The Myth of Resume Buzzwords

The Myth of Resume Buzzwords

by Kerry Scott on 10 September 2009

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Yesterday’s post on why you shouldn’t customize your resume generated a fair number of comments.  One of the things that came up a lot was the idea that you have to have certain buzzwords from an ad in your resume in order to have a recruiter actually see it.

Let me tell you a secret:

That’s pretty much a load of crap.

This is more or less an urban legend.  It’s something that some talking head said on some 24-hour news channel once, and then other people started saying it, and now there’s this whole legion of people who earnestly believe that recruiters have secret codewords, and you only get to have your resume viewed by a human if you know these secret codeword.  Being codewords, they’re very, very hard to figure out, and you probably need to spend a lot of time pondering it (or better yet, hire somebody way smarter than you to “coach” you).

Doesn’t that just SOUND like a load of crap?  Because it is.  I really can’t say enough what a load of crap this is.  It’s right up there with “Microsoft will send you $1,000 if you forward this email” and “If you go to New York, people are going to kidnap and drug you and steal your kidneys.”

Here’s the truth:

  1. Not every company has an applicant tracking system (that’s the fancy resume database—it’s called an ATS for short).  Most big companies do, and some mid-sized companies do (but not as many as the media and the blogs and the people who sell them would lead you to believe).  The company I last worked at had 3,400 employees and a TON of turnover/recruiting, and they only just implemented an ATS in 2007.  It cost $600,000.  A lot of companies don’t have that kind of money…so they don’t have an applicant tracking system.  Very generally speaking, if a company has you apply by filling out a long form online, they have an ATS.  If they have you copy-and-paste your cover letter and resume into a very brief form, they may or may not have an ATS (but mostly they don’t, or the form would take you an hour to fill out).  If they’re having you email a resume, they probably don’t have an ATS (there are some ancient systems from the 1990s into which you’d email a resume, but they’re the exception, not the rule).
  2. When you enter your cover letter and resume into the ATS, they’re both searchable.  That means that, to use the example Charles gave in the comments on yesterday’s thread, if your resume says that you have experience as a trainer of beginners, and you’re concerned that the ad says they want someone with experience with novice users, you can call that experience out in your cover letter using  phrase novice users.  That way you’re covered no matter what phrase they’re using (although I would bet you a lot of money, if I had it, that even the dumbest recruiter is using the phrase trainer).
  3. I’ve been recruiting for 14 years, and I’ve hired more corporate recruiters than I can count.  Most of my friends are in recruiting and/or HR (jealous?).  I know a lot of people who fill jobs for a living.  I don’t know a single one (even the ones who suck) who is using secret codewords to filter resumes.  They’re using words so obvious that if they’re not on your resume, you’re probably seriously un qualified.  For example, when I’ve run an ad for a recruiter position, the words I use to search the ATS are:  Recruit*.  Hire/Hiring/Hired.  Interview*. If I’d run an ad saying I wanted someone who was AIRS-trained, I might search on AIRSbut never in a million years would I ONLY look at the ones that had that word, even if I knew I was ONLY going to hire people who had that training.  Even the recruiters I know who suck wouldn’t do that, because then they wouldn’t have a sense of their candidate pool.  Recruiters want to know what sort of population their ad drew in.  They want to know whether their ad drew in 10 good people out of 250, or 200 out of 250.  It makes a difference, because the hiring manager is going to ask, and because that’s part of how they determine how much to pay the person who gets the job, and because they need to know whether that was a good ad to run or if it needs work.  So nobody, and I mean NOBODY is going to be dumb enough to ONLY use the secret codewords.  Seriously.  In fact, I don’t know very many recruiters who don’t at least glance at every submission, for curiosity’s sake if nothing else.  I’ve never run an ad and not looked at every submission.
  4. Some people are putting out this information because they want to make money.  One of the reasons I’m so fired up about this today is because a couple of days ago, a friend of mine got an email.  This friend works for a company that is widely known to be laying off a ton of people, and the email was an offer from a “resume coach.”  The email talked about how employers only search for certain words on resumes, and these words are very hard to figure out for lay people, and since my friend didn’t know these secret words, he’d never get a job and his children would starve and they’d be buried in unmarked graves under a freeway overpass.  For the low price of A THOUSAND FREAKIN’ DOLLARS, though, this guy would help my friend by writing him a resume that would get past the pearly gates of every employer in the U.S., and ensure that he took his rightful place among the incredibly lucky few who knew the secret and were therefore gainfully employed.  My friend, who is facing a job loss after 15 years with the same company, is feeling pretty vulnerable, and she sent me this email asking if she should hire this clown, because she certainly didn’t know the secret codewords, and she didn’t want to starve her children.  Now, how the hell would this “resume coach” know the buzzwords of my friend’s particular line of work better than my friend, who is actually IN that line of work?  And how many people has this “resume coach” actually HIRED?  And how many people actually fell for this line of crap?

Bottom line—corporate recruiters search for resumes using keywords.  They do it the same way you search, say, Google for something you’re looking for.  If you’re looking for a job hunting blog, you probably search for job hunting blog.  You don’t search for clue boob ice cream Sandberg (well, actually, one person DID use that to find me…so maybe that’s not the best example).  People try to make this (and lots of other things about job hunting) into this big scary thing that you can’t possibly figure out because you’re an idiot and they’re not.  It’s just not true.  It’s hard, but it’s not THAT hard.

Disclaimers:  I’m not knocking all resume coaches.  In fact, I’ve met some great ones through this blog and through Twitter.  I’m just knocking the ones that prey on your insecurities and treat you like a moron and make stuff up.  Also, there’s no picture on the RSS version of this post and it’s probably full of typos because I’m trying to get it done before the bus drops off my daughter, who is on her third day of kindergarten.  I want to get this pissed-off post done quickly so I can play Candyland.  Also, it’s fine with me if you want to put buzzwords on your resume.  I just don’t want to you to feel you have to spend two hours on each opening.  That’s going to beat the crap out of you, and then it won’t matter if your resume had the right buzzword, because you’ll suck in the interview.  That’s a bad investment.

Photo by waa

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{ 11 comments }

Sabrina September 10, 2009 at 8:22 pm

This is another thing I’ve always wondered about and thought “Well if a company really DOES that then I don’t want to work for them anyway” not that I’m a job finding guru or anything. I’d love to hear your opinion on staffing firms. *pulls up a chair and munches on popcorn*

Amy Boland September 10, 2009 at 8:54 pm

The picture. Is… is that… Did you find an actual picture of SNAKE OIL?!

What keywords did you use to find that picture?

I love this blog, by the way.
.-= Amy Boland´s last blog ..Five Reasons to Can Your Own Tomatoes =-.

Bob Corlett September 10, 2009 at 9:29 pm

Once again you deftly skewer another job hunting urban legend, crushing the hopes and dreams of a legion of snake oil sales professionals. Somebody at the National Association of People Who Prey on the Vulnerable is going to send you a cease and desist letter, but until that time I’ll enjoy every word you write.
.-= Bob Corlett´s last blog ..The Invisible $200,000 Problem in Your Recruiting Efforts =-.

Kerry Sandberg Scott September 11, 2009 at 6:55 am

Thank you.

Sabrina—save the popcorn for next week sometime and I’ll talk about staffing agencies. I can only piss off so many people in one week.

Amy—I typed in snake oil. One of my favorite parts about blogging is looking for the pictures. You can type just about anything into Flickr and find something interesting. Plus, there are some amazing photographers out there. I wish I had those skills.

On the cease and desist letter—bring it. Just spell my name right. I am fed up to HERE with these people who look at an economy with 15 million unemployed people and less than 3 million openings and say to themselves, “Gee. If I could just pump up people’s fear a little MORE, I could make a buck” (or people who just plain don’t know what the hell they’re talking about). It’s disgusting, and it’s the sort of thing that gives the good ones a bad name.

There’s enough to be scared of without people making stuff up.

Claire September 11, 2009 at 7:59 am

I spit all over my computer after reading that searched phrase. Too funny!

Thanks for you pov on this. I have never realized how overblown this issue is.

Sabrina September 11, 2009 at 10:04 am

Ha! I could go on and on and on about staffing firms all on my own. Boy they tick me off.

Tim G September 11, 2009 at 12:16 pm

Kerry-
Thanks for these two posts. Having just worked with a family member who was told to customize his resume (Goal: to have a successful career with Company X) I helped him get it into a standard form for most of his potential targets. We did not do buzzwords, in fact look for anything that sounded non-conversational. I know some people who run their resumes through a text-to-speech engine to make sure it sounds like them.
His cover letter told the key ingredients, his resume had a credible support flow to why he was skilled, and from then on it is in the interviews.
So to me the ingredient is to tell the brief story in the cover letter, and the resume should lend credibility to the claims.
You continue to do a good thing here, please keep it up!
.-= Tim G´s last blog ..A Motive For Safety =-.

Kerry Sandberg Scott September 11, 2009 at 1:27 pm

“His cover letter told the key ingredients, his resume had a credible support flow to why he was skilled, and from then on it is in the interviews. So to me the ingredient is to tell the brief story in the cover letter, and the resume should lend credibility to the claims.”

EXACTLY!! That’s exactly it. It doesn’t sell books (or websites or seminars or services), but that’s how it’s done.

Dan September 11, 2009 at 3:11 pm

I have to admit, as one of the “buzzword” guys from yesterday, I’m a math geek and do technical work. If an employer is looking for experience or knowledge of XYZ software package or programming language, you can be darn sure that I will put that on my resume if I do in fact know it.

As far as that consultant who is charging $1000 a pop for resume help, I would like to know what the @#$#% he thinks the buzzwords are at my math-geek/programming shop. Cause I tell you one thing — if I see your resume (I’m not HR, but get them through alumni contacts and such) and you can demonstrate that you poses the technical acumen it takes to work here, your resume goes on my hiring manager’s desk. No buzzwords required!

Dan September 11, 2009 at 3:13 pm

ETA (well sort of): BTW, I don’t even know what the buzzwords are, and I work in the trenches here.

Dave September 12, 2009 at 11:06 am

I found this article via mediabistro.com – great information – good to have the insights of a corporate recruiter when looking for a job (like I am right now)!
.-= Dave´s last blog ..Travel Video – Death Cab For Cutie =-.

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