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Advice / Job Search / Resumes

How to Pick Resume Keywords That'll Get Your Job Application Past the ATS

Submitting online applications can feel like throwing rocks into the abyss. You don’t quite know where to aim or where they’ll land. And too often, when you click submit, all you get in return is an automated email that your materials have been received. We’ve all been there.

The problem is, the majority of resumes never even land in the hands of a human. They’re automatically stored in an applicant tracking system—a software application used by companies to search through thousands of resumes quickly to determine which ones are the best fit for a position. That’s right, your carefully crafted and hand-tailored resume’s getting reviewed by bots.

Companies adopted applicant tracking systems (ATS) because of their efficiency. Instead of a person reading every resume individually—commonly hundreds of resumes per open position—an ATS can scan an entire database of resumes from keywords and criteria at once, freeing up recruiters to focus on the top-ranking candidates.

Still, while the ATS might efficient, it’s not always accurate. That means even highly-qualified candidates might slip through the cracks if they don’t have the “right” keywords. Unfair? Yes. Workable? Also, yes.

Our team at Jobscan has researched the top 10 ATS used by thousands of companies, and tested them against various resume keywords, formats, file types, and more. And all that research has paid off—here’s everything you need to know about optimizing your resume keywords and beating the bots.

1. An ATS Wants a Specific Match

Dozens of different applicant tracking systems exist, but all of them perform the same basic functions. They compare the content of your resume to keyword searches initiated by a recruiter.

When you submit your resume, the ATS parses the information and stores it in its database. Then, recruiters can search for resumes submitted to a specific job and the system will pull up the resumes with the most keyword matches. So, even if you applied for one role, your resume might populate for a different position down the road that more closely—at least, according to the machines—matches your skill set.

2. Therefore, ATS Want Specific Keywords

For your application to rank highly for the position you want, your resume needs to contain the right keywords. So, your best bet is to tailor the content to the exact way the job description is written—including plural words, abbreviations, and numbers (e.g., note whether the company spells it nonprofit or non-profit; three years of experience or 3 years of experience). Yes, adjusting your wording for every application takes more time and effort than sending a generic resume, but as you can see, it’s well worth it.

(While this should go without saying, you should never lie in an attempt to beat the ATS. While you might fool the bots, a human being will eventually catch you. So don’t be that person who thinks, “Well, once the hiring manager see how qualified I am in other ways, he won’t mind.”)

Because the ATS is not as intuitive as a human, you need to give special attention to the following four things.

First, echo the phrasing from the job description on your resume: If the position calls for “CRM software,” your resume must use those exact words. If you list “Salesforce,” an ATS will not recognize that as a match.

Second, don’t use a generic keyword list you found online. Instead, take the time to review the specific job description keywords you’re applying for.

Third, when it comes to acronyms, include both the spelled-out version and the shortened one—because an ATS doesn’t recognize (even very common) abbreviations. For example: It won’t necessarily know that “MBA” is the same as “Master of Business Administration.” And—this is key—to balance between the ATS and human eyes, consider writing the abbreviation in parenthesis like so: Master of Business Administration (MBA).

Fourth—this one’s easy—always write out the entire year, (e.g., “2015” not “’15”).

3. Focus on Hard Skills

An ATS primarily looks for hard skills when it scans your resume. Soft skills will be assessed later in your cover letter and during the interview, so prioritizing them on your resume won’t earn you too many points.

For example, commonly used resume keywords and keyword phrases, such as “dynamic,” “team player,” and “self-starter,” are not quantifiable—so recruiters don’t bother to search for them when sourcing candidates. Instead, focus on your technical skills, credentials, position titles, and software or tools that are relevant in the industry—because those are the keywords they’ll be checking for.

4. Use Resume Keyword Tools

At Jobscan, we’ve researched the top 10 ATS used by thousands of companies and identified the common scoring and ranking patterns. These tools help people compare their resumes against the actual job descriptions, and make suggestions about which relevant, contextual keywords your resume is missing and score how well it matches the job description.

In other words, picking keywords can be tricky (even with the tips above), so lean on technology to double-check you chose the right ones.

Now, the biggest thing to keep in mind after reading all of this is that if you play your cards right, your resume will end up in human hands. And those human hands do not speak in keyword. So make sure that your resume has all the right keywords, but is also readable.

Photo of man typing courtesy of Shutterstock.