Resume Keywords: How to Find the Right Words to Beat the ATS

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Keywords are the foundation of a strong resume. Learn how to choose the right ones and improve your chances of landing an interview.

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Your resume is the gateway to a new career and professional advancement. To make sure your resume puts your best foot forward, you’ll need to impress not only hiring managers but application filtering software, too. 

Today, approximately 75 percent of employers and 98.8 percent of Fortune 500 companies use an applicant tracking system (ATS) and/or recruiting management system (RMS) to streamline their hiring process [1,2]. These systems track applicants at every stage of the hiring process, manage applicant pools, and filter applications using keywords.  

Unfortunately, while these systems make recruiters’ lives easier, they also make many applicants’ job searches harder. A 2021 Harvard Business School study found that 88 percent of employers believed their automated applicant systems filtered out qualified high-skill candidates simply because they didn’t match the exact job description. A staggering 94 percent of employers, said the system filtered out qualified middle-skilled candidates for the same reason [2]. 

Resume keywords are the key to improving your application’s chances of being seen by an employer. In this article, you will learn how the ATS and RMS  comb resumes and learn tips for identifying the keywords that could help you land your next job.  

ATS resume keywords

To use keywords appropriately on your resume, it is important to first understand the systems that scan your resume and how they do so. 

What are an ATS and RMS? 

An ATS is a workflow efficiency tool used by hiring managers to keep track of job applications across numerous platforms during every stage of the hiring process.

The ATS is often complemented by an RMS, which allows recruiters to manage hiring activities, such as creating talent pools and scheduling interviews [2]. In effect, these systems help employers ease the burden of managing and sifting through large applicant pools through the use of automation. 

How does an ATS work? 

An ATS/RMS filters applicants by specified criteria, such as a specific credential or keyword. To find this information, the system turns your resume into plain text and scans it for the stated criteria. Afterward, it compares your resume to other resumes and ranks it according to the search query [3]. When this occurs, some resumes are highlighted, while others are effectively hidden. 

Unfortunately, it is not possible to know the exact criteria that a hiring manager will use to filter resumes. While some may focus on specific skills like project management, others might focus on specific credentials, such as a bachelor’s degree. Some might pick something else entirely. That’s where ATS resume keywords come in.

Why do you need ATS resume keywords?

Putting ATS keywords on your resume is important because these systems use them to rank your job application. 

Remember, the ATS/RMS turns your resume into plain text in order to scan it and identify keywords that match its search intent. In effect, the system is simply reducing your resume to a collection of words and focusing only on those keywords that exactly match its criteria. 

Some common filters that recruiters use to rank applications include the following:

  • Education 

  • Qualifications

  • Job title

  • Technical skills 

Get your resume ATS ready

When an ATS or RMS turn your resume into plain text, some elements may not transfer and effectively hide them from view. 

To make sure your resume is ready for an ATS, career experts advise that you do the following [3]: 

• Use a simple resume design and format

• Avoid using graphics or unusual fonts

• Clearly label resume sections with bold text

• Submit your resume as a word document. While some systems can read PDFs, not all can. Word documents tend to be a safer bet. 

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How to use (and find) resume keywords

The best place to find the most important keywords to include on your resume is the original job posting itself. Typically, recruiters use job description wording to filter job applications. 

Read more: How to Get a Job with No Experience: A Job Seeker’s Guide

That said, don’t simply stuff your resume with keywords. Instead, you should mirror the phrasing used in the job description to describe the skills and experience you already possess in a natural way.  Read on to find out how you can do it yourself. 

1. Scan a job posting for keywords.

The first step is to look at a job listing that interests you and identify the skills and experience that match your own. To keep track of your matches, you should copy-paste the job description into a separate document and highlight them so you can easily reference them later.   

For example, consider the following qualifications from a real job listing advertising a data analyst position. To identify relevant keywords and phrases, the applicant might go through the job description and mark the skills and experience that match their own by putting them in bold. 

(Note:  While this example only focuses on the qualifications section, you should do this for the whole job description. Often, employers include other key details elsewhere in a job posting.)  

Basic Qualifications:

  • 3+ years of experience working with databases, writing SQL, Excel, and Salesforce

  • Demonstrated experience synthesizing data and building reports

  • Experience in a technology industry or comparable fast-paced industry

  • Demonstrated experience in a commercial team with a focus on clients/partner needs.

Preferred Qualifications:

  • Bachelor’s degree in Finance, Statistics, Economics, Data Analytics, Business or related

  • Experience with R, Python notebooks and Google sheets is a plus

  • Expertise in any or all of these areas is a huge plus: Technology (ex. computer science), Business (ex. marketing, finance), and Health (ex. patient care, pharma)

  • Systems thinker: can figure out how data flows today, and how it should be configured to be most useful to business partners

2. Divide keywords into skills and experience.

Now that you have identified the skills and experience on the job description that match your own, you should copy-paste them into a list organized by “work experience” and “skills.” The purpose here is to create a list that includes the exact phrasing used in the job description because the system will likely search for matching terms using the same language. 

For example, the data analyst from the last section might create a chart that looks like this: 

Work experienceSkills
• experience working with databases • synthesizing data • building reports experience in a commercial team with a focus on clients/partner needs • Bachelor’s degree in business• SQL • Excel • Salesforce • Python notebooks • Teamwork • Systems thinker

3. Tailor your resume. 

Once you have organized your work experience and skills, you can begin tailoring your resume using the resume keywords you identified. During this phase, you want to update your resume to include the exact phrasing used in the job description to describe the skills and experience you already possess. 

For example, the data analyst applying to the aforementioned job might update their resume to emphasize the skills and experience they have that match the job description. 

Skills keywords

A good way to make skills-based keywords visible is to include them in the skills section of your resume. This section can be divided into technical skills (“hard skills”) and people skills (“soft skills”) in order to emphasize your suitability for the position. Prioritize your technical skill set on your resume, because it is more likely to be searched and prioritized by the ATS/RMS than more abstract people skills like “teamwork.”

Experience keywords

A good way to emphasize your matching work experience is to use the key phrases you have already identified in the “work experience” section of your resume. Remember, the purpose here is not to lie on your resume about the experience you don’t possess but instead to update your resume with phrasing that matches the job description. 

For example, the aforementioned data analyst might note that in one prior job they “managed a commercial team with a focus on clients/partner needs” to help the ATS/RMS more easily match with them. 

Resume keywords elsewhere on your application

In addition to the “work experience” and “skills” section of your resume, you should also include keywords in your cover letter and resume summary. That said, make sure you only use keywords and phrases when they make sense, rather than repeatedly or forcibly. Indiscriminate keyword stuffing can lead some systems to avoid your resume. 

For example, the data analyst from our example might write the following resume summary to emphasize their suitability for the position to the ATS/RMS: 

“Data analyst with a bachelor’s degree in business and 2+ years of experience working with databases, synthesizing data, building reports, and managing a commercial team focused on client/partner needs. Experience in SQL, Excel, Salesforce, and Python notebooks.”

Tip: Tailor your title. 

Occasionally, different businesses use different titles for the same position. If you are applying for a job that uses a different title for a position that is the same or similar to one you’ve held, then consider changing the title of your previous position to that of which you are applying. This could help the ATS/RMS better match with your resume.

For example, someone applying to be a “market manager” who was previously called a “community manager” in a similar position should consider changing their previous title to “market manager” to improve their chances of not being filtered out by the system. 

That said, don’t inflate your title to a position with responsibilities that you didn’t hold, such as changing your title from a “sales associate” to a “sales manager.”

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4. Apply and repeat for other job postings. 

Once you have finished tailoring your resume and everything is in order, all you need to do is hit “submit” to apply. Congratulations!

As you are applying to other positions, make sure you repeat the process of identifying keywords based on job descriptions and tailoring each resume and cover letter to their respective jobs. 

Next Steps

As you are searching for a new job, you might consider obtaining a professional certificate to get job-ready by building in-demand skills. Coursera offers 4,000+ courses in a wide range of subjects offered by more than 200 world-class universities and organizations, such as Google, Stanford, and University of Michigan

Related articles 

Article sources

1. JobScan. “99% of Fortune 500 Companies use Applicant Tracking Systems, https://www.jobscan.co/blog/99-percent-fortune-500-ats/.” Accessed February 10, 2022. 

2. Harvard Business School. “Hidden Workers: Untapped Talent, https://www.hbs.edu/managing-the-future-of-work/Documents/research/hiddenworkers09032021.pdf.” Accessed February 9, 2022. 

3. CIO. “Applicant tracking system: The secret to beating a resume-filtering ATS, https://www.cio.com/article/284414/applicant-tracking-system.html.” Accessed February 10, 2022. 

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