Crafting a resume and cover letter can tricky. To narrow down a list of candidates, many companies use applicant tracking systems (ATS) to sort and process resumes. ATS software often utilizes automated keyword scanner bots as a first pass on all applications, meaning that getting the attention of hiring managers requires knowing what those specific keywords are and how to use them. In fact, 70 percent of applications are disqualified by ATS software without being reviewed by an actual human recruiter.
While keyword scanning is not a new development, there are yearly trends in these keywords and practices that you should understand. So, with a new year upon us, let’s look at the resume and cover letter keyword trends for 2021.
How To Determine 2021 Resume and Cover Letter Keywords
Every company uses ATS software a little differently. While there are many resources that provide master lists of keywords, these provide little help without context surrounding the job to which you are applying. That’s why experts are urging job seekers in 2021 to read the job description carefully and deduce what types of keywords a company might want.
This process is fairly straightforward. In fact, many job listings will actually include the keywords they’ll be looking for in certain areas of the posting. According to Indeed, these keywords are most commonly listed within the following sections:
- Education requirements,
- Duties and responsibilities
- Preferred qualifications
The keyword choices in your resume should echo the ones you see in the description. Because the ATS software isn’t human, your goal should be for identical phrasings. For example, if you see a job listing that lists “Bookkeeping software” as a requirement and you indicate you have experience in “Payroll software” or something more specific like “QuickBooks,” the software may not read that as a keyword match.
The same applies for industry keywords, which many experts are also including for their 2021 resume and cover letter trends. As we can see from this list of the most popular current resume keywords, recruiters are programming their ATS software to look for both broad and specific requirements. If we think about the keywords used in a sales position, for example, there are ultra-specific terms like:
- Channel Management
- Lead Management
- Post-Sales Support
- RFP / RFI / Bid Preparation
- Strategic Alliance Development
Look for these types of industry-related keywords in the job description. If you see anything that relates directly to this market, type of work, or company, it’s a good idea to optimize your resume or cover letter to reflect them.
Best Practices for Using Resume and Cover Letter Keywords
Once you’ve identified the best keywords for a specific job posting, it’s time to optimize your resume and cover letter. Because the ATS software is automated, there are a couple important rules of thumb to follow throughout your documents.
- Aim for identical spelling and grammar as you see in the job posting. Typos and grammatical errors are still the #1 mistake seen on resumes in 2020. This includes abbreviations and numbers; if a job listing abbreviates Customer Relationship Management software to “CRM,” make sure you’re using that shorthand; if the listing spells out “three years experience” make sure to spell out the number.
- Keywords should be evenly distributed throughout the document, not all dumped into a single section. In fact, according to Monster.com, keywords that only get used once may be flagged by the software. If you have a keyword used in your skill section, back that up by repeating it under your education or previous experience sections.
- Use these keywords naturally. Stuffing keywords into a resume might “hack” the ATS software, but once it’s reviewed by a recruiter, it could read as unnatural or even untruthful. Think about which keywords best reflect your actual skillset and then build sections around those.
- Always include a keyword-optimized cover letter. Though the job listing might not ask for one, this is a chance to speak about yourself in a much more colloquial fashion.
Lastly, do not lie in resumes and cover letters just for the sake of keywords. This practice might be enough to get past the software, but seasoned recruiters and human resources professionals will quickly see through those falsehoods. Not only could this disqualify you from a specific job posting, it could also damage your industry reputation, especially if you’re applying to similar positions in the same city or business community.
Regardless of the position or industry, remember that persistence is key. These keyword trends shouldn’t keep you from remembering what makes you unique. Whether you’re looking for a change in career path or just starting out after college, the process of optimizing your resumes will feel as natural as interviewing after some practice. Happy 2021 job hunting, everyone!