If you’re unsure whether to write your resume in past tense or present tense, traditional advice sides with common sense. If you’re describing something in your past, use past tense. Managed, coded, designed, marketed. If you’re describing something you’re still doing in your current job, use present tense. Manage, code, design, market.

Simple enough, right? Not so fast.

If someone is actually reading your resume top to bottom, that advice is sufficient. But most large companies use software that adds a layer of complexity to your word choices that extends beyond past and present tenses. Every resume keyword must be carefully considered.

Blame it on Applicant Tracking Systems

When you click “submit” on an online job application, your resume isn’t usually zapped directly to a hiring manager’s inbox for review. Most large companies use an applicant tracking system (ATS) as an intermediary. These systems can automatically rate applicants or allow the hiring manager to search for specific terms. The problem with that? The matching and search capabilities of most ATS stink.

Many ATS bill themselves as an all-in-one human resources tool. Many can post job listings, schedule interviews, and onboard new employees alongside their core applicant tracking functions. When ATS companies try to do too much, applicants fall through the cracks.

“ATS companies don’t focus a lot of effort into making search better because they sell the comprehensive solution,” Jobscan CEO James Hu recently said on the CareerCloud Radio podcast. “That becomes a problem for job seekers because search is not great. They’re often lost during that process.”

If a hiring manager searches their ATS for the noun “analyst” but you only have the verb “analyze” on your resume, they probably won’t find you. Even worse, the same problem can arise if they search for the present tense “manage” but you only have the past tense “managed.”

Resume Keyword Optimization

Job seekers have to work around this. A major part of optimizing your ATS resume is figuring out exactly which search terms and keywords a hiring manager is likely to use, right down to the tense or conjugation.

The most direct way to do that is to look at the job description. By reviewing what a hiring manager asked for and how they asked for it, you can get an idea of which words they’ll plug into the ATS after applications have been collected.

Carefully read through the job description or use Jobscan to determine which keywords (in whatever tense or style) are used the most. Work them into your resume exactly as they appear.

When Optimization and Traditional Advice Clash

What are you supposed to do when using the optimized form of a keyword throws a wrench into the style or tense of the rest of your resume? This is a major frustration in the fight against ATS, as stated by several Jobscan users in a recent survey.

“Changing the tense of a verb just to satisfy an ATS often creates a resume that appears sloppy to a human reader because adjacent bullet points are in different word tenses,” Darren W. told Jobscan. “I need to make the change to get past the ATS, but end up with a poor resume when presented to a reader.”

“It would be great if the system were more intuitive to understand plural use or, even better, different tenses in order to get an accurate read,” said Matt S. “I often find myself creating awkwardly phrased sentences in order to satisfy the system.”

“It is beyond frustrating that the ATS do not recognize various differences in verb tense and singular-plural variants,” said Scott H. “It forces the applicant to wordsmith and re-write sentences or entire sections to be ‘counted’ as a match.”

Some users, like Joy S., are at a loss: “How on earth do you get your past tense resume to match present tense job descriptions?”

Wordsmithing Your Resume

Present tense keywords in past experience

It might not come naturally to convert a past tense action verb like “managed” to “manage” or “managing,” but it’s possible without abandoning traditional advice. Simply move the tense to a different word in the sentence. For example:

Current Phrase (Past tense) Optimized Keyword New Phrase (Past Tense)
Managed team of 15 engineers…
Manage Brought in to manage team of 15 engineers…
Manager Served as manager for team of 15 engineers…
Managing Tasked with managing team of 15 engineers…
Management Excelled in management role over team of 15 engineers…

Use the same thought process when converting between singulars and plurals or nouns, verbs, and adjectives. Don’t just plug your optimized keyword into your old sentence. Instead, build a new sentence around the optimized keyword.

Current Phrase (Past Tense) Optimized Keyword New Phrase (Past Tense)
Researched and implemented marketing strategies
Strategy Shaped marketing strategy through research and implementation of…
Strategize Required me to strategize, research, and implement the marketing plan…
Strategist Marketing strategist tasked with research and implementation of…
Strategic Researched and implemented strategic marketing initiatives…

Tweaking job titles is OK

In many cases, hiring managers prefer candidates who have done the job before. With this in mind, the number one resume keyword is always going to be the job title for which you’re applying.

There are many variations of job titles based on industry, company culture, or experience levels. For example, you might be applying for a job as a “front-end developer” but your most recent experience is as a “front-end engineer.” If the job descriptions are practically the same, it’s not inappropriate to change the job title on your resume.

Ask for help

If you’re struggling to figure out how to insert an optimized keyword into your resume, get feedback from a friend. Writing and wordsmithing might come easier to others than it does to you, and sometimes all it takes is a set of fresh eyes.

When in doubt, use common sense

“At the end of the day, my best advice is to put yourself in the shoes of the recruiter,” Hu continued on the podcast. “Would you be searching for this keyword? If the answer is ‘yes,’ then it would make sense to include it in your resume.”

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