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If you want to get a hiring manager’s attention and convince them you’re the right candidate for the job, it’s a best practice to pepper your resume and cover letter with keywords from the job description. Using keywords in your application materials can help you make it through pre-interview screenings, get selected for an interview and even make a strong impression in the interview itself. 

We’ll explain what keywords are in the context of applying for a job and reveal how to find the best ones to include in your resume. 

What Is A Keyword In A Job Description?

Keywords might sound like a technical term, but it’s really just a way to describe the words that are most important within a job description. Keywords usually take the form of skills, qualities, credentials, or job titles. 

An easy way to identify keywords in a job description is to read it while imagining what words the hiring manager would be likely to format in bold text. Here’s an example from a commercial sales manager job description:

The CSM develops and maintains profitable relationships with customers by managing the acquisition and delivery of commercial products, providing ongoing customer service, and maintaining expert knowledge on automotive parts and inventory.

Now, if we were to go through and bold the phrases that jump out, it might read as follows:

The CSM develops and maintains profitable relationships with customers by managing the delivery of commercial products, providing ongoing customer service, and maintaining expert knowledge on automotive parts and inventory.

If you were applying for this job, you’d want to be sure to mention relationship building, commercial product delivery, customer service, and knowledge of automotive parts in your resume. 

Just as a search engine uses keywords to decide which websites to show people who are looking for information, hiring managers–and the screening tools they use–employ keywords to help them decide who to interview. 

Why Use Keywords From The Job Description?

Pass automated screenings

Many companies use an applicant tracking system, or ATS, to aid in the hiring process. One of the functions of an ATS is to assist with screening job candidates, and keywords are one data point an ATS uses in deciding who makes it through the screening. 

When a hiring manager sets up a job description, they identify the keywords that are most important to see from top candidates. An ATS will remove applications that do not include a certain amount of the right keywords.

In theory, the goal of using an ATS is to make sorting through hundreds of applications more manageable for interviewers. But as you might imagine, such rigid screening standards can also result in the elimination of great candidates who just chose different words than the system was looking for. Utilizing keywords from the job description in your resume can help prevent this. 

Catch the eye of hiring managers

Even when it’s a human conducting pre-interview screening, great applications can fall through the cracks. This is especially true if the hiring manager has a hefty stack of similarly qualified candidates to review. Using strategic keywords that the hiring manager is looking for can help your application jump out. 

Address the critical job requirements

Using the right keywords can help you demonstrate that you check all the most important boxes to be qualified for the job. For example, suppose your resume shows strong work experience but you neglect to include your proficiency in the company’s software of choice. In that case, a hiring manager might pass over your application in favor of another one that mentions this specific software. 

Provide more pertinent details

Examining the keywords that a company includes in a job description will help you tailor your resume to the nuances of the job. For example, if a job listing calls for experience with pivot tables, you can position yourself as a stronger candidate by specifically mentioning pivot tables rather than just listing Microsoft Excel as a skill.  

Strengthen your interview answers

Job description keywords are a major clue to what hiring managers are looking for and what they want to hear candidates talk about during the interview phase. While preparing for a job interview, practice incorporating keywords into your answers to develop anecdotes that are highly relevant to the job. 

Related: How to Answer Interview Questions

How To Find Keywords In A Job Description

Make a list

Begin by going over the job description with a fine-tooth comb and making a list of the keywords that stand out to you. Pay particular attention to any that are mentioned more than once or in multiple places in the listing. This will give you a solid list of keywords to start with. 

Research many examples

While your main focus should be on the description that corresponds with the exact job you want, looking at other similar listings can help you broaden your list of keywords. Check out how competing organizations advertise for similar positions. You can also browse the LinkedIn profiles of people who hold the job you want and look at the words they use when describing their accomplishments. 

Use a keyword finder

There are many free online tools that will help you identify keywords in job listings and more. Here are a few options:

  • Resume Worded – a basic, free, easy-to-use keyword analysis tool
  • Career Enlightenment – allows you to conduct a side-by-side comparison of the keywords in the description for your desired job and your resume
  • Jobalytics – a free extension for the Chrome browser designed to help you get your resume past an ATS

How To Incorporate Keywords Into Your Resume

Keep it natural

Once you’ve used the steps above to develop a list of target keywords, work them into your resume where they fit naturally. You’ll usually find you can swap them in for similar phrases or add them to sentences you’re already using. Don’t overdo it; you don’t want your resume to read like it was written by a robot or copied and pasted from a list. 

Use the exact phrasing from the job description

When incorporating keywords and phrases into your application materials, use them exactly as they appear in the job description. For example, if the job listing calls for ‘three years of experience in a hospitality setting,’ this would be a great phrase to use word for word in your cover letter. This not only helps with the ATS screening we mentioned earlier, but ensures your phrases stick out to hiring managers who are skimming resumes for specific words (for example, a manager who’s looking for the phrase ‘data entry’ might not be as likely to notice a similar phrase like ‘database management’).

Insert keywords strategically

Keywords can be inserted in every part of your resume, not just in your descriptions of your job duties or accomplishments. Sprinkle them into other places like your objective, education, and skills section.

Don’t forget your cover letter

Though it’s less likely for your cover letter to be screened by an ATS, it is likely to be weighed by a hiring manager when assessing whether to interview you. Using keywords from the job description in your cover letter is one more way to set yourself apart from other candidates. 

Related: How to Write a Cover Letter

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Pete Newsome is the founder of zengig, which he created after more than two decades in staffing and recruiting. He’s also President of 4 Corner Resources, the Forbes America's Best Staffing and Recruiting Firm he founded in 2005, and is a member of the American Staffing Association and TechServe Alliance. In addition to his passion for staffing, Pete is now committed to zengig becoming the most comprehensive source of expert advice, tools, and resources for career growth and happiness. When he’s not in the office or spending time with his family of six, you can find Pete sharing his career knowledge and expertise through public speaking, writing, and as the host of the Finding Career Zen & Hire Calling podcasts. Connect with Pete on LinkedIn