Job Keywords: Should Your Resume Be Four Pages Long?

The job search process is mysterious, no matter which side of the conference table you’re sitting on.

As a job seeker, the questions you ponder are along the lines of, “How can I figure out what the company culture is like, before I take the job?” and “Is there a way of tricking the hiring manager into telling me my real chances of ever getting a raise or promotion at this gig?”

When you’re in charge of hiring, however, your questions are often a bit more absurd – for instance, “Why is this resume four pages long?”

Ask anyone who’s ever hired an employee, whether they’re in human resources or middle management: The four-page resume is A Thing.

Why? Because every modern job seeker now knows that using the right resume keywords is the trick to getting past the resume robots, also known as the Applicant Tracking System, which filters the flood of incoming resumes before any humans get involved. Just to be on the safe side, some job seekers cram in as many keywords as possible, leading to essay-length resumes that were not written with human beings in mind.

But, when you have to get through the ATS in order to get to those human beings, is this really the wrong approach? Let’s break it down.

Should your resume be four pages long?

First things first: Unless you genuinely have four pages of relevant experience that can’t be compressed into any fewer pages, your resume should not be four pages long. Secondly: You do not have four pages of experience. This is likely true even if you’re 65 years old and a pioneer in your field.

Also, remember that it’s not just about what you’ve done – it’s about what you’ve done that matters to the hiring manager. You shouldn’t include every job you’ve ever had, or use generic descriptions from a resume template that you repurpose for every job. Your goal is to first make it through the resume scanning software, and then to show the person on the other end that you can solve the company’s problems.

How many keywords are too many keywords?

It’s hard to set a ceiling on the number of keywords, but it’s important to understand that most of today’s Applicant Tracking Systems are a little smarter than the old-school versions, which sometimes just counted the total number of keywords. Instead, many systems will use contextualization, which tells the company not just that you have a skill, but whether you’ve used it recently.

“It’s not your father’s Oldsmobile, where if you put in ‘Java’ [an ATS] would automatically apply you to Java jobs,” Lisa Rowan, program director of HR, Learning and Talent Strategies for Framingham, Mass.-based analyst firm IDC, told The Ladders.

In other words, keyword-stuffing — cramming in these terms multiple times whether they belong or not – probably won’t work in your favor, so there’s no need to do it.

What’s the best way to choose resume keywords?

When it comes to picking resume keywords, you need to cover two things: keywords related to the job description, and keywords related to the job generally.

The first is the simplest: Scan the job description, and pick out the words that relate to the role. So, to use the Java-related example above, let’s say you’re applying for a software engineer role. You’ll want to include any important words you see in the job listing, such as Java, testing, data, collaborate. (See more software engineer resume keywords here.)

Once you’ve done that, you want to think beyond what’s in front of you and try to imagine what the recruiter or hiring manager meant to include, but didn’t state outright in the listing.

“Sometimes ads for jobs are very short and don’t reveal much about the employer’s expectations. Try looking on the company’s website, since there might be a longer description in the human resources section of their site than in the ad you saw,” writes Alison Doyle at The Balance. “Another strategy is to search job sites like Indeed and SimplyHired by the same job title to get a sense of what other employers are looking for in candidates.”

How can you be sure that you’ve used the right keywords?

Finally, there are some free (or low-cost) tools out there that will help you determine whether or not you’ve chosen the right resume keywords. One such tool is Jobscan.co, which allows you to upload your resume and compare it against a job listing, to see how you measure up. (The full-blown service requires a fee, but you can get a few free scans a month.)

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