Good jobs have become more competitive in the current market, and with many candidates to choose from, hiring managers can afford to be choosy.  Many employers are using tools to help them sort through resumes.  In fact, most companies use software to scan the contents of a resume to make it searchable. These systems are called applicant tracking systems (ATS) and can filter and rank resumes based on the job description and words used in the resume.

More good news is that job applicants do not have to remain powerless against the resume keyword scanning systems. By following these guidelines, you will craft a resume that is not only peppered with appropriate keyword phrases but highlights your success and accomplishments.

  • Read the job description. This is perhaps the most important of the guidelines. Reading the job description and doing web searches on the department within that company will give you some incredible insight as to the specific skills and knowledge the company is looking for. For example, if a job description lists that applicants must have a Bachelors degree in the life sciences and extensive experience monitoring Phase I trials, then you are definitely going to want to include the phrases “Bachelors degree” and “monitoring Phase I trials” (but only if those apply to you, of course). Remember that there is a difference between tailoring your resume to a job description and regurgitating it. If you are successful in getting past the ATS, the first set of human eyes that read your resume will immediately recognize this and throw your resume out.
  • Choose keywords that fit the general position, even if they aren’t detailed in the job description. For an open CRA position, you may want to include phrases such as “Phase II,” “regional,” “monitoring,” and “oncology.” These keywords will not only better your chances of getting passed the ATS, especially since you are not privy to the specific keywords they are looking for, but also highlight your expertise.  Also, use the acronym and the spelled-out form of titles, certifications, and organizations.
  • Include keyword phrases in your cover letters and emails. Like your resume, your cover letter is written specifically for a particular company and position. Use the job description and outside research to include probable keyword phrases in your cover letter. Similarly, the email to which you attach your resume and cover letter can include your keyword phrases as well. The email should almost mirror your cover letter and reiterate those important phrases.
  • List your keyword phrases multiple times throughout your resume. The way most ATSs work is by awarding “points” to an applicant each time it recognizes a keyword phrase, and after earning so many points, a resume is deemed “good” and added to the pile for human inspection. Without sounding redundant or obvious, include the keyword phrases as many times as you can throughout your resume. Some applicants go as far as typing suspected keywords in very tiny font in the headers and footers of their resumes and then changing the font color to white. Called “white fonting,” this allows the ATS to recognize and award points for these keyword phrases but makes them invisible to human readers. This practice is “sketchy” and does not guarantee results, however.
  • Lastly, keep it simple.  Eliminate logos, pictures, symbols, and artistic formatting.  Use normal fonts as ATS might not read fancy fonts and reject automatically out of confusion.  Eliminate the Career Objective Section and any unfamiliar sections like Memberships, Affiliations, Languages, etc.
  • Spell-Check.  Do we really need to say why?  Misspellings on your resume make you look bad to both ATS and real people.

A reported 80% of companies use some form of resume keyword scanning systems in the initial stages of their hiring process. Most applicants feel powerless against these systems, but you don’t have to be! Peppering your resume and cover letter with relevant keywords matching the job description and overall position and industry will greatly increase your chances of beating the machine and landing in front of human readers.

Written by Katie Fidler

Investing in a Lifetime of Success,

Angela Roberts


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