Buzz Words on a Resume: Why They’re Important

Finding key words & phrases that a recruiter will use in his search string.

In the category of “Careers and Employment,” Google reports that one of the top search phrases is “Buzz Words to Use on Résumés.”  Clearly, the job seeker wants answers to the question, “What buzz words should I use?

But first, you need to understand why those buzz words are so important!


Let’s look at things from the point of view of a job recruiter — the person whose job it is to find the best candidates for a vacant position.

Playing seek-n-find: Recruiters & Candidates

It is a recruiter’s job to seek and find.  In playing this game, the recruiter employs various techniques including an internet search and a search of an in-house database.

The in-house database is built by direct résumé submissions.  It also includes the recruiter’s selection of potential candidates she discovers online which she then adds to the in-house database.

An internet search will involve using key words and phrases (also known as a “search string“) that are plugged into search engines such as Google.  LinkedIn is another popular spot for a recruiter’s search using its built-in search application.  (For an awesome discussion of LinkedIn’s search feature and possible ways to improve your chances of discovery, click here.)

Job boards such as CareerBuilder and others have databases full of résumés which a recruiter will search.  And, a company may have its own website from which you submit your résumé, adding yourself to their private database.

In ALL instances in which technology is used, you will only be found by the recruiter if your résumé has the right buzz words.


Let’s say that you’ve submitted your résumé to a company via their job board, or a recruiter “snags” your résumé from another site such as Linked In.  What happens next?

In most instances, your résumé will be first read by a machine. This is called ATS — applicant tracking system — and, yes, the application is designed to find key words and phrases, aka “Buzz words”, in order to determine whether the document should reach human eyes.

Note: I’ve written about ATS on this blog, in Critical Résumé Formatting Tips and in How to Become a Top 5% Job Seeking Candidate.  You might want to take a look at those two articles.  But, this blog entry is intended to expand and clarify.

If you Google “ATS applicant tracking system” you’ll get more than 900,000 search results.  Clearly, it’s a popular subject.

An ATS system does much more than simply find key words and phrases. Of course, different applications offer differing features, but many are designed to:

  • Import contacts from LinkedIn, CareerBuilder, Hotjobs, Monster, and other job boards. A human using the ATS app simply visits a profile on one of those sites and a toolbar will detect if they exist in the human’s database. Then, the human can choose to view their existing profile or add a new candidate.
  • Quickly add new candidates and log communications with candidates/contacts directly from an Outlook inbox.
  • Automatically create and update a company website with a listing of its open positions. When candidates apply, they’re entered into the system and placed in the appropriate job order pipeline.
  • A company can use the ATS to create detailed questionnaires for its open positions to help screen the candidates that apply. It will perform actions like rating up a candidate or removing them from consideration based on the answers that they provide, and notify a human via email of a new, qualifying candidate.

Knowing more about the ATS helps us better understand how our credentials are being used on the receiving end.  For example, understanding that a candidate’s answers to an online questionnaire may immediately disqualify him from consideration — even before his résumé is considered — emphasizes the importance of those questionnaires!

But, regardless of how the information is used, our goal is to pass the ATS system and/or to be discovered in a general internet search — and end up in front of human eyes.  And to do that, you have to use the right buzz words and phrases!


First, the ATS app will convert the document (like your carefully formatted résumé) into a text-only document so that it can be searched. It then extracts relevant information from the document (like the candidate name, location, skills, etc.) automatically.

When a text document fits the established search criteria that makes up the search string (determined by a human), the ATS uses one of many types of “flagging” methods to notify that human whether its found a viable candidate.

Ranking High in an ATS Rating System

Flagging methods may be as simple as “Yes” or “No,” or they may use a more complex number or star rating system.

So, what sets a “Yes” apart from a “No,” or a 5-star rating apart from a 1-star?  It depends on what the ATS finds when it does its search.

Most, if not all, ATS applications use the Boolean method for searching a résumé, essay-type answers to questionnaires, or other documents you upload during the submission process.  Understanding how the Boolean method functions, then, is critical.


This search method employed by recruiters and other hiring authority uses 3 logical operators:

  • And
  • Or
  • Not

[Note:  Also used are (parenthesis) and “quotation marks”,  but that’s for another discussion.]

The use of AND will return documents that include all of the criteria specified.

The use of OR will return documents that include any of the specified criteria.

The use of NOT will return only those documents that do not include the specified term(s).

Example: Let’s say that an employer seeks a candidate who is not only an attorney, but an attorney who is really good with public speaking.  The recruiter builds her search string which looks something like:

Juris DoctorateAND “public speaking”

Will she find my résumé if it says:

Juris doctorate received in 1991.  Guest lecturer for legal seminars.

Probably not.

But, what if the search string looks more like this (which is an over simplified example, but serves its purpose):

“Juris doctorate” AND (“public speakerOR “guest lecturer“)

Yes, this time I’ll be found! Because her search string incorporates the same phrases I’ve used, my document should come up in her search results.

Here’s another example:

Let’s say the employer keys in the string:

“Juris Doctorate” AND ( “public speaker” OR “professional orator” ) NOTguest lecturer

What will happen with the résumé that states:

Juris Doctorate obtained 1991. Guest Lecturer for 1000+ legal seminar and conventions.

In spite of what appears to be significant “professional oration” qualifications, this particular candidate probably won’t make it to the desk of a human.


If 30 different recruiters were asked to create a search string for the exact same job description, how many different search strings would result?

I’ve not been able to find a definitive answer to this question, but I suspect the answer is (sadly) “30”.  And that is disheartening for the job seeker.   For an on-point discussion with responses by various recruiters, see this article.   I highly recommend that job-seekers read the comments there from recruiting professionals; it’s a rare look into their thought process.

To make matters worse:

While researching for this article, I came across a particularly distressing comment on The Adler Group – Performance Based Hiring site.   If you follow that link, you’ll see an article that discusses “How Recruiters Squander [the] ATS Investment Dollars.”

The author, Carl Bradford, writes:

Here’s what one power user had to say, ‘I’ve used five well-known ATS while working for several large Fortune employers, and my experience is that recruiters really don’t know how to use the search engine.’ He went on to add, ‘In fact, I believe that only about one recruiter in 10 really knows how to use the search engine effectively. They often don’t know how to use simple Boolean search terms, much less some of the other great search features. In fact, I worked for one Recruiting Manager who was ready to throw the ATS out because she couldn’t find qualified candidates in the ATS database for a job she was working on. I took the same job and quickly found 7 great candidates where she had found none.’ [emphasis added]

In other words, not only do we — the job-seeker — need to figure out which terms are best used in our résumé  and other documents and keep in mind that all minds do not think alike, we also somehow need to factor in the recruiters’ ineffective use of an ATS.

My head hurts.  Really.  I’m not making that up.


QUESTION: Given that the English language is infamous for its use of synonyms, that no two humans think exactly the same way, and that “most” recruiters cannot effectively use the expensive ATS application purchased by their employer — how is the job seeker best able to determine which words to use, and which to avoid?

ANSWER: The job description is your road map!  It will provide the exact language to use.  Sort of.

Because the job description is often written by the same person who creates the search string used to find qualifying candidates, it’s a safe bet that the terms used will be consistent between both.  Thus, you increase your chances of being found if you, too, use those terms.

The human who writes the job description chooses whether to describe the sought after candidate as a “Guest Lecturer” or a “Professional Orator.”  He then decides what term to use for the search string (and will likely stay consistent).  He will also decide whether to use AND, OR, NOT, and he’ll decide where to place parenthesis and quotation marks (which really do matter, although we’ve not discussed their function.)

If you think of yourself as a “public speaker,” but the employer hasn’t considered that term, the two of you may never meet.  Not only will the employer lose out on a qualified candidate, you’ll lose out on the opportunity to make it to a one-on-one interview.


Even with the use of a machine (an ATS or a search engine like Google), it begins with a human, as we’ve discussed. So how might we manipulate the human factor and all the variations that interfere?

If your particular qualifications are such that anyone might use one of a variety of search terms, you might consider peppering your résumé with multiple descriptors  Use the infamous synonym to your advantage:

More than 1000+ public speaking contracts as a featured guest lecturer for legal seminars and conventions, earning reputation as a highly effective professional orator.

Notice how that covers all the bases?

But, if you’re really using your noggin’, you’ll realize that even this “clever trick” might cast your document into the trash pile.  How?  Consider this search string and apply it to the above example:

(“public speakerORprofessional orator“) NOTguest lecturer

In an attempt to use clever synonyms and cover all the bases, the use of “Guest Lecturer” is an excluded phrase, and any document that uses it will be excluded.   Sigh.


As much as we’d like to return to the days where our résumé reaches the desk of a hiring manager via the US mail, where upon he or she uses a beautiful letter opener to extract the contents, and then spends several minutes — not seconds — reading (actually reading!) the contents, those days are long behind us, with rare exception.

If you now understand why we need to use specific buzz words, then you’re ready to start writing that document!  You’ll find the task much easier if you check out this article with exhaustive lists of winning words.

It takes a lot of work and thought to get yourself noticed in this market.  By educating ourselves, applying our new-found knowledge, employing innovative and creative methods, and persevering, we’ll make it past the dreaded search engine and into the door of that perfect job — somewhere, some day!

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I provide my readers with a free evaluation of resumes and cover letters.  But, before you contact me to ask for my help, please click here to read the guidelines.

~Lynda C. Watts

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