Tailoring Your Resume
How the Right Keywords Can Make You Stand Out

Meet the Expert
Jennifer Johnson Operations Manager, ZipJob View Bio
Judith Garfinkel MA, ACC, CLPC, CFP Owner & Career Coach, Move Into Change View Bio
Written by:
Alix Cirac View Bio

According to Capterra’s Recruiting Software Impact Report, 75 percent of job recruiters are now using software to identify and pick out keywords in resumes to match them to specific job descriptions. Cookie-cutter resumes with general information are no longer cutting it, and could cost you a job. Fortunately, there are ways to tailor a resume to specific positions, industries, or job levels to ensure you’ll make it past the initial screening. Find out how to personalize your resume to increase your chances of landing your dream job.

How to Use Keywords on Your Resume

Resumes are now scannable by software, so it’s easy to imagine robots as the first gatekeepers to careers. Applicants should identify industry- or position-specific words or phrases that will help their resume make it past the first stage of application.

While some applicants don’t want to use overrated words that seem contrived, it’s important to use words that are specific to the job to which you’re applying. “Sometimes candidates reject the idea of using ‘buzzwords’ because they don’t want to sound unauthentic,” says Jennifer Johnson, operations manager at Zipjob. “But mirroring the terms that hiring managers are using will significantly increase [an applicant’s] chances of landing an interview.”

What’s the Applicant Tracking System?

The Applicant Tracking System, or ATS, refers to software that hiring managers use to weed out resumes that don’t fit the parameters of the job description. “The ATS can sometimes feel like getting past the Emerald City guard in the movie The Wizard of Oz,” says Judy Garfinkel, founder of the coaching practice Move Into Change. “Keywords can help you get past the first round by landing your resume in the pile the ATS determines fits the job description.”

ATS saves recruiters and hirers time by sifting through applications and pairing resumes with job descriptions. However, there are some negative effects of which applicants should be aware. If a resume isn’t formatted properly and if it doesn’t exhibit enough keywords, it will never even make it through to a human hirer. Software can’t appreciate creative style or design either, so while a resume might look great, that won’t make a difference if it doesn’t have the right content.

According to Johnson, most ATS systems delete over 75% of resumes due to formatting errors and/or lack of keywords.

How Can You Identify & Use the Right Keywords?

Each potential job has a specific description that applicants can look at to determine if they’re a good fit. Applicants should not only consider the description in relation to their own skills, but should also notice specific words in the description that they can use in their resume. This is the first step to identifying keywords.

Here are other tips job-seekers can use to identify the right keywords:

Check out other, similar job descriptions.

“It’s possible to identify keywords by looking at several job descriptions for the same type of job you’re looking at,” Garfinkel says. “You will notice industry-related words that are repeated.”

Pay attention to skills sets and industry knowledge, too.

Descriptors like “self-motivator” and “team player” are great if they appear in the description, but also pay attention to any industry-specific software knowledge or skill sets (customer service, management, etc.) that can be added if they’re being sought in the description.

Spell out acronyms and jargon.

According to Resume Genius, it’s not enough to use abbreviations or acronyms. Instead, spell them out all the way, too. For instance, one should use “QBO (Quickbooks Online)” if applying for an accounting job.

Don’t try to outsmart the bot.

Some applicants have tried to generalize their keywords to anything that could possibly be relevant to a given job description in order to meet up with the ‘bot’s’ expectations. But Resume Genius says that ATSs are becoming more understanding of context, and even if it beats the bot, it won’t impress the human hirer on the other end. Take your time to figure out the best words for each job, and use them efficiently and genuinely throughout.

Keywords aren’t just useful when it comes to an initial screening. Once the resume beats the ATS, it still has to hold up to the human recruiter considering it. Hiring managers or recruiters have often written the job description themselves and are very familiar with the requirements it entails. They likely have a vision for their ideal candidate, too. Once a resume passes the first step, the challenge then becomes showing the recruiter that they should hire you over similarly qualified candidates.

“If the job description appears to stress teamwork, for example, tailoring your resume to pull out examples of successful teamwork in a previous job is a necessity,” Garfinkel says. “If you research the company and find that it has a company wide initiative that relates to something you’ve done – bullet it on your resume. And also, if the company has a cause they support publicly, make sure to put your volunteering on your resume.”

Where Should You Use Keywords on Your Resume?

Although keywords can and should be used wherever they are most appropriate on your resume, using them in key places can help hiring managers spot them more easily. Here’s where keywords can have a lot of impact:

The Introduction or Summary

The introduction to a resume is sometimes a trap for generic jargon. Smart applicants will use the opportunity to reference certain examples of success they’ve had within the specific position or industry that they’re applying for. They’ll also employ the keywords that will show the reader they understand the job description.

“Notice how they are specifically used in the job description you are applying for at that moment and make sure the important ones are deployed in the top half of your resume,” says Garfinkel.

Skills or Core Qualifications Sections

The skills listed on a resume have to be specific to the position and the type of employee that the company is looking for. “We recommend having a ‘Core Qualifications’ section in a resume that showcases your capabilities for the hiring manager,” says Johnson. “This section should be all keyword driven, and should be modified as needed to better target the job you are searching for.”

Tailoring Your Resume Based on Your Experience

It’s important to note that sometimes your work experience may make it necessary to tweak or move sections on your resume to highlight your best attributes. Here’s what to do in specific situations.

What To Do If:

You Have a Long Work History

If you’ve had a long and varied career, including every job and position you’ve held may end up hurting your chances more than helping. “It is not always advisable to include everything you’ve done in your career if it doesn’t support your job target,” Johnson says. “Your resume should have a clear and concise message for the hiring manager; it should have a streamlined purpose and state who you are as a professional.”

Garfinkel agrees. “What you leave out is just as important as what you include and highlight.” Stick with the details relevant to the job you’re applying for or that highlight skills you think are important. Save the rest for another resume or your LinkedIn profile.

Your Education Isn’t Related to the Job Field

Hiring managers are likely only interested in education if it relates directly to the job description. Many people have degrees that are in a different field than the one they are currently pursuing. If this is the case, consider moving the education section of your resume down to the bottom and putting more relatable information up near the top.

However, related education that is directly tied to the position should be highlighted. Applicants with an educational certificate that is directly related to a position (e.g. special certificates in human resources for a job in recruiting management) should spotlight that near the top of the resume.

You’re Making a Career Change

If you’re changing careers, you might need to highlight different sections than a more traditional applicant. “It’s different for each applicant…a person making a mid- career pivot may need to have a Relevant Experience section bulleted with achievements and highlighting transferable skills, and a separate chronology to show reliable work history,” says Garfinkel. “A good job search coach/resume writer will be able to provide a customized format.”

Tailoring Your Resume to Your Field or Position

The field and position to which you’re applying should be considered when tailoring a resume. “I can’t stress enough how important it is to do your research into the job type, the specific job and company,” says Garfinkle. “Really, most people need to do more research than they think. The question of what sets oneself apart is industry specific and job specific because what will highlight you in one industry or position, may not in another.”

This is not only true of keywords and acronyms, but also of design and style. “I don’t know who said, ‘Know your audience,’ but it applies here,” says Garfinkel. “I recently did a complete overhaul of a resume because my client was applying for an in-house position at a higher level in a pretty conservative field and had complained that they didn’t take him seriously. When I looked at his brightly colored resume, I knew that it would hurt his chances. That resume would have been perfect for someone in a creative job in a less traditional field.”

Below are some examples of different positions and industries along with some ways to customize related resumes.

Managerial Position

Managerial positions can be in any industry, and applicants should consider both the position type as well as the industry when tailoring their resume.

Keep it simple

“We recommend choosing a format that is clean and easily digestible by both the ATS software programs and the person reading it,” Johnson says.” Keeping it clean and simple will translate to the reader keeping it that way, too; too many colors or strange fonts won’t be taken seriously for a managerial role.

Know the role

Management positions come in any industry, so make sure you’re matching up your keywords to the industry itself, not just the management role. “If you are seeking Marketing Manager roles, you may notice the job postings generally use terms like market share, brand visibility, product placement, customer loyalty, social & digital media tools, etc.” says Johnson. “You would then update your resume to make sure these same terms are used properly according to your own experiences.”

Creative or Design Position

Resumes for creative or design positions may not need the same level of formality that a more conservative or traditional career might require, but they still need to meet certain standards to get job-seekers through the door.

Focus on content, not creativity

Jobs in positions of design or creativity may seem the place where a creative resume can help hirers take notice of an employee. But resumes still have to pass ATS and keywords are still critical. A creative design on a resume may demonstrate to the reader that the applicant has a pertinent talent, but they’re really looking for clear information. Make sure you’re addressing the key requirements of the position and save the extra design flair for your portfolio.

Don’t forget technical skills

Although talent and creativity are very important in design fields, hiring managers are likely also looking for competence in industry-specific software and programs. Don’t forget to include information about which programs you’re comfortable using.

Include your portfolio

Most hiring managers for creative positions will want to see examples of an applicant’s work. Including a link to your online portfolio will help hiring managers easily review your body of work. Here’s where design and creativity will be most appreciated.

Sales or Marketing Position

Sales and marketing professionals must exhibit certain strengths. Chief among them are written communication and clear messaging. An applicant’s resume is the first opportunity they have to really demonstrate these skills, as well as any others that are called for in the job description.

Know your target audience

As a sales or marketing professional, you should be able to identify your target audience. Show those skills in your resume. What kind of sales or marketing position is this? Is it management-based? Inbound and inhouse marketing or more traditional? Is it for a marketing team with a corporation or a is it for a small marketing firm? All of these answers will dictate how you complete your resume and what kind of information you can and should include.

Get to the point

Be concise and clear. Marketers are supposed to be able to convey a clear message in a very succinct way. Three-page long resumes are probably not the way to go when it can be done more cleanly in one page.

Pay attention to formatting

Hubspot suggests thinking of your resume as your own personal ad. It should catch the eye and deliver information easily. But over-formatting can make things tough to read and can annoy hirers. Find a nice balance between the two.

Veteran Resume

Although veterans have likely developed many useful skills and have a huge list of accomplishments from their military career, it can be difficult to translate that experience to the civilian world. Here are a few things to keep in mind when writing a veteran resume:

Skip the jargon

Unless you’re applying for a job with a company that primarily works with veterans, a civilian hiring manager likely won’t be familiar with military terms. Beyond the basics, like your military title, avoid using military jargon to describe your experience.

Translate your military experience to civilian skills

Focus on skills you’ve developed that are applicable to civilian jobs, such as teamwork, problem-solving skills, or leadership. The U.S. Department of Veterans offers a handy skills translator to help veterans convert military skills to civilian language.

Don’t forget awards

Although military awards and certifications may not be directly applicable to a civilian career, they can highlight a job-seekers dedication, skills, and accomplishments. Highlight any honors you’re proud of on your resume.

Your First Job

Writing your first resume can be very exciting. Some job seekers may find it daunting because of their lack of work experience in comparison to older candidates, but this isn’t necessary. First-time job hunters can find great success in securing careers if they focus on the right parts of their resume.

Highlight skills learned off the job

Even if first-time job seekers are thin on experience, they’ve likely volunteered, interned, or participated in extracurricular activities. Focus on matching attributes earned within these experiences to the keywords sought by the job description. For example, you might include that you were captain of the volleyball team in experience and that you are a skilled motivator if teamwork and group dynamics are included in the job description.

Emphasize your education

More experienced resume-writers might move their education down to the bottom to focus on their experience up top. But new job seekers should focus on their education first, especially if they’ve made especially high grades. It’s often recommended to include a high GPA (3.5 and up) and any advanced diploma information in the education section, too, especially from a recognized university or program.

Focus on soft skills

While you may not have acquired many hard skills (like proficiency in industry-specific software, etc.), you likely have developed soft skills like problem-solving, time management, or multitasking through your experience as a student. Hiring managers value these kinds of skills, which are beneficial in any position.

Resources

Potential job applicants can find additional resources all over the web to help them create the perfect tailored resume. Below are just a few additional places to seek help.