You need a strategic balance that makes your resume appealing to robots and humans.


When you submit a resume online, you probably feel like you’re sending your materials into a giant maw full of thousands of other resumes—where it will most likely be swallowed by the computer and never seen again.

And you’re right.

Today’s use of applicant tracking systems means that you absolutely need to use keywords to ensure that your resume gets past the robots, and seen by human eyes.

But the wrong tack on this strategy can backfire. Use keywords effectively with the following tips.


1. Be specific


Broad keywords such as “marketing” or “accounting” don’t tell recruiters and hiring managers much about what you’ve done, says Lisa Rangel, founder and managing director of New Jersey-based Chameleon Resumes.

“You could have had any role within those departments and the reader wouldn’t know which position you held,” she says.

Plus, the system is probably programmed to look beyond those words, since just about everybody applying for a marketing position will have marketing on their resume.

Better move: Find ways to incorporate specific terms or titles. “‘Accounts receivable,’ ‘head of market research,’ or ‘digital media recruiter’ are terms that are more specific and increase possibilities of your resume or profile being found,” Rangel says.


2. Provide context


Michelle Robin of Brand Your Career in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, says she often sees resumes that simply list the keywords under a heading of “core competencies” or “key skills” — but this is a mistake.

“Applicant tracking systems are getting smarter and looking for context,” she says.

Instead, strategically work the keywords into stories. Provide examples of what you’ve accomplished around the keyword.

“When you tell the story, the keywords will fit in naturally,” says Atlanta-based career advisor Jacqueline Twillie.

Robin suggests using the keyword as a lead to an achievement bullet. For example: Process improvement: Eliminated redundancies in training logs and reallocated 8+ hours/month for HR generalist to focus more on partnering with the business.

In this example, the keyword “process improvement” leads to a specific achievement that highlights the applicant’s skills and abilities, boosting the keyword’s relevance and providing information beyond the word itself.

If you do include a keyword in your “skills” section, make sure that skill shows up elsewhere on your resume, says Stacey Sykes of Sweet Resumes in Dallas, Texas. Because the more sophisticated applicant tracking systems check for context, using a keyword only once can be a red flag.


3. Don’t overdo it


You can overdo it with keywords, Twillie says. Once your materials get past the computer, they have to get past the first reader (maybe someone in HR) who further narrows the options.

If your resume is so packed with keywords that it’s difficult to understand, you’ll need to cut back.

“To find the right balance, write your resume with keywords and ask a colleague to read it,” she says. “If they don’t understand after reading your resume one time, you need to revise.”

This article first appeared on and was written by Catherine Conlan, Monster Contributing Writer


(updated 2021)

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