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

Written by Coursera Staff • 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 ensure your resume puts your best foot forward, you must impress hiring managers and application-filtering software. 

Today employers worldwide use an applicant tracking system (ATS). These systems track applicants at every stage of the hiring process, manage applicant pools, and filter applications using keywords.  

While these systems make recruiters’ lives easier, they also make many applicants’ job searches harder. A 2021 Harvard Business School study found that 88 per cent 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 per cent of employers said the system filtered out qualified middle-skilled candidates for the same reason [1]. 

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, you should first understand the systems that scan it and how they do so. 

What are ATS and RMS? 

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

An RMS often complements the ATS. The RMS allows recruiters to manage hiring activities, such as creating talent pools and scheduling interviews [1]. These systems help employers ease the burden of managing and sifting through large applicant pools through automation. 

Sometimes, you will see CATS instead of ATS. This refers specifically to the Canadian applicant tracking system. 

How does an ATS work? 

An ATS or RMS filters applicants by criteria, such as a specific credential or keyword. The system turns your resume into plain text and scans it for the stated criteria and keywords. It then compares your resume to others and ranks it according to the search query [2]. In this process, the system will highlight resumes and hide others. 

Unfortunately, knowing the exact criteria a hiring manager will use to filter resumes is impossible. While some may focus on specific skills like project management, others might concentrate 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 essential because these systems use them to rank your job application. 

Remember, the ATS/RMS turns your resume into plain text to scan it and identify keywords that match its search intent. In effect, the system simply reduces your resume to a collection of words and focuses only on keywords that 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 converts your resume to plain text, some elements may not transfer, effectively hiding them from view. 

To make sure your resume is ready for an ATS, career experts advise that you do the following [2]: 

• Use a simple resume design and format

• Avoid using graphics or unusual fonts

• Clearly label resume sections with bold text

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


How to use (and find) resume keywords

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

That said, don’t simply stuff your resume with keywords. Instead, you should mirror the phrasing in the job description to describe the skills and experience you already possess naturally.  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 and paste the job description into a separate document and highlight them so you can easily reference them later.   

For example, consider the following qualifications needed for a data analyst position. When looking at job descriptions, the applicant might bold the skills and experience that match their own to identify relevant keywords and phrases. 

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

Basic qualifications:

  • Bachelor’s degree in computer science or mathematics

  • Demonstrable experience with computer programming

Advanced qualifications:

  • Master’s degree in data science

  • Experience with SQL, Python, Scala

  • Experience with Azure Analysis Services, PowerBI, Tableau, BoldBI, Postgres

  • Systems thinker who can figure out how data flows today and how to configure it to be most useful to business partners

2. Divide keywords into skills and experience.

Now that you have identified the skills and experience in the job description that match your own, you should copy and paste them into a list organized by “work experience” and “skills.” The purpose 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 data science
• Salesforce
• Python notebooks
• Teamwork
• Systems thinker

Once you’ve organized your work experience and skills, you can tailor your resume using the keywords you identified. During this phase, you want to update your resume to include the exact phrasing in the job description to describe your skills and experience. 

For example, if you were applying to the data analyst mentioned above, you might update your resume to emphasize the skills and experience you have that match the job description. 

Skills keywords

An excellent way to make skills-based keywords visible is to include them in your resume's “Skills” section. This section can be divided into technical skills (“hard skills”) and people skills (“soft skills”) 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 identified key phrases in your resume’s “Work Experience” section. Remember, the purpose here is not to lie about your experience on your resume. The goal is to update your resume with phrasing that matches the job description. 

For example, for that data analyst application, you might note that in one prior job, you “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” sections of your resume, you should also include keywords in your cover letter and resume summary. That said, ensure you only use keywords and phrases when they make sense and not repeatedly or forcibly insert them. Indiscriminate keyword stuffing can lead some systems to avoid your resume. 

For example, when applying to that data analyst role, you might write the following resume summary to emphasize your 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 varying titles for the same position. If you are applying for a job that uses another 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 for which you are applying. This could help the ATS/RMS better match 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.”


4. Apply and repeat for other job postings. 

Once you’ve finished tailoring your resume and everything is in order, just hit “Submit” to apply. Congratulations!

As you apply to other positions, 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 search for a new job, 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 from more than 200 world-class universities and organizations, such as Google, Stanford, and the University of Michigan

Article sources


Harvard Business School. “Hidden Workers: Untapped Talent,” Accessed May 24, 2024.

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