Are you resume keyword stuffing?

Many hiring professionals use applicant tracking systems (ATS) to narrow down applicant pools. Savvy job seekers have responded by researching ATS and learning about optimized resume keywords. In short, recruiters can search their ATS for the specific skills and keywords most relevant to the job description, so applicants increase their chances of being found by strategically identifying and adding those keywords to their resume.

Some ATS, including the widely used iCIMS, even weight their search results based on keyword frequency. For example, if a recruiter searches iCIMS for “business development,” an applicant that features that phrase 7 times on their resume may be displayed higher than an applicant with only 4 mentions. Knowing this can lead job seekers into something known as resume keyword stuffing, a major pet peeve among recruiters.

What is Resume Keyword Stuffing?

It’s a fine line, but resume keyword stuffing is not the same thing as resume keyword optimization. Resume keyword stuffing is when an applicant overloads their resume with so many keywords that it is either A) no longer a true representation of their abilities, or B) geared towards the ATS technology with no regard for a human reader.

In an effort to “beat the system,” job seekers do more harm than good by deploying three styles of resume keyword stuffing:

1) Dishonest or Out-of-Context Skills

Some corporate recruiters recommend having a list of hard stills at the top of the resume. This gives readers a snapshot of what the applicant has to offer and can also be beneficial in an ATS search. That said, recruiters are wary of overly broad skill lists. They need to be able to be able to see how those skills were actually utilized.

For example, a tech recruiter told Jobscan, “When I see a resume where there’s this giant block of all the technologies you’ve used, you’re not an expert in all of those. Yeah, you might have written Javascript for 3 months back in 2005, but that doesn’t mean you’re a Javascript developer.”

A long keyword list could help an applicant’s resume get discovered in a search but recruiters don’t take those keywords at face value. As they investigate further, they could reject resumes that seem suspicious or lack context. Applicants should only list skills for which they have a useful and demonstrable level of proficiency.

2) Hidden Keywords

Perhaps the most egregious way to beat the system is stuffing hidden keywords into a resume.

This is done by repeatedly typing a keyword into the resume then making the text white so that it’s invisible to human eyes. For example, an applicant might type “accounting accounting accounting accounting” at the bottom of their resume. The idea is that it will help them rank higher in an ATS.

Understandably, recruiters resent the implication that they’re so easily tricked. Resume keyword stuffing with hidden text is easily spotted and one of the quickest ways to burn a bridge with a recruiter.

keyword stuffing with hidden text
An applicant profile in Taleo, the most commonly used ATS. This applicant tried to beat the system using the hidden text method (“Accounting Accounting…”), but it’s easy to spot once the resume text has been parsed into the system.

3) Over-optimization

Wordsmithing a resume to include multiple instances of specific keywords is tricky and can result in awkward, over-the-top sentences. Here’s an example of over-optimizing for the keyword social media:

“Led social media marketing efforts which included writing social media content and using social media management platform Hootsuite to schedule social media posts on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media networks.”

Job seekers should ensure that key skills and phrases are included in their resume, but overloading sentences in an unnatural way hurts more than it helps.

Walking the Line Between Stuffing and Optimization

Dishonest and blatant keyword stuffing will come back to bite job seekers at some point in the process. It could lead to a quick rejection if the recruiter catches on. If not, dubious skills and proficiencies will be challenged during the phone screening or interview. Keyword stuffing might help get a few more calls back, but more often than not it will backfire and waste everyone’s time.

Resume keyword optimization isn’t about “tricking” or “beating” the system. It’s about working in sync with recruiters and hiring managers and the technology they use. It’s about making sure your skills and qualifications are seen and not ignored.

Translating Your Experience

Part of keyword optimization is speaking the same language as the recruiter or company to which you’re applying. For example, if your resume uses the phrase “Software Developer” but the job description uses the variation “Software Engineer,” your resume should say “Software Engineer” to match.

Resume keyword optimization translates your experience into terms the company actually uses so that the recruiter doesn’t accidentally skim over an important detail or filter you out in a search. This can apply to a variety of job titles, processes, techniques, soft skills, and other keywords.

Missing Skills and Keywords

Jobscan helps analyze a job description to reveal keywords that are missing from your resume. If this analysis reveals the skill “product development” and you don’t have any product development experience, you shouldn’t include it on your resume just to improve your match rate. The analysis can also spotlight skills that you simply forgot to include on your resume like a language, piece of software, or soft skills.

“I always recommend trying to squeeze [your resume] into one [page],” a non-profit recruiter told Jobscan. “But when you have that limited amount of real estate, there are going to be some things that you have to leave out.”

Resume keyword optimization helps identify the skills and keywords that should be kept in and prioritized.

When done right, resume keyword optimization is savvy and above board. It enhances your resume to work in sync with ATS without turning off recruiters. However, taking keywords to their extreme in the form of resume keyword stuffing is always a bad idea.

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