If you want to advance from anonymous job applicant to interview candidate, your resume simply must include the right keywords. That’s a fact of life today, no matter which company you apply to.
Keywords are phrases or nouns that describe industry-specific experience and expertise. They can include buzzwords specific to your industry, jargon, awards or even job titles and technologies that someone outside the industry might not recognize. Recruiters and potential employers search resumes for keywords that match skills and experiences required in a particular job.
Keywords can make or break your resume, especially online. Electronic resumes are scanned by software that specifically looks for keywords matching words in the employer’s job description. Often, recruiters use scanning technology to match a resume to a job description.
A Practitioner’s View
Jennifer Gray, manager of talentQuest, an executive search firm based in Portsmouth, N.H., says, "I search for resumes based on keywords and I absolutely recommend that our applicants think about and use keywords in their resumes. I prefer keywords to be used in the body of the resume, so I can ascertain when and where a certain skill was used. Our agency has scanning software and we look at all resumes manually as well. Keywords are important in both scenarios."
The keywords should describe the most important experience you have to qualify for the job. If your resume has the right keywords, the computer will select it for further consideration. Omit keywords or use the wrong ones, and you may fall into the black hole of online job applications that are never seen again.
Your Optimal Keyword Strategy
How do you select and strategically use keywords? Read the job description and analyze your background. Figure out where there is a match and make sure those words are in the body of your resume. "Summary of Qualifications" or "Professional Summary" sections are great places to include keywords. Some resume writers advise creating a "keyword" section within the body of the resume. It’s a quick and easy way for a person to scan your resume for a match.
If you’re lucky enough to get a live person reading your resume, consider that you get about 30 seconds to catch their attention. Often it’s less. Placing keywords up front gives you a better chance at catching a reviewer’s eye. If she finds the exact experience listed in a job description matches a keyword near the top of your resume, she’ll probably route you to the group marked for further evaluation. Getting your resume pulled from a mountain of paper or files is a calculated, strategic exercise.
Remember the old adage, "practice makes perfect?" Candidates who’ve had several opportunities to apply critical job skills should make sure their experience doesn’t get lost in the body of their resume. Repeating keywords is a good strategy to create emphasis. Some programs count the number of times a keyword is mentioned. Plus, repetition of the right experience will catch a resume reader’s attention.
Representing your experience honestly and accurately is always the best policy. Keywords are only as meaningful as the in-depth experience they reflect. If for example, you have done network maintenance or disaster recovery in more than one job, say so.
Less is more
Joanne Faille, founder and president of Massachusetts-based Blackbird Technical Staffing says: "In an IT resume, keywords provide a means to identify the candidate with specific sought-after technical skills and experience. Ideally, consider including a list of technical skills and methodologies (e.g., "Java," "SQL," "Agile," etc.) as searchable keywords, but do be sure to also explain within the body of the resume where and how each particular skill was used, the methodology applied, and the result delivered."
Job titles are also frequently targeted in keyword searches, so be sure yours appears in industry-standard language. A warning from Faille: "I’ve seen outplacement centers urge candidates to put every conceivable keyword on a resume, even when the experience is negligible, in an effort to make the resume searchable. Don’t fall into that trap." In other words, less is more. Stick to what you know, not what you think the reader wants to see, regardless of whether you have that skill set.
The correct use of the right keywords can help you avoid being screened out. However, strive to keep some "sizzle" in your resume. Your industry specific experience will get you noticed, but being chosen for an interview is about the whole package.
Alice Ain Rich is a career consultant based in Massachusetts.