Job Hunting in the Early Stages: Why Resume Keywords Matter

Often the first reader of a resume is an applicant tracking system, which searches for important keywords. Here are tips for using resume keywords.

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.