"The Importance of Keywords in a Well-Written Résumé"
Karen Silins, CRW, CECC, CEIP, CTAC, CCA
A+ Career & Resume, LLC

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The following article is property of A+ Career & Résumé, L.L.C., unauthorized use or reproduction is strictly prohibited.

(This article appeared in the October 2001 PRWRA Online Newsletter, and the January/February 2002 issue of Resume Writers’ Digest)

To the best of my knowledge, when I began writing résumés during my college days 13+ years ago, the term "keywords" did not exist. Now when I go back and look at these early résumés, I realize that despite the lack of knowledge in keywords, they were indeed prevalent in my work. As the term became popular in the last several years, I found myself fielding questions from clients about keywords more frequently. However, the real defining moment, for me at least, was the day a client walked through my door and stated the need for a Scannable résumé with keywords. Up until that point, my thought process was more along the lines of "get the keywords in there someway, somehow." I knew they were effective, and would scatter them throughout my résumés and cover letters, but I would find myself "searching" for the right keywords instead of knowing the right keywords, and when to use them. Needless to say, the clients’ request made me realize the necessity of learning all I could about keywords and their use.

Enter Wendy Enelow’s book "1500+ KeyWords for $100,000+ Jobs." The first copy I purchased has long since been relegated to the trash heap due to excessive wear and tear, and I am now working on my second copy, purchased directly from Wendy at Career Masters Institute (yes, this is a blatant personal endorsement for her book and organization). Although the second copy is treated better than the first, the book is constantly utilized in my practice, and has become an invaluable tool in crafting virtually every résumé or cover letter produced.

First, let us define keywords (also known as industry buzz words). When a  client calls, or sits down for a consultation and starts asking about the need for keywords, I explain it very simply. Keywords are nouns and action verbs, whether singular words or phrases, which describe your skills and qualifications in order to convey a specific meaning. For instance, if your client is applying for a position as administrative assistant, some keywords or phrases might include office management, payroll, client communications, data entry, policies and procedures, document management, typing 60+ wpm, multi-line phone systems, general accounting, inventory control, accounts specialist, executive support, time management, etc.

Why is it important to have keywords in your clients’ résumés and cover  letters? In today’s competitive job market, potential employers, department managers, and human resource personnel are looking for any reason to dispose of a résumé they receive. Large companies receive hundreds (perhaps thousands) of résumés a week, and have a finite amount of time to look through them. Even small companies can be inundated with résumés for a particular position, and need to peruse them quickly to ascertain the worthiness of potential candidates. If the person in charge of reading or scanning résumés and cover letters sees the industry "buzz words" the job requires, your client has a better chance of making it to the "second look" pile, and therefore the likelihood of an interview. Though not an exclusive factor, keywords are without question, an integral part of the employer’s decision process.

How best do we go about using keywords to our clients’ advantage? First, it helps if you are familiar with the occupation, or range of occupations the client is pursuing. If you are unfamiliar with a particular occupation there are a myriad of ways to obtain information about it, and the keywords that apply Internet research using specific job titles or range of titles, classified ads (Internet job sites, newspapers, local job boards), The Occupational Outlook Handbook and website (www.bls.gov/oco/), O*Net, industry specific publications (you will most likely need to make a trip to your local library for this), professional organizations, such as PRWRA and Career Masters Institute, have e-lists/groups for such questions where other résumé writers  recommend resources (CMI actually has a keyword reference section available to members), books specifically about keywords (such as the one mentioned towards the beginning of this article), and so on.

Second, the keywords must be used appropriately. This is easier said than done. As I stated at the beginning of the article, in my early days as a resume writer, keywords were interspersed throughout my résumés and cover letters, but without full understanding of their use. In today’s competitive job market, a lack of keyword knowledge and usage will hurt your clients’ job search, and ultimately your business. It is essential that keywords be specifically targeted to maximize your clients’ employment opportunities, not just added here and there to make the résumé look more professional. 

When assessing a keyword’s appropriateness, there are several factors to take into account. Does it accurately describe your clients’ abilities? If your client, for instance, is an executive with expertise in transition management (meaning they can ensure smooth transitions during times of upper level management or company instability), and instead you state in the résumé they have expertise in turnaround management (the ability to take a company, department or product line from negative numbers into positive/profitable territory), you have given a totally different (and inaccurate) picture to the person looking at the résumé, which very well may preclude your client from further consideration.

Do the keywords relate to the clients employment objective? This may seem obvious, but for years I wrote résumés part-time, and worked full time as an administrative assistant/executive secretary, and part of my job was to screen the résumés for the boss, and make recommendations for interviews. Time after time I would see résumés with information (including keywords) totally unrelated to their objective stated or position sought, demonstrating the candidate to be unsuitable for the given position. I would often receive a follow-up call from this person inquiring about an interview, and would have to explain that their qualifications didn’t match the position available. Many times, the candidate could not understand why they were not being considered, when they actually had the requisite experience and a professionally written résumé. 

Are there related fields that have keywords that apply to my client, and the position they seek? For example, sales and marketing occupations often have a customer service aspect to them, so considering keywords from both occupations could be helpful to your client.

Did you place keywords in both the cover letter and résumé? While our main focus may be to write the résumé, we do our clients a great disservice if keywords are not incorporated in the cover letter. In my conversations with human resources personnel, the need for keywords in cover letters is constantly reiterated. Often, a potential employer reads the cover letter as their initial screening process for a position. Without keywords in your clients’ cover letter, the résumé could be tossed into the round file without a second look.

A range of keywords should be used in both the résumé and cover letter! Much of my business consists of clients’ whose résumés were written by a professional that is either no longer in business, or somehow cannot be reached. When I scan these old résumés in order to estimate cost or make suggestions, I am struck by how many suffer from the excessive repetition of only a few keywords. A prime example is customer service, a phrase so broad in its context that, by its definition, tends to be overused. I have reworked an actual clients résumé in which the aforementioned phrase was repeated 23 times in the résumé/cover letter combination. That constitutes overkill.

The résumé and cover letter should contain varied synonymous keywords highlighting aspects of your clients experience directly related to the career objective, thus providing maximum "keyword effect." This is especially important for résumés and cover letters that will be scanned, as the more keywords you can utilize from the scanning database, the better your clients prospects.

While just scratching the surface on keywords and their use, I have hopefully given some of you more detailed information on the importance of utilizing them in a well-written résumé. Whether taken as an introductory look at a new concept, or a refresher for a seasoned pro, it is my goal that these observations and experiences can help you in assisting a client find the position of their dreams.


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