Keyword-Optimized Resumes Notes

What you need to know about keyword-optimized resumes

6 min read
Sylvia Giltner

Technology has hit the job-seeking process. In many companies, before a resume ever lands on your desk — or more likely in your inbox — it often goes through a scanning process. The purpose of the scan is to search the resume for specific keywords that are relevant to your job opening. Once that’s done, you have (hopefully) a set of keyword-optimized resumes in front of you that come closer to meeting your criteria. If things have worked well, you have fewer irrelevant resumes to deal with.

Now that these resumes are in front of you, what’s next? Here are some things you should continue to look for, even if you’re using the latest in ATS (applicant tracking system) software.

As a business owner or hiring manager within industries like IT, healthcare, nonprofit and government, you need to look for very specific skills and experience that other industries just don’t require.

Understanding keyword-optimized resumes and how to approach them not only helps you through the hiring process, but also makes your job easier.

And, while ATS software certainly helps, you need to know how to break down the keyword-optimized resumes once they get to you.

Are keyword-optimized resumes stuffing for stuffing’s sake?

Joann Connor, executive director of human resources at Flash Essay, says, “Resume scanning software was once a bit of an HR secret. Now, most job seekers know about it. Those who want to get an interview, but might not meet all the qualifications, will find ways to stuff keywords into their resumes and CV just to get past this initial check. Your job is to ensure that the keywords they use are actually relevant to their education and experience.”

If you notice that resumes are getting through the scanning process even when they don’t have any relevant keywords, it might not be faulty scanning software.

There’s a little “trick” that some job seekers employ. They will add keywords to the top or bottom of their resumes. Then, they will obscure them by changing the font for that text to match the background color of their resume. You don’t see the keywords, but the scanning software might. If this is happening with any frequency, check your ATS software provider. Any good package should have features that prevent this from happening.

Related: Keyword research and content optimization tips

Check the work experience section for keyword relevance

Now that you’ve identified and eliminated the less qualified candidates, it’s time to take a look at the keyword-optimized resumes that have made the cut. The keywords are there. Now, are they relevant?

Read each job entry carefully.

Do the keywords fit in naturally with the position the person had, or do they seem forced?

One thing to look for is recency. Imagine that you’re hiring for a software development position. You need someone who has JavaScript experience; the applicant has that keyword on their resume. Unfortunately, the experience is five years old, and no longer relevant today.

Another red flag is when the keyword just doesn’t match the job title or years of experience. Of course, you need to tread carefully here.

Some companies are stingy with job titles, and people who have a significant amount of experience and management responsibilities might not have a matching job title. A coordinator at one company might be an assistant at another.

Still, keep a healthy sense of skepticism if you see keywords like “executive,” “manager” or “director” when the years of experience or the expected duties of the position just don’t match.

Related: Just graduated? Having a great resume website could help you land your first job [infographic]

Keyword-Optimized Resumes Paperwork

Match the job experience to the skills you need

As you go through the work experience section of each resume, consider the skills the applicant has — not just the keywords they have included. Derek Edwards, a CHRO at EssaySupply, says, “When it comes to work experience, words can be a bit slippery. Someone who isn’t a native English speaker might use different words to describe their experience, for example. Another might use jargon that is specific to the company they worked for.”

If your job opening requires a certain skill, be sure to keep an open mind.

The last thing you want to do is eliminate a qualified candidate from consideration, just because they articulated their experience in a way that didn’t match your expectations.

Accomplishments vs. keywords

Finally, think beyond keywords and focus on accomplishments. Trust that your ATS software did its job scanning the resume. Now, do yours.

Dump the hyperfocus on keywords. What has the applicant actually accomplished?

Has she successfully completed major projects that are relevant to your needs? Is there evidence that he knows the people you need him to know, and that he can and has executed the duties you need with great results?

The problem with technology is that it often makes us believe that we are relieved of the obligation of thought and consideration.

That’s not the case. Betty Rogers, a career specialist at Resumes Centre speaks candidly of this: “As wonderful as this technology is, there is a downside. Hiring managers risk cheating themselves out of some great candidates if they rely on ATS software too strongly.”

Moving into the interview stage

Keyword-Optimized Resumes Interview

If you’re on the fence about a candidate and their chosen keywords, the best place to resolve these issues is in an interview.

Yes, interviews take time and resources, but it can be more than worthwhile if you land a quality candidate whom you would have otherwise forgotten.

Consider setting aside a couple of hours one afternoon to conduct a set of brief phone-screening interviews. You won’t need to spend more than 10 minutes with each candidate. If there are a few candidates who are “on the bubble,” a brief conversation might be all you need to move them forward or eliminate them from consideration.

Beyond keyword-optimized resumes

Keyword optimization should be only one factor in your evaluation of a resume. It has value, but there is danger in relying on it too much. Let the ATS software determine who should get past the digital screening process. Then, follow that up with your own validation processes to ensure that keywords haven’t been misused. Job seekers will (and should) create keyword-optimized resumes to their advantage.

Your job is to determine whether or not that optimization is genuine and natural.

At the end of the day, your humanity is most important. You are best qualified to determine whether or not someone is a good fit for your position and your organization. That requires your willingness to look beyond keywords, and genuinely parse out the applicant’s skills and experience.