by Dr. John Sullivan
(Or how to identify “improvement areas” for your own
career development plan) Because the world of business
(and the jobs in it) are now changing so rapidly it is
becoming essential for all professionals to
continually update their skills. As a result, the
process described below should not be exclusively
reserved for those in the job market. It should in
fact be a continuous process that is undertaken by
everyone that wishes to identify the key skills that
are necessary to stay on the “leading-edge” of their
The importance of keywords in a resume It is important
for all professionals to know that most resumes and
cover letters that are received at medium and large
size companies are first electronically scanned into
their resume database. Most resume scanning software
includes a keyword identifying and sorting system
which has the capability of ranking or rating resumes
based on the number of "keywords" contained in the
resume. Having the right keywords in your resume will
not guarantee you a job but not having them in the
resume almost assuredly guarantees that you won't get
an interview. Even if the resume is read by a "human"
first, the odds are that they will also sort it based
on keywords. It is important that you not only use the
right he words but that you also repeat the keywords
in your resume just in case the computer or the human
misses them the first time around.
How can I keyword search help in my career
development? Even if you’re not currently involved in
the job search, identifying the key skills and
experience that will be needed for your next job is an
essential part of your career development plan. Savvy
professionals will undertake this keyword exercise in
order to identify both current weaknesses in your
experience and knowledge as well as future skills and
experience that you will need in order to get promoted
to your next job!
Steps in identifying keywords, essential skills and
The next obvious question is how do you identify the
“correct” keywords to use? The most obvious first step
is to get “inside help” from a recruiter. An "insider"
can also run your actual resume through the system and
tell you how you ranked. But for the rest of us
without inside help the process of identifying
keywords is actually relatively easy.
If the targeted firm’s Web page lists a job
description for your targeted position start with it
as a basic source. In addition review the want ads for
this and other closely related jobs in order to
identify the key terms they are looking for.
Here are the basic steps to follow:
1. If you are really bold, first look at the job
description for the job that is "one level above" the
job you are targeting at that firm. Then compare the
keywords used in your “targeted” job with the keywords
used in the “level up” job. The new or added words in
the "higher" level job are the most important to use
if you expect to get a higher than average pay rate
(or if you wish to be promoted soon).
2. Identify the key "values" of the company you are
targeting. These values can generally be found either
listed separately (company values) on the firms Web
page or in the firm's "mission" statement.
3. Next look for any key “competencies” that the firm
lists on its Web page. These can either be
competencies of the firm or competencies that are
expected for all employees.
4. Then go through the job description and want ads
for the specific job you are targeting at the firm
that is a "one step up" competitor to your target
firm. Capture all the key words they list. Because
most firms try to emulate the practices of their
"superior" competitors, showing that you have the
skills required by that competitor will generally give
you a competitive advantage. See if there are any
"new" words that are used by the competitor. If these
words reflect more advanced skills add them to your
5. Repeat the step above for the job description and
the want ads for the specific job you are targeting.
6. Also go through the job descriptions and the want
ads of any "related jobs" in the same job "family" to
see if there are words that are “continually” used by
7. In addition to reviewing job descriptions reading
about the latest trends in business and technology is
also essential. Scanning the most advanced magazines
and journals in business and your profession for
keywords and trends should be a continuous process.
Keywords found on the cover and in the table of
contents should be added to your list. Certain
“bleeding-edge” publications such as Fast Company, Red
Herring, Business 2.0 and functional chat rooms and
email “Listservers” are great places to start your
Sorting and ranking keywords
All keywords are not rated equally. It is important to
identify which keywords carry the most weight with the
recruiter and the firm. Rate the importance of
keywords using a formula something like the one
outlined below: Remember to repeat the most important
keywords and skills several times in your resume and
cover letter. It is always wise to assume that a human
is going to read your resume (which if it doesn’t
happen initially, it will happen if when your resume
passes the first computer keyword scan). When humans
read your resume it is equally important to put the
most important keywords early in your resume (and
cover letter) in order to excite them enough to want
to read the rest of your resume.
Words that are essential (try to use each at least
words three combined times in your resume and cover
• Words that appear in the "next level up job" and in
the "one level up" competitor's job
• Words and experience listed as "preferred" skills in
the firm’s job description
• Words that appear early in each section of the job
description (generally in the first line or two). This
is because most recruiters list the essential skills
in descending order of importance in a job description
Words that should be used more often (generally each
of these words should be used at least twice).
• Words related to business strategy and future
• Words related to leadership and team related skills.
• Words that relate to technology, e-commerce,
software and hardware.
• Words related to the values of the corporation
• That “top four” types of experience required for
• The top educational requirement for this job
assuming, of course, that you meet it)
Words that should be used at least once
Other important areas and terms including:
• Additional related experience.
• Business problems you have solved.
• Business problems you can solve (even if you have
a chance to actually solve them).
• Any additional technology related skills.
• Any additional team or leadership skills.
• Any additional "hot business, management or
buzz words" or tools that you know or have used.
• Additional functional skills both inside and related
• Educational, learning and certification
accomplishments (including the names of any major
universities that have studied at).
• Any leading-edge companies that you have worked
with, benchmarked against or that you have serviced
as a customer (some companies focus on firm names in
their keywords search).
• Any other accomplishments, awards or recognition
indicate that you are knowledgeable and successful
Words are not sufficient
Keywords alone are not enough to get you an interview.
In addition to using the words that you have
identified it is equally (if not more important) to
show the quality of your experience and knowledge, as
well as the output or accomplishments for each word or
experience you list. For each of the major words,
tools and experience you must show the quality and
then quantify (yes, this means numbers and dollars)
• The output, the quality and the level of the
• The quality and level of the skill.
• The level of management or the customer that you
• Any reward or recognition you received as a result
• Any competitive advantage your firm or department
as a result of your work
If you really want to test your resume make a list of
the keywords in your target job description and check
them against your resume. If you don’t hit over 50%
don’t expect an interview. Plan B is to have your
friends do the “circle test”. This is where they
review the job description and then on your resume
circle all of the words and phrases that impress them,
put a "?" mark by those that are confusing and an “X”
through the phrases that turn them off. If there are
lots of circles and few X’s and ?’s, then your resume
Although it is possible to get an interview without
“loading” your resume with keywords, including them
will definitely improve your chances. It equally
important to realize that when you to get an interview
that the use of keywords and how well you describe
your key experiences and knowledge is the No. 1
criteria for a successful interview. Because most
firms use “behavioral interviews” you also need to be
able to spell out (during the interview) the quality
of your knowledge, the level of your experience and
the output of each of your major projects and