Were you hoping I had a contrarian view on the prevailing pro-keyword consensus? If so, I’m sorry to disappoint, but the short answer is: VERY IMPORTANT! So important, in fact, I’ve taken to calling it the Tyranny of Keywords.
Simply put, if the resume you submit doesn’t contain enough keywords that reflect the skills and knowledge areas in the job ad, you probably won’t make even the first cut. All that trouble for nothing.
So, should you just load up? Stuff in as many keywords as you can? Nope. Not such a good idea. Employers know that many applicants are onto the keyword game. You may sail through the computer screening with the stuffing method, but when a human looks at your resume, it will read like a keyword dump.
Caveat: You do need a resume with all your most appropriate skills for job prospecting when there is no written job ad. For example, when a friend says, “Send me your resume and I’ll circulate it around in case someone is hiring.”
For all jobs with a written ad, write a separate resume and cover letter for each job. One size does not fit all. Employers want to see experience in as many of the skills and knowledge areas as possible.
Tips on keyword tailoring of your resume:
- Print out the job ad. Then underline and number all the skill sets listed in each job ad, e.g. “create”, or “implement, or “monitor”. Also the knowledge areas: “supply chain”, or “Chinese trade policies”. They are the keywords of this particular job. (Note you should be tailoring each resume to each job ad — along with tailoring your cover letter.)
Many employers scan your resume and use a keyword-based Applicant Tracking System (ATS) to find the best matches between the job they are filling and the applicants they invite for interviews.
- Then think hard about which skills and knowledge areas you can honestly claim to have experience with. You don’t have to be an expert. But you should have at least a little experience. (Watch out, women! We are — in my experience — less assertive about this than men.)
- Next, write a summary for the top of your resume, including at least 10-15 of these keywords. (BTW, your brief cover letter should hit the highlights of the summary, so you’ve done some of your cover letter thinking while writing each customized summary. A nice two-fer.) Sometimes you only have to change a few things from your last summary; but sometimes it needs to be a total revamp, depending on those keywords you highlighted.
- Be methodical. Go down your numbered keywords and try to think “Have I ever done that, or something close?”
- Finally, turn to the rest of the resume and include bullets that “prove” what you say in the summary. Prune out bullets that are irrelevant to the specific job.
Include mention of at least one activity or accomplishment that supports each claimed key skill or knowledge in your summary. And often — not always — use the same exact keywords as the ad uses. What if the ATS isn’t programmed for synonyms?
The result should be a resume that shows that you have most (probably not all) of the skills and knowledge areas the employer hopes to hire for. Congrats. You thus pass both the Applicant Tracking System keyword weed-out, and the more discriminating human assessment that comes next, IF you get enough points on the automated keyword screening.
What if you are applying for jobs where you don’t have at least most of the qualifications? Don’t get your hopes too high. And really, why bother? Unless, of course, you know someone at the organization who will tell them how talented you are. That can make up for otherwise important key skills.
Bottom line: skill and knowledge keywords are really important in today’s hiring market. Ignore them at your peril.