What are the keywords and key phrases you need on your resume?
Resumes and cover letters need keywords and phrases to appeal to Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) scans as well as human readers. Without the correct keywords, your resume will not get noticed; it may even get rejected by a computer before a hiring manager sees it.
In this guide, we’ll outline what keywords and phrases are and exactly how to use them to your advantage while applying for a job. Later in the post, we’ll also cover the best hack for getting your cover letter and resume noticed using keywords and phrases.
What are resume keywords and phrases?
Keywords are specific words or phrases on resumes and cover letters that catch the attention of the hiring manager or help Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) understand who you are. Keywords on a resume are crucial for two reasons: first, to get your resume past an ATS scan, and second for when a human reviews it. ATS scans delete over 75% of resumes so you need to optimize your resume with that in mind. Not to worry, we'll lay out exactly how to use keywords to pass that scan!
How to include keywords on a resume
For example, say a resume for a bookkeeper has the following list of keywords throughout the resume:
The ATS may develop a resume summary like the following based on the usage of those keywords:
This ATS-generated report gives weight to an applicant’s industry, skills, and experience. This report has identified Accounting to be a key skill, with bookkeeping as a lesser skill. Management experience was identified, but the years of experience may not match up to the job titles.
An ATS may generate a skills-specific report, too, that identifies your top skills as reflected by your resume. Here is an example from another candidate in IT:
Keywords are instrumental to Applicant Tracking Systems. Your keywords will determine how these systems view your skills, experience level, and industry: in other words, your qualifications. More than 90% of big employers use something similar to filter out unqualified candidates.
You can see how your resume performs in an ATS scan with our Free Resume Review.
What keywords should you use on your resume?
You want to ensure that you include the correct keywords for your industry on your resume. The first thing you should do is make a list of keywords and phrases that you usually see in job descriptions related to your industry. You can also look at resume examples for your job title.
You should include all your certifications and the major qualifications that are listed in the job description. For example, a nursing position usually requires a RN certification and a bachelor’s degree. You would need to use resume keywords such as Bachelors, BA, RN and Registered Nurse.
You should spell out the acronyms because the ATS scan may be looking for “BA” or “Bachelors” so it’s always a good idea to include both.
Example of using keywords and phrases on a resume:
An accountant may include the following keywords and phrases to use in a resume as they appear in many job descriptions:
CPA (Certified Public Accountant)
As you see above, these are common words that appear in most accounting job listings. Even qualified applicants may be rejected because they don’t include the right resume keywords. You should go through a few job postings and see what words come up frequently and include those keywords in your resume.
Types of keywords to use in your resume
Here are the keyword groups you need to include on your resume.
Certifications and licenses
Soft skills: time management, communication, effective listening
Action keywords: achieved, implemented, increased
We’ll get into these groups in more detail further down in this post.
How to include soft skill and experience keywords on a resume
You also want to add in some soft skills on your resume. Soft skills are personal traits that allow someone to work effectively and efficiently. They include things like communication, time management, problem solving, and teamwork.
You can check out this post for more information on hard and soft skills to include on a resume.
Even though an Applicant Tracking System focuses more on technical skills, it also weights these soft skills. Additionally, when your resume gets into the hands of a hiring manager, that person will be looking for your soft skills.
There are certain soft skills that are important for each industry. For example, good communication, time management, detail oriented, and confidence are very important for a salesperson. An accountant may have different soft skills that are important like problem solving, being analytical, and being organized.
Resume Keywords List Example
Let’s put this information into action with an example of how to include keywords on a resume. We’ll take Megan who is a nurse and show you how and where she applied these important keywords.
So here are some resume keyword examples:
Physical Rehabilitation Nursing
As you see, most of these resume keywords are hard skills, also known as technical skills. These keywords will probably be found in most nursing job ad descriptions.
We included technical keywords related to the industry as well as some soft skills, like compassion. The final step is to include action verbs which are also important words to use in a resume.
Action keywords to use in a resume
As with soft skills, action verbs aren’t weighted as heavily as hard technical skills but they do have some bearing on your overall ATS report.
Action verbs on a resume are more important during a human review. When used correctly, they bring power and strength to your experience. A CareerBuilder survey of over 2,200 hiring managers found what action verbs they liked to see on a resume.
List of action words to use on a resume:
These are just a few examples of resume keywords you could use. Here is a great list of dozens more action keywords to include on your resume.
Where to include keywords on a resume
You should include keywords at every opportunity that makes sense on your resume. They should be included in your summary, work experience, and resume skills sections. If you're including information that doesn't include keywords relevant to your job search or industry, take another look and consider how to better optimize that space.
Remember that the ATS is scanning your resume to see if you have the core qualifications that the job posting is asking for. The candidates that the ATS feels are a good match are sent forward to the hiring managers for human review, so that is the primary goal while writing a resume.
Including a core competencies section is the simplest way to utilize keywords on a resume. This section allows you to easily swap keywords in and out when applying for different positions.
Example of a keyword optimized core competencies section
Here is a good example of a resume utilizing keywords via a core competencies section:
How many keywords should you include on a resume?
There is no correct number of keywords to use but remember that a human will also review your resume. Your resume should be written human-focused and ATS-informed. Include the keywords that are found in the job descriptions of the positions you’re targeting, but don't go overboard.
For more information on ATS-informed resume writing, look at our additional tips on getting your resume past applicant tracking systems.
Some job seekers make the mistake of over-stuffing their resume with keywords in hopes of "hacking" or "outsmarting" an ATS. This is a bad idea and will cost you far more opportunities than it offers.
Including keywords on a cover letter
Your cover letter is also scanned for keywords, so use it as a place for even more keyword optimization!
One common mistake is that many people use the same keywords from their resume on the cover letter. While you do want to mention the position and some of your qualifications, make sure you keep it to a minimum. A few of the same keywords won’t do any harm but, look for new keywords to address instead.
Take a look at the following example of keywords on the cover letter.
As you see there are only a handful of keywords in the cover letter. Keep the usage of keywords short and try not to repeat the same exact words on your resume. You should check out our awesome article on writing the perfect cover letter for more information on this topic!
Tailoring resume and cover letter keywords for each job
The last thing we’re going to discuss is the best method for really getting your resume past the ATS and into the hands of a hiring manager.
You should always customize each resume you submit to the specific job listing. No, we don’t mean writing a new resume for each posting; what you should do is switch out some of the exact keywords from the posting into your resume.
You may see that you are qualified for the position but the words they use in the description aren’t on your resume (yet). This is where you can switch out some words to include the ones you see in the listing.
For example, if a graphic designer job description says its desired qualifications are:
Knowledge of Adobe Illustrator
Strong image retouching abilities
Dynamic individual who has energy and enthusiasm
Assuming you have the qualifications, skills, and experience, you should add some of these keywords into your resume if they’re not already there.
Some of the keywords you would want to add in your resume are:
Energy or enthusiasm
Remember, you don’t want to copy every keyword but you should definitely mention a good number of them on the resume.
5 quick resume and cover letter keyword tips:
1. Include industry specific keywords
Always include keywords that are common in your industry. This should include certifications, licenses, and programs you’re familiar with. This ensures that the system understands you are a match for the position you’re applying to.
2. Avoid keyword stuffing
Avoid using too many keywords in hopes of getting through an ATS. This is considered “keyword stuffing” and may set off a red flag to the ATS (or irritate the person in charge of interview scheduling).
3. Use action verbs
The use of action verbs can please both the ATS and a hiring manager. Be sure to use action words as we outlined above.
4. Find the right keywords
The best place to find the right resume keyword ideas are in the job description itself. Look for both hard and soft skills that are desired in the job description and include those on your resume.
5. Tailor your resume keywords for each position
As we mentioned above, you want to customize each resume to the job listing to increase your chances of being seen. Find the best keywords in the listing and use them naturally throughout your resume.
Keyword optimization on your resume and cover letter is an underutilized way to get your resume noticed. The use of these automated resume scanners has skyrocketed, and job seekers need to adapt by writing resumes differently. If you need more help, check out our service page with our packages and prices.
As always, we wish you good luck with your job search!
The ZipJob team is made up of professional writers located across the USA and Canada with backgrounds in HR, recruiting, career coaching, job placement, and professional writing.