Not getting calls from recruiters after responding to an online job ad? Maybe you need to include more key words in your resume and cover letter.

Keywords are nouns or phrases that communicate your job-related skills, responsibilities or functions. Resume keywords are an increasingly critical element of a successful job search. They’re important because recruiters search resumes for keyword matches when sourcing candidates from databases loaded with job-seeker profiles. The more frequently your resume matches the keywords contained in a recruiter’s search, the more calls you’ll get.

“Keywords are really buzz words,” explains Wendy Enelow, a trainer and career consultant based in Coleman Falls, Va., and author of Best Key Words for Resumes, Cover Letters and Interviews. “Keywords give you power when you are writing your resume. Not only is it important to include key words throughout your resume, but carry the concept throughout all of your job search activities by using the same language in your cover letter and during interviews.”

Finding Keywords

“Most likely the same person who posted the job online is the one reviewing resumes for the position,” says Deborah Walker, a certified career coach and president of Alpha Advantage in Portland, Ore. “So they are looking for resumes that match the key words contained in the job description.”

Key words refer to hard skills that are used in job descriptions, not soft skills. For example, “HTML programmer,” “database architect,” “network engineer,” and “help desk operations.” Key words don’t include phrases like “team player,” “relationship expert” or “multi-tasker.”

To build a list, start by reviewing job descriptions for positions you want, extracting the commonly used key words. Savvy job seekers will tweak their resumes each time they submit it, making certain they have included all of the job description’s key words in their cover letter and resume. To validate their effectiveness, enter your key word choices into the job search function on ClearanceJobs, using a variety of search parameters. Seeing more results indicates your resume will come up more often in database searches conducted by recruiters.


Providing a summary of key words at the conclusion of your resume is an effective way to assure that your resume is selected during database searches. However, to help move you to the interviewing stage, list your key words near the top.

“I think it’s important to include key words in the top four to five inches of your resume,” says Walker. “Frequently, the recruiter won’t look beyond the top few inches of the resume, because they quickly review a batch of candidate resumes when looking for a match. They need to see those key words in the first 15 seconds or you’ll be eliminated from consideration.”

Walker recommends replacing your resume’s traditional objective statement with job titles that represent your career interests. From there, she recommends including key words throughout the resume using a comprehensive approach.

“I recommend using a career summary section at the top of your resume and include both key words and the value you will bring to the prospective employer,” says Enelow. “If you are changing careers, you probably won’t have the experience you need for your new job in your work history, so you’ll be missing some key words. In that case, I recommend using a resume objective where you can include a list of skills you want to develop. Doing that will assure that your resume will come up in key word searches.”

“To correctly use key words throughout your resume, the rule of relevancy applies,” says Walker. “Everything must relate back to your current career objective. You want to work the key words into the body of the resume, so it doesn’t sound redundant. Also, if you keep adding onto your resume, it starts to look like a house that’s had too many additions. It’s a mess. You’re better off tearing your resume down to the studs and starting all over.”


Sources of job descriptions for finding key words include job boards like ClearanceJobs and Web sites that provide occupational information, such as o*net.

Leslie Stevens-Huffman is a freelance writer based in Irvine, Calif., who has more than 20 years experience in the staffing industry.

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