’s creativity, leadership, communication skills, and the like are hard to assess on your resume so they’re not often used on ATS filters.

Use hard skills, training, and experience as the prime keywords in your resume.

Write for Both Audiences

Making sure your resume passes the ATS’ scrutiny is important. But the human readers, the recruiters and employers, are just as important. Do not sacrifice the readability of your resume just to satisfy an ATS.

Ideally, an ATS and recruiter-friendly resume is grammatically correct and includes at least 50% of the keywords in the job ad.

Not sure how to make an awesome resume that employers and ATS will love? Check out this comprehensive, multipart series on How to Create a Great Resume (Ultimate Guide), or begin with this helpful tutorial: 

Also, be sure to use a professional resume template, so you can make a great looking resume fast. Here's a curated collection of professional resume templates to find just the right design: 

Don't forget to download the free PDF resume keywords list I compiled for different jobs. That list will be a good starting point for your resume. 

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