Keywords, otherwise known as “words,” became all the rage some 15 years ago when employers and recruiters began using software to scan electronic (soft copy) resumes for relevance. Fair enough. But then panic ensued, not because this was an evil or misguided approach to identifying appropriate job candidates, but because job seekers came to realize that their resumes were totally lacking in the natural occurrence of keywords! Otherwise stated, job seekers’ resumes were generic and nondescript and lacked relevance to the jobs for which they were applying. Although this realization should have resulted in a global effort to improve our resumes, it instead led to an outright obsession with these now-legendary keywords and drove many job seekers to add superfluous keywords sections like this one to their resumes:
Marketing; Marketer; Communications; Publicity; Public Relations; PR; Advertising; Media; Media Outlet; Facebook; Twitter; Social Media; Email Campaign
Recruiters could only wonder why such terms weren’t already integrated throughout job seekers’ resumes—in their summary and experience sections, in particular.
The keywords section was invented to trick employers’ automated resume sifters into believing that a job seeker was worth interviewing. Pretty slick, until the same automated systems were programmed to seek out the phrase “keywords” (the section header often preceding a keyword list; see example, above) and axe those resumes from the get-go!
Why would employers do that? Didn’t they want to get a resume jam-packed with keywords? Isn’t that why they were scanning for keywords in the first place?!
Not quite. Employers want your resume to contain keywords, yes, but they want those keywords to appear organically…in the context of your accomplishment statements…where they belong. Naturally occurring keywords are a sign that your background and experience are relevant to the job at hand. Employing a keywords section on the other hand strongly suggests that you don’t have the goods and are instead out to game the system.
A more subtle, but still substandard approach, is when a job seeker crams as many keywords into their resume’s summary section and cover letter as possible. Their career documents wind up reading like keyword soup and a savvy recruiter can smell that cookin’ a mile away.
Let’s wrap this up with three critical tips about keywords. Follow these tips and your resume will be better, stronger, more professional, job-getting, winning, stand-out…(See what I just did there? Aren’t all those keywords damaging my credibility?):
- If you find yourself trying to bend space and time in order to “get another keyword in there,” there’s likely a mismatch between your background and the job you’re targeting. Here’s a rule of thumb: If a job description reads completely foreign to you, chances are it’s not the right job. Let’s be honest: If you have 10 or 20 years’ experience under your belt (even less for many job seekers), you know which jobs are right for you and which aren’t. You know it, or feel it, when you first read a job description. As you’re reading, your brain tells you, “I can do that! I’ve done that before! I’d sure like to do that!” If your brain isn’t telling you these things…if the keywords in the JD aren’t clicking for you…don’t retroactively crow-bar them into your resume and other career documents just to make them “fit”. Rather, just move on.
- Planting keywords all over your resume and cover letter may net you an interview, BUT it will probably be evident during the interview process that you’re not genuinely fit for the role. Not only is this a waste of your time (not to mention the interviewer’s), but tanking an interview is a surefire way to blacklist yourself from a company or recruiting firm and discredit anyone who may have stuck their neck out to help you get your foot in the door.
- Including a keywords section or otherwise cramming in keywords doesn’t reflect well on you as a professional, or as a person. Savvy recruiters and employers know about 15 seconds into reading your resume how much time and energy you invested in developing a relevant, targeted, thoughtful document. When keywords are either listed outright in a keywords section like the one above, or unscrupulously wedged in throughout your resume and cover letter, a red flag is raised that indicates you’re either a) the wrong fit; b) lazy or c) a poor writer. At worst, a resume that’s padded with keywords can be a turn-off, seen as a form of trickery or even dishonesty. (Note: None of these make for a good first impression.)