I recently posted about what happens to your resume once a hiring manager receives it. But applying online (directly from a job posting) is a bit different. In most cases, resumes submitted online go into the employer's Applicant Tracking System (ATS) before they reach a person. The ATS scans the resumes for job-related keywords. No keywords? No chance.
An ATS is a database-type program that helps employers store, organize, screen, sort, track, and reply to all the resumes they receive. Small organizations don't use ATSs yet, but all of the really big employers—and a growing number of mid-sized organizations—use these systems. For each job opening, the employer programs specific, job-related words and phrases into the ATS. Roughly, what happens is your resume goes into the ATS, gets scanned, and if it doesn't contain enough of those words and terms, the ATS smacks you with a generic rejection email and stores your resume in the dreaded "future consideration" bin. End of story.
In other words, using keywords to target the employer's hiring criteria is a good idea in general, but if you're applying online, it's really, really important.
How to Choose Keywords
The job description (and other, similar job descriptions from other employers) is your best source for figuring out what to use for keywords. Look for the main criteria and terminology in the job description, and mimic those words and phrases in your resume.
Susan P. Joyce has an excellent article about selecting keywords at job-hunt.org. Although she's talking about the use of resume keywords to help executive recruiters place you in an appropriate job, the same rules apply for ATS keywords. She defines keywords this way:
"Keywords are the nouns and noun phrases used by recruiters searching through applicant databases and Web job sites for resumes meeting the requirements on job descriptions ... for example, 'Assistant' and 'manager' are nouns. 'Administrative assistant' and 'marketing manager' are noun phrases."
You should read the whole article, but here are some of suggestions for the types of keywords you should include (not all will apply to everybody):
- Your job titles, past and present, and the title of the job you want.
- Names of tools (e.g., forklift), software (e.g., Microsoft Project), hardware (e.g., Mac), or techniques (e.g., forklift operation) you're qualified to use and that are specific to your job, profession, or industry.
- Relevant education and training, including degrees, diplomas, or applicable majors, coursework, licenses, certifications, etc.
- Common terms that describe the work you do, the products or services you're involved with, or the people who do your job.
- Professional and technical acronyms.
- Professional committee or association memberships.
- Trade shows and conferences you've attended or where you've presented papers.
The automated online application process, with its form-letter rejections and lack of any thoughtful review of your resume, can feel like yet another obstacle to getting hired. But don't let it demoralize you. Yes, there are hundreds of resumes being submitted for each job opening, but relax... most of them are craptastic!
Learn to work the system (the Applicant Tracking System, that is) and it can work in your favor. Pepper your resume with appropriate keywords and phrases, and the ATS will flag it and send it on to a member of the species homo sapiens, who will be wowed by your outstanding qualifications and call you for an interview.
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