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The Value of Keywords

Jill Berman Levy, Director of Member and Chapter Services

In our electronic age, it is naïve to believe that each word of your resume is carefully read by a human resources professional who then summarizes it and carefully files it for consideration now or in the future – FAT CHANCE! 

The fact is that today, virtually all companies use technology to review and assess resumes, focusing on a search for keyword within a resume to determine initial fit against their position requirements. Because they are inundated by resumes from job-seekers, either in response to a specific posting or resumes that simply come in “over the transom”, employers digitize the resumes, placing them in keyword-searchable databases, and use software to search those databases for specific keywords that relate to job vacancies they are looking to fill. In fact, the National Resume Writers' Association estimates that more than 80 percent of resumes are searched for job-specific keywords.

If you apply for a job with a company that searches databases for keywords, and your resume doesn't have the “magic” keywords the company seeks for the person who fills that job, you are pretty much guaranteed not to obtain that all-important interview.  But how do you know what the “magic” words are?  And do they remain consistent or do they change by company or position?

What Keywords to Use

We’ve all heard that you want to use action-oriented verbs in your resume – managed, coordinated, lead, designed, developed, for instance – and that advice is still valid. But the use of nouns -- the "what" that you performed -- is now just as important. These underlined nouns are the keywords that relate to the action indicated by the verbs:

  • Conducted cross-functional analysis of safety across departmental lines.
  • Developed and implemented return-to-work campaigns.
  • Managed incident database and benefits updates and upgrades.
  • Created requests for proposals (RFP) for insurance acquisition.

Keywords can fall into a variety of categories:

  • job-specific/profession- specific/industry-specific skills,
  • technological terms and descriptions of technical expertise,
  • job titles,
  • certifications,
  • awards received,
  • leadership roles in professional organizations,
  • publications authored,
  • industry buzzwords and jargon,
  • degrees and names of colleges,
  • company names,
  • terms that tend to impress, such as "Fortune 500,"
  • and even area codes or city names for narrowing down searches geographically.

The method that career experts most commonly mention is simply to read employment ads – lots and lots of employment ads -- to see what keywords are repeatedly mentioned in association with a given job title.

How To Use Keywords

The prevailing wisdom for several years was that you should have a section at the beginning of your resume with a listing of keywords with the idea that the search software would only search the initial part of your resume.  It still makes some sense to front-load the resume with keywords, partly to ensure you get as many as possible into the document and partly because your resume may be screened by a human (either subsequent to or in lieu of machine scanning) who will only review the first paragraph or so.

But, it really make sense to utilize keywords throughout your resume. And instead of a mere list of words, you can utilize a summary section that presents keywords in context, more fully describing the activities and accomplishments in which the keywords surfaced in your work. This contextual collection of keywords that describes your professional self in a nutshell will certainly hold the interest of human readers better than a list of words will.

Keywords can also be weighted and your resume ranked according to how many times certain words that the hiring manager believes indicates qualification appear in your resume. If your document contains few or none of those weighted keywords, the software will “toss” your resume. Those with the greatest "keyword density" are more likely to be chosen for the next round of screening, this time by a human.

You may be starting to get the idea that a good resume, utilizing effective keywords,  must be specifically tailored the each job you're applying to. Research indicates that resumes that aren't focused on a position’s specific requirements aren't competitive. Does that really mean you need to create a separate resume for every job you apply for? Yes and no. It's not realistic to totally revamp your resume for every opening. But you can – and should -- tweak portions of your resume to best reflect the specific skills and qualifications for that particular job, thus adjusting some of your more important keywords.  The “shotgun” approach to job hunting simply doesn’t work anymore – sending our hundreds of resumes hoping that one or more might “hit” isn’t nearly as productive as sending out a few targeted resumes, specific to openings that exist and focused on presenting yourself as the best possible candidate for that particular job.

2009 Risk and Insurance Management Society, Inc.
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