Resumes & Cover Letters

How to Use Keywords and Phrases in Your Resume and Cover Letter (With Tips and Examples)

October 19, 2021

A successful resume is one that is well-organized, unique and conveys the skills and qualifications specified in the job posting you're applying for. This said, it is equally as important that you know how to include certain resume keywords and phrases to grab both the attention of the hiring manager as well as any potential keyword tracking system they may have in place. In this article, we explain what resume keywords and phrases are and how to incorporate them into your application with a sample resume to assist you.

What are resume keywords and phrases?

Resume keywords and phrases are specific abilities, skills, expertise and traits recruiters and hiring managers look for in a candidate. Keywords consist of job-related nouns that describe your hard and soft skills and qualifications for a job. Action verbs demonstrate what you've accomplished in your past experiences. Combining keywords and action verbs create phrases that employers or systems scan for.

Related: 139 Action Verbs to Make Your Resume Stand Out

Why are resume keywords and phrases important?

Keywords and phrases are important because the majority of companies pre-scan applications electronically with Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS), which screen specifically for keywords and phrases related to the job.

ATS software is sophisticated and can be programmed to:

  • Search for resumes with keywords related to job requirements
  • Count and rank resumes in order of keyword frequency
  • Place a higher value on more important keywords
  • Uncover keyword spamming
  • Rank a resume higher for using a keyword in a sentence with additional related skills

Since this technology is advanced, it's important to use keywords and phrases intelligently and strategically. Even in the case of a manual scan, recruiters will spend just seconds looking over a resume to identify the desired nouns and action verbs.

Related: Resume Power Words

Tips for finding resume keywords and phrases

Follow these tips to find the best keywords and phrases to list on your application:

  • Analyze job posts for skills the employer desires.
  • Analyze job ads for the same job title.
  • Examine the company's website.
  • Review the skills and experience of higher-level positions.

Analyze job posts for skills the employer desires

Reading through the job post is the first thing you should do to determine which keywords and phrases you want to include on your resume and in your cover letter. Employers will clearly lay out their criteria for an exceptional candidate, oftentimes mentioning the most desired skills in the first paragraph of their job post. As you read through the job description, highlight all of the keywords you see.

Analyze job ads for the same job title

Another way to assess the best keywords and phrases to use in your resume for a specific job title is to examine several other job advertisements for the same position. After reviewing at least 10 additional job ads, pick out the top most popular keywords and phrases used. These will likely be the most desired for the position you're applying to. An easy way to rank keywords is to copy and paste the ad's text into a word-cloud generator, which will show you the most prominent ones.

Examine the company's website

Looking through the organization's website will provide you with more keywords that reflect their brand and values. Using these keywords, provided they fit your own values, will show you're a good fit for the company.

Review the skills and experience of higher-level positions

Another great way to identify keywords and phrases for your resume and cover letter is to look at a handful of job posts for positions a step above the one you want. Assess the words the same way you would when analyzing job ads for your position. This time, any common skills you possess that are listed throughout ads for the higher-level position should be added to your application to set you apart from other candidates who may not have those greater skill sets and experience.

If applicable include some advanced skills that you would like to learn in an "areas of interest" section on your resume. This shows hiring managers your desire and motivation to acquire those skills.

How to use keywords and phrases in your resume and cover letter

Follow these general tips to effectively list keywords and phrases in your application:

  1. Use variations of keywords.
  2. Include location-based keywords.
  3. Use hard skills for the majority of your keywords and phrases.
  4. Incorporate keywords and phrases throughout your resume.

1. Use variations of keywords

Use several synonyms and acronyms for keywords to account for any iterations an employer may screen for. Using a wide variety of words and phrases will demonstrate your diverse qualities and also increase your chances of a scanner picking your resume out of a large pool of applicants. Unless a recruiter types a specific abbreviation into the ATS, the system normally won't automatically search for them. So, if you mention you have a "B.A." you also want to include the phrase "Bachelor of Arts." Use as many keywords and phrases as possible, but keep them relevant to the job.

2. Include location-based keywords

Including your city and state in your resume will help the ATS or human reader identify you as a potential candidate based on your proximity to the job. For non-remote positions, location is a large factor for recruiters. While you will have your address at the top of your resume, you will also want to include your city and state along with the job title in your resume introduction. This allows scanners and readers to easily pick out both of those key terms.

3. Use hard skills for the majority of your keywords and phrases

Soft skills are still important to mention in your resume and cover letter because you want employers to have an overall idea of who you are and what traits you bring to their company. However, soft skills are better assessed during phone and in-person interviews, so spend more time detailing your technical skills, training and experience. ATS filters tend to prioritize hard skills because they are more simple to gauge.

Related: Hard Skills vs. Soft Skills

4. Incorporate keywords and phrases throughout your resume

There are four crucial areas to include these words in your resume. They are:

In your resume introduction

However you decide to introduce your resume and summarize your key skills and experience, you want to include the most relevant keywords and phrases to establish what value you bring to a company. Your resume introduction also presents keywords in context, which is easily picked up by ATS and human readers. It's important to note that this section should include the top two keywords for any resume: the job title the employer has listed and the company name.

In your work history section

This section offers another ideal space to place keywords into context by associating them with additional skills and experiences. This is where you would combine an action verb with a keyword noun such as "managed software development projects."

In your related skills section

In your skills section, you want to include not only top skills but software and hardware you have experience using. Use only the most recognizable terms to keep your resume readable by the ATS. You may also want to organize skills into categories for further clarity.

In your education and training section

Sometimes employers screen for applicants with specific educational backgrounds, such as Ivy League schooling. Most often though, they are looking for a certain degree which may be one of the first considerations for moving a candidate along in the hiring process.

Example resume using keywords and phrases

Use this example to help guide your usage of keywords and phrases in your resume and cover letter:

Example:

Let's say based on research for a software developer role, these are the most important keywords and phrases to include in a resume:

  • New Orleans Louisiana
  • New Orleans, LA
  • Software developer
  • Software engineering
  • Software designing
  • 6+ years of experience
  • Computer engineering
  • Computer science
  • Spring framework
  • Coding language
  • C++
  • Python
  • Creativity
  • Detail-oriented
  • Communication
  • Teamwork
  • Leadership
  • Test-driven environment
  • Collaborate with programmers and developers
  • Create user-focused systems
  • Gather and analyze
  • Debug and improve
  • Prepare technical documents
  • Design and implement

Here is a potential resume, which incorporates the list of most popular keywords and phrases in italics, including variations:

Nathan Schroeder
1234 Twin Peaks Ave.
New Orleans, LA 70114
222-333-2233
ggold@email.com

Resume Summary

Creative software developer located in New Orleans, Louisiana, with 6+ years of experience developing user-focused systems in a test-driven environment. Advanced working knowledge of Python, Spring framework and computer programming.

Skills

  • Detail-oriented
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Written and verbal communication
  • Teamwork
  • Leadership
  • Git
  • AngularJS
  • Project management

Professional Experience

Junior Software Developer
Baton Rouge, LA
27 East Communications, August 2015-Present

  • Collaborated with other programmers and software developers to design and implement efficient, reliable systems for clients throughout the country
  • Prepared technical documents for six major computer engineering projects
  • Debugged and improved existing client systems while upholding high-quality standards

Computer Engineering Assistant
Baton Rouge, LA
A-1 Software, March 2012-August 2015

  • Utilized coding language such as Python and C++ to design clean, reliable software platforms for data management
  • Gathered and analyzed data to determine system capabilities
  • Worked with the developer team to measure and maintain desktop software and web-based programs

Education

Bachelor's Degree in Computer Science
The University of New Orleans, New Orleans, LA

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