Job Hunting in the Early Stages: Why Resume Keywords Matter

By Corinne Bernstein  |  Posted 2012-10-11

Job Hunting in the Early Stages: Why Resume Keywords Matter

In the employment search, the power of the word—or the keyword, actually—should not be taken for granted, whether the job hunter is just out of college or a seasoned pro. Job seekers need to incorporate keywords representing their skills into their resumes because frequently the first impression they make is not on a human but an applicant tracking system that will search for these words. 

Often, long before HR professionals, recruiters or hiring managers read resumes, they are loaded into applicant tracking systems, or ATSes—software designed to match keywords representing job hunters' skills with what employers need. Job seekers hoping to be among the select few who make it to the next stage must prepare their resumes so that ATSes will score them favorably.

If candidates' skill sets are incomplete, they haven't represented themselves well on their resumes—with comprehensive descriptions of their skills using well-chosen keywords—or their formatting is incompatible with ATSes, they will not make the first cut, employment experts maintain.

"People would be shocked at how many resumes never get looked at," said Ted Elliott, CEO of Jobscience, which specializes in social recruiting and talent management applications, including ATSes.

More than 70 percent of resumes aren't seen by the human eye, Mona Abdel-Halim, co-founder of, a job application tool, wrote on Internet news blog Mashable. "… Employers large and small now use applicant tracking software to parse the information from your resume and map it into a database called an ATS. From this information, the system will assign you a score based on how well you match the job the employer is trying to fill, and then rank and sort all candidates."

Also called candidate management systems, ATSes search for keywords and assign more weight to common words in resumes while less prominent words receive less weight.

"Keywords describe skills; they aren't job titles, although job titles, such as Java programmer, can include keywords," explained Tom Silver, senior vice president, North America, of online IT career site Dice.

The system may seem impersonal, but when companies are flooded with resumes, efficiency is paramount. The aim is to help company HR departments, recruiters and employment sites efficiently and cost-effectively find and narrow down candidates.

Making the Cut

The technology is designed to be inclusive: Data rules are applied equally and fairly to all candidates, and there are no keywords that would eliminate candidates, said Jobscience's Elliott.

"Sure, there's always a chance of losing a diamond in the rough, but the chance of getting a really good candidate is high," he said.

What's the best way to avoid being the gem that doesn't get selected?

Job seekers should use keywords that describe their technical skills (such as C++, PHP, Java and Apex) throughout their resumes. Each job title should include a good description of the job seeker's experience, replete with the appropriate keywords as well as the timeframe in which the candidate worked at each job.

"If a job is for a PHP developer and there's no mention of PHP in a resume, it will automatically be eliminated," Elliott said.

Job Hunting in the Early Stages: Why Resume Keywords Matter

Popular keywords include "networks," "security" and software development  terms (such as "Java programming," "database management" and "project management"), Dice's Silver said, adding that for more senior-level positions, words like "managed," "led" and "created" are also important.

New keywords enter the job search lingo as technology evolves. The fastest-growing keywords, which reflect shifts toward mobile and cloud computing, for example, are "iPhone," "Android" and "HTML5."

"'iPad' and 'iOS' were not anywhere near the top just a few years ago," said Rich Pearson, chief marketing officer at Elance, an online marketplace for freelancers and hiring companies. "Old stalwarts, such as 'PHP,' are also popular. We also see 'Ajax,' 'Objective C' and other terms that are very specific to the role you might be working on."

The Importance of Being Honest

Although keywords are crucial, job seekers should avoid "gaming the system," Dice's Silver said. Keywords should be used accurately and honestly, he said, adding that candidates who lie or mislead will be eliminated eventually.

Using keywords to describe skills should not be a foreign concept to the recent college graduate who grew up using the Internet, employment experts say, and in the last 10 years the job market has been pretty Internet-dominated.

"Most people understand the concept of search," said Elance's Pearson. "Folks who have made a career change or job change know the importance of keywords, but it may be more of a learning experience for someone who has been with the same company for many years and looking for a job."

Not using keywords properly isn't the only thing that could lead to a resume being eliminated early on.

Resumes should be submitted in Word or PDF and not be encrypted, and information should not be included in the header, Elliott said, as ATSes have difficulty processing information that is encrypted or incorporated in a header.

ATSes will have difficulty "reading or understanding" images, graphics or white type, Abdel-Halim of wrote.

Resumes that are difficult to open or read or that require a swamped human resources professional to perform an extra step will likely be eliminated, said Elliott.

Also, resumes should be clearly written and contain enough detail to adequately explain a candidate's background, Elliott said. Spelling also counts, and although ATSes don't have spelling and grammar checking capabilities, they will in the not-too-distant future, he said.

If keywords open doors, then the resume is the password that lets the job seeker inside. Neither resumes nor keywords should be taken for granted, employment experts maintain.

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