Resume Keywords: A Primer

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.

Woman FrameKeywords 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.

42 Responses to “Resume Keywords: A Primer”

  1. insure me that i had used the windwos progrmas please ihave only been around programing and netwrok maintenacen and I have nto worked in yet I am well qualified and have a good freference based on education. help please/ James

  2. Stella Southall

    James, I wish you success in your job search.

    I think one thing you really have to work on as evidenced by your post, you need to seriously work on your grammar and sentence structure.

    Proper grammar in the work force is very, very important.

  3. I find it Hilarious that a bunch of IT people are condemning an automated system that reduces manual work.

    Still – the article was fairly useless, captain obvious with no examples (other than the obvious proper nouns of specific languages which of course any IT person has listed).

    Also – IT people complaining about playing the HR game, or any game other than strictly programming languages which few others in the organization understand, is unfortunately so cliche. My impression is that more and more smart organizations want to change their IT philosophy to be more Cross Functional rather than isolated and exclusionary. The days of IT depts making their own rules and ignoring the rules that apply to rest of the organization is ending. The most valuable IT workers are those who can do non IT things (like play HR games).

  4. This recession is a convergence of a large number of job hunters, coupled with declining opportunities, and an explosion of technology. This cycle begins a new paradigm: nobody knows what works anymore. Are automated systems being used extensively? Yes, but I submit that no best practices have evolved for their use. So, how can you expect any relevant advice or examples?

    For example, why not place a keywords paragraph at the end of your resume. We do that for websites. Break with traditional thinking, demonstrate thought-leadership and validate your understanding of keyword scanning!

    Let’s recognize the new methods as they are. Trying to massage keywords into classically recognized sections as “summary of qualifications”, or “professional summary” as the article suggests is just immature given our obvious recognition and understanding of the technology being used.

    After all, WE DEVELOPED THIS TECHNOLOGY. Should we not make the best use of it?

  5. Based on what I have observed, the points DICE made here are dead-on for working with Monster, CareerBulder, etc. The shift of the “supply” of talent available and the “demand” of employers yields an unmanageable number of of applicants. Software MUST be a part of the process used to narrow down the quantity of applicants to a reasonable number of potential candidates. It’s not laziness, it’s not inability of hiring managers to read… Just necessary for effective time management.

    Having said that, there is not ¿one right way¿ to present one’s resume. You must have a general, detailed resume to generate leads from job boards and resume data-bases. Specific versions tailored for positions for which you are applying are also necessary – use the job desciption as a guide, it will provide a list of which skills to present and what attributes to highlight.

  6. Jamie McDonald

    I haven¿t worked since Jan. 9, 2009.

    We have no choice but to stay up with the latest in technology in an effort to maintain our livelihoods.

    Quoting Mary West, ¿that’s the way it is¿. Overwhelming unemployed versus the amount of available jobs is why.

    I also agree with Mary West; What happen to the good old days when you could ¿cold call¿ on a company shake your interviewers hand and sell yourself in person?

    I agree with Brad Snyde, applications should be standardized. Some of these fringing things take hours to fell out!
    I¿m computer literate; but some don¿t work worth a crap when you try to fill in the data!

    I do appreciate the article as well; but a few more examples would have been helpful. After all, your article was titled as:
    Resume Keywords: A Primer
    I would have expected to see some real meat; a viable list of Acronyms and Abbreviations, pertinent to ¿Industry Standards¿ would have been nice.

    Good luck to everyone on their job search!

  7. I have been working and supporting IT for 15+ years. I recently found myself laid off. Although I was given a generous severance package, and wrote a great resume, the impact of this economy has created a vacuum for technology related jobs. For those positions available, the offering compensation is 1/3 to 1/2 what is was not too long ago. This really presents motivation to either change careers, start a business of my own, or both!

    PS – That is a creative captcha form!

  8. Mark Wolf

    Thanks for your insight. You sent me right back to my newly-crafted resume for a keyword infusion. Your advice resonates with anyone looking for any kind of job in any industry. I’m an advertising writer/creative director and have to stand out in any way possible. There are jobs out there. As with advertising, the job is to cut through the clutter. Thanks again!

  9. Dice wastes our time sending us an email about keywords to use and this is all they have to offer???? Geez, give me a job there if all that’s required is a half page of useless information!! You would think that a site such as Dice which is supposed to be a “professional” site would have longer better written articles but obviously not!!

  10. It’s sad to think that since the 80’s the H.R. and bean counters have taken over in corporate Amerika. Not only do I have to be an expert in my technical field, now I’ve got to be an expert in playing the resume’ game just to appease some Liberal Arts major.

  11. dspwriter

    So companies replace their HR departments with computer-literate monkeys that hold up hoops, and applicants are supposed to figure out how to jump through them? That sounds like a sure way to hire more monkeys. Don’t be a monkey.

    How about an article on how to avoid this nonsense in the first place, not perpetuate it?

  12. Mary West

    The impersonal nature of job-hunting today is hard to get used to, and I don’t like it, either. However, that’s the way it is, and I appreciated the article for giving me insight into the new process of screening.

  13. I disagree with some of the comments that this is not usefull information. The idea is to get your resume noticed and as mentioned large firms are now using digitial scanners to weed out potential candidates that do not meet this criteria. Surely if you have skills and they are not in your resume by named and recognizable keywords you will not make the cut for review. That would be unfortunate. Might I also suggest inserting keywords and then chnage the font color to blend in and not be seen?

  14. When using keywords, make sure synonyms are also included. The dweebs that call themselves HR are so illiterate they don’t understand what they read. Or else HR has been outsourced and English is not their native language. I was at a job fair once at a booth that advertised “embedded” systems. My resume had “firmware” instead. The liberal arts bozo refused to consider “embedded” and “firmware” mean the same thing. I’m glad I didn’t get that job!

  15. It was inevitable that the practice of personally reviewing resumes would be replaced by scanning technology…especially in a job market when a single opportunity can yield thousands of resumes. What’s troubling with this approach is that the job opportunity is as narrow as the technology used. In other words, instead of finding candidates with important “supporting” soft and technical skills, the HR departments of today are using this technology to find only those matching skills. In the past, I would always hire the best person based upon a lot of different factors…and if I had used this scanning technology, I would have never even considered most of them. So, I can certainly understand the efficiency of using this approach (and why the job seekers have to play by these new rules), but I’m sorry to see that the overall impact will be leave out some otherwise great potential employees.

  16. The technically ignorant HR people are really hurting the companies they work for. One technical recruiting company called me and we started to talk. “Oh, we are so very impressed by your resume. chatter…chatter… Do you do software or hardware?” You can guess my reply!

  17. Luis Landron

    Hi. I currently live in Florida and have worked on the IT industry for over 15 years. I really will like to move and I’m looking for a job outside the state but everytime I get a possible lead they tell me I have to move first and then apply for the job. I have my own savings that will allow me to relocate but I will need to make sure I get a job prior to relocate. What’s the best methods to search for a job under these circunstances? Should I note this on my resume or cover letter? Thanks for your help.

  18. Sam Santos

    Here’s an interesting tidbit… I’ve had more responses from applying directly to companies instead of applying via Dice or Monster. I think the reason is that when a company accepts resumés directly they actually read them.

    Most of the time when I apply via Dice or other similar sites, I need to upload my resumé as text so that they can parse through it for keywords. It’s too bad, because there have been a few jobs that despite being near copies of my resumé never responded. My guess is that my keywords were similar, but not the same as theirs.

    I realize that companies are being inundated with resumés these days, but if they don’t bother to read through the qualitative stuff on the resumés, they’re going to end up with potentially a bad fit for their company.

    Anyway… good luck to everyone out there. Time to tweak that resumé to include more meaningless keywords.

  19. I would always hire people — and have usually been hired — based upon a now-rare thing that we’ll call “intelligence”. When someone’s resume has roughly the correct experience, and they sound bright and interested on the phone, that’s good enough to give them an interview in my mind.

    Oh well, I am hardly in a position to hire anyone at the moment. I haven’t had a job since January. 🙂 But I too miss the days when common sense was the rule rather than the exception in HR departments.

  20. When I got a lot of applicants for each job opening, I would only read maybe 15 resumes of the over 100 received. We had a clerk go through the batch with instructions like:

    (1) Look at their salary requirements and if its above our range, eliminate them,
    (2) See if they have a 4 year degree and make sure its a real school,
    (3) Look for the following skills: a, b, c , d and put a number on the resume indicating how many of these they have,
    (4) Give us all the 4s to look at.

    The only people who might have time to read through 100 resumes are HR managers. Hiring managers have jobs to do and that volume of resumes to critically read is a negative contributor to productivity.

  21. I agree with both Rick and Ken regarding their points. Although I believe it’s important to have key words, the other main issue is that at this time, over half the resume’s aren’t even being read because of the use of scannners and industry buzz words. With that in mind, talented and great people out of work aren’t even getting the face time or a chance to interview. Is there a glossary of key words for industries?

  22. Finally a place to vent. If using keywords in my resume will get me an interview then so be it. Althougfh just like many of the rest of the posters on this forum I am absolutely sick of jumping through the HR hoops. The really big one that irks me to no end in filling out online applications. Why OH WHY! can’t companies just take the resume that all of us have spent so much time perfecting and read the ___ing thing and decide from that whether or not to call you. And another thing, These online applications. Many are powered by taleo and brassring and others. WHY can’t this be standardized?? so we don’t have to fill out the same information over and over!!!!. I would never suggest that the government do a darn thing for me but in this case,,, PLEASE make empoyers use a standard SHORT application . Fill it out one time online update it when needed and that is IT.. ARGGG!!!!
    Sorry,, had to vent.

  23. Mike Park

    A recruiter after I had explained my experience with central office switch’s and PBX’s and voicemail systems, he asked if I had any experience in telecommunications. Oh about the brassring I think they need some IT expertise since it is so slow.

  24. PLASE STOP TELLING US STUFF WE ALREADY KNOW! Any pro searching for a job already knows how important keywords are in s/w. Thanks but no thanks for the advice. Please tell us something we don’t know! I agree with Rick; how can I get a job telling others stuff they already know/get paid for it? Great Advice¿DUH! Here’s a suggestion for next article; tell us how to eliminate this type of clutter? YOU’RE all the same and only care about how many eyeballs you drive to your website! If you¿re really that good, why aren’t you placing people left & right? GOOD LUCK everybody with this advice. Here’s some free advice your mom/dad has already given you. “Nothing is free… if you can’t find someone to do the job right… You’re better off doing the job your self” Use these job sites with a grain of salt & never post a resume; follow them only to find out what “not to do”! Listen to your inner self & JUST DO IT YOURSELF & HAVE CONFIDENCE IN YOURSELF & you will be successful. IT REALLY WORKS!

  25. ALSO…. I find it Hilarious that Al finds it Hilarious !!! HEY AL are you the genius that came up with this piece of advice ? GOOD LUCK pretending you know what the hell your talking about out there in a world dominated by professionals who know how one’s and zeros fly around planet earth. Al another great piece of adice sounds like you have “IT Envy” Please stay out of the Men’s Locker ROOM !

  26. Fred Bosick

    Corporate America is going to wake up one day and find parrots in all the cubicles. Go past the webmaster and the parrot will say java! Mosey on past the programmer’s desk and hear ajax! Peek in the HR office and hear cobra! Walk into the corner office and that parrot will say outsourcing! A few minutes later, after the door is closed, a quiet “blow job”.

    Go out and get lunch and the attendant will ask in perfectly modulated and mellifluous English, “Would you like fries with that?” Theater trained English majors tend to sound like that.

    Whether I meant real parrots or resume’ spiking morons is left as an exercise to the reader. As if it makes a difference!

  27. Alec Rollins

    So, what I gather is this is a vicious cycle. I’m supposed to fill my resume with useless jargon and buzz words, when I specifically refuse to because I would never look at a resume in such a condition if *I* was the hiring manager. My B.S. meter would ping to the red, and would continue on to seek someone with intelligence. Taking the gamble of bringing in someone new to an already overworked team of individuals who know their job well, just to find that the newbie can only “talk the talk” but cannot “walk the walk” seems to be a complete waste of time. Your team now has an additional burden of a useless worker they now must take up the slack for.

    What time have you saved, and how much money have you just cost the company? And has that empty position been filled, or has it just opened up again? Brilliant.

  28. Ariel Azcuidiaz

    Obviously Alice gets paid for the amount of words Dice prints from her articles. This is once again another useless, half twit, waste of space information that WE ALREADY KNOW!!! Like Joe mentions in his comment: “tell us how to eliminate this type of clutter? YOU’RE all the same and only care about how many eyeballs you drive to your website! If you are really that good, why aren’t you placing people left & right.”

    Thanks Joe,
    Enough said!

  29. There are too many resumes flooding in, for them to be hand-picked and eyeballed. This process had to be automated, so please accept it and quit complaining.
    Looking for a job is a near full-time job in itself, that’s pretty obvious. As such, treat it seriously and do the awfully boring work of adapting your resume to the relevant format.
    Rebellion is not going to get you noticed.
    If you do want the chance of having your resume reviewed, why not put your resume on LinkedIn. You might just get some requests that way.

  30. Mike Riciglaino

    Interesting subject but not any examples. Of course we all know that keywords are important. Ok, yes make sure they are up front and yes we all know if someone actually looks at your resume you only have about 30 seconds to get them interested. So is that news? I feel like a lot of these sites are selling you a services to re-write your resume and not really interested in providing free help.

    Just my two cents.


  31. Proper use of keyword filtering can be a useful tool, but many companies don¿t use it correctly.

    But accurately used recognized keywords describing your work history and accomplishments, are useful in weeding out potentially bad EMPLOYERS. If your resume¿s keywords match your skills, and you get a call from someone saying your resume is a great fit, when the job description conflicts with your resume, the caller is a bad recruiter.

    Don¿t waste time interviewing for a job with a company that won’t take the time to read and understand something that they ASKED FOR. If a phone call is about a blatantly bad match, tell them politely that you can¿t waste time on someone who doesn¿t understand the position they are calling about.

    To minimize these calls, always ask that a copy of the ad be emailed to you before you discuss your qualifications. A competent professional won¿t not object, because having a copy in front of you as you speak maximizes their time and yours.

  32. Make your own keyword list. Cut and paste the descriptions of 5-10 ad that are close matches to the job you seek into a text editor. Search and delete all prepositions adjectives and common nouns. Make each remaining word a new line. Save as a text file.

    Open text file in a spreadsheet app. Sort column. Look at any words repeated 4 or more times, most are relevant keywords. Compare to your resume. The larger the number of relevant keywords in your resume that were in the close match ads, the better.

  33. There’s nothing new about this. When I was recruiting contract programmers back in the 1980’s, we used keywords. It’s just moved over to HR. Look at ads in the area that you want to get into and you’ll see what the keywords are. This is what is meant by “tailoring your resume to the position.” I agree that having the right keywords on a resume doesn’t mean that the candidate has practical experience (I have met people with the “perfect” credentials who could not do the job), but HR has to start somewhere.

  34. Lynn Herrick

    If you make sure the job you’re applying to is a good fit for your skills, talents and interests then you probably won’t need to worry about having the right keywords, because they will naturally be there.

    Targeting your keywords misses the point, which is to thoroughly research available opportunities to make sure you’re targeting jobs for which you’re a good match.