Employers now receive an average of 70 applications per job that is posted (with most jobs receiving many many more applications). In turn, the technology used by employers and online job boards to sort these applications have become more robust in their filtering. As a result, there is an average of 75% of applications that are rejected by the applicant tracking systems (ATS). So, how do you pick the right keywords for your resume to beat the ATS?


The easiest way to know that you are targeting the right keywords is to read the job posting. Recruiters (internal and external) will endlessly customize the posting beyond the standards set by the Department of Labor. Thus, failing to customize your resume to the specific posting for the position may result in an immediate rejection of your application. Keep in mind the following when reading the next job posting to make sure that you select the right keywords:

  • Skills. ATS and most job boards broadly define skills to include both substantive job specific skills and more fundamental skills. This means that many systems will view skills as including keywords such as industries, job functions, achievements, and soft skills. Thus, incorporating a breadth of the skills mentioned in the posting in your application will dramatically improve the performance of your resume.
  • System matching. Depending on the platform, the recruiter or job poster may be able to identify keywords that they believe are skills required for the job. This is often a random exercise and isn’t necessarily consistent across postings. But, in most cases, the system will automatically pull suggested words from the posting to help identify “Great Match” candidates for the recruiter.
  • Inferences aren’t made.  For example, the job posting may use the words “business development” instead of sales (or attorney v. lawyer or teacher v. educator). In all such cases, the job board or ATS will almost never be able to infer that these are in fact the same thing. Thus, using the wording from the job posting will help to prevent an incorrect rejection of  your resume by the ATS.
  • Job postings are an islandJob postings evolve over time in most organizations and do not necessarily connect with the reality of the job or the industry standards for the job title. Thus, taking the time to read the job posting and applying is really the only way to know the preliminary expectations of a particular organization for the job.


The biggest mistake that many job seekers make when starting their search is thinking that they can use the same keywords for a variety of job types. A general resume that is not targeted to a job title will almost always fail. This happens because the ATS and most commonly used HRIS are built on a foundation of sorting candidates by job titles. Thus, the threshold keyword for most talent acquisition technology is the job title. Think about the following when attempting to select the right job titles for your search:

  • Do your research. Many organizations have similar job titles that are built on the ones recognized by the US Department of Labor. However, these are often broad categories that many companies will customize within their organization. Thus, take some time and identify the potential variations or related job titles to incorporate in to your resume.
  • Be specific. The ATS and job boards can’t infer what job titles you want or that you have held unless your resume is explicit. To make it easier for the systems to read your resume (and for your resume to be seen), make sure to clearly articulate what title you want and what titles you have held in many different places on your resume.
  • Use variations of the title. Some organizations will customize their ATS distinctly from how they post a specific job. Thus, the best way to address this uncertainty as a job seeker is to utilize multiple variations (including the precise one used in the job posting) as much as appropriate in your resume.
  • Incorporate job title specific responsibilities. Job titles are designed to categorize a specific type of responsibilities performed by a person within a role. Thus, make sure that once you select a job title that the responsibilities you include on your resume are consistent with the job title selected. Remember that these responsibilities are illustrative on a resume and that they don’t have to capture everything that you did in a role – only the ones that are relevant to your current search.


Although each organization will almost always customize their job postings, the people responsible for creating those postings will look to how other companies describe the job in the development of the job posting. In fact, keyword trends start to emerge when you pull a sample of similar job titles. Here are some other things to consider when attempting to identify potential keywords for your resume:

  • ONet. The US government developed a robust set of job titles and responsibilities that a few ATS or talent acquisition systems are using as a foundation for their internal keywords. You can check it out here. 
  • Review the company site. Soft skills or desired traits to fit the organization’s culture can be found in a variety of places on the company website (i.e. About, Mission, Careers, etc.). Thus, take 5-10 minutes to look at the company’s site and incorporate these additional keywords where appropriate on your resume.
  • Defer to the posting that you will apply to. Postings for similar job titles by other organizations can be a great resource for trends in keywords. But, when these keywords conflict, then make sure to use the keywords set forth in the posting that you will ultimately apply to.


There are a number of ATS programs that are used by multiple employers and some are frequently used within an industry. (i.e. Taleo, Brassring, Workday, etc.). Each of these systems can be (and frequently are) customized by each employer using the systems.

At the same time, a number of the skills or job postings are built into the program and may remain untouched by the talent acquisition team. Thus, as a candidate, consider the following when selecting the right keywords for your resume when it will go through one of these systems:

  • Errors are consistent. An overlooked error by job seekers is that errors in their online applications often extend beyond simple typos. Instead, it is common for candidates to self-identify their skills incorrectly (or insufficiently in the eyes of an ATS). Take the time to research the system and how the organization uses it to make sure that you are properly completing the online application questions.
  • Profiles may be portable. Depending on the configuration, the larger ATS and job boards enable candidates and employers to aggregate or pull their data across systems (whether intentionally or not). Take the time to explore the functionality of the system once creating a profile to determine whether this available and leverage it whenever possible to save time in the application process. Alternatively, consider saving a simple word doc with the content saved so that you can easily cut and paste the information across systems.
  • There may be systems behind the systems. For example, some of the HRIS or ATS also have integrations with reference checking programs, background screening, or programs that pull and analyze your social media profiles. Thus, the employer may be able to pull a ton of additional data on you BEYOND what you submit to them directly. This means that you should regularly audit your online presence and social media profiles to ensure that they aren’t hurting your applications.

Don’t underestimate the importance of selecting the right keywords for your resume and online job applications. Unfortunately, the reality is that there is no universal keyword list to pick from for any job title or  organization. Thus, the right keywords for a job in one organization may be completely wrong in another.

So, avoid the common mistake of thinking that one resume with a single set of keywords is good enough. Instead, take the time to customize your resume for each position that you apply to in order to maximize your efforts.

Not sure where to start? The Contingent Plan career experts have performed this analysis and share it with our resume clients and members on an individualized basis. Request a quote or submit your resume for a free resume analysis today.


With years of experience in the job acquisition field, Kathy has delivered exceptional service by providing in-depth knowledge about recruiting qualified employees, and crafting the perfect resume. The Contingent Plan comprises a team of expert recruiters, resume writers, and outplacement experts—all ready to help you! Read Kathy’s blogs, and discover simple tricks and tips to help you land the job of your dreams.