Make Your Resume Stand out in the Digital Age

You’re a job seeker who’s just crafted an e-mail you’re positive will get you an interview for your dream job. After attaching your killer resume you hit “send” and wait for a call from the hiring manager. And wait. And wait. Weeks later, you’re shocked to learn the position has gone to someone else. You never even got in the door.

If this has happened to you, chances are good that a computer program -- not a human being -- eliminated you from consideration. In an age in which there are far more job seekers than jobs, an increasing number of businesses are relying on software to weed out applicants. “The vast majority of companies with 50 or more employees are using this software,” says Chandlee Bryan, a certified professional resume writer based in New York. So how do you ensure you don’t fall victim to a thumbs-down from a machine? You’ve got to give the machine what it wants: keywords.

Deborah Bell, a certified career counselor based in Santa Rosa, Calif., recalls the time when, as an experiment, she answered an ad with nothing but a long series of words lifted straight from the job description. “I got an e-mail back saying that I matched the job description and that someone would be calling me shortly to set up an interview.” The call never actually came -- apparently, humans are still good for something -- but the fact that her application made it as far as it did underscores how important keywords are for getting noticed.

What’s the Word?
To determine your keywords, Michele Dagle, a certified Los Angeles-based professional resume writer, suggests crafting the text by cribbing from several job listings similar to the position you’re seeking. “Other excellent sources of these terms are industry websites, blogs and e-newsletters,” she says.

Once you’ve collected a batch of ads, you can quickly suss out the most important words by pasting all the text you’ve collected into the website, says Bryan (who also co-authored The Twitter Job Search Guide). In the resulting tag cloud, look out for the words that literally loom largest (the size directly correlates to frequency). Those are the terms you definitely want to use in your resume.

Bobbing and Weaving
So what’s the best way to work those words into your resume? Not by sneaking them in, Bryan counsels, explaining she has heard of candidates who “hide” keywords in their resumes by changing the words from black to white so they don’t appear on-screen or in print. This subliminal scheme goes awry, however, when the resume is scanned and converted to plain text. Suddenly, those stowaway keywords go from invisible to visible, and a recruiter will easily be able to read between the lines, so to speak. “If you don’t have the skills, don’t use those keywords,” says Dagle. You might get an interview, but you will be eliminated once it becomes apparent you don’t have the skill set you said you did.

Your goal is to get the important keywords into both your executive summary and body of the resume. Use the terms in your bullet points to convey your experience and, where possible, associate them with specific accomplishments you made at each job.

It’s not necessary to include every keyword, says Bryan. “As long as you’ve got 60 to 75 percent of what they’re looking for, you should most certainly apply.”

Format Wars
And when you’re finally ready to transmit your qualifications, make sure to follow the submission instructions. For example, don’t send a PDF if the ad calls for a Microsoft Word file. And be careful with non-text characters such as bullet points, which can show up differently depending on the computer. Last but not least, do not title your attachment “resume.doc” -- be certain your last name is in the document name. In this market, if you give a company the opportunity to disregard or forget your application, it most likely will.

by Thomas P. Farley