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How To Use Keywords To Get Your Industry Resumes Past Applicant Tracking System Software

applicant tracking system software | Cheeky Scientist | recruitment management system
Written by Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.

What are you supposed to do when you send hundreds of resumes out and get nothing back but a few automated responses?

This is the question I was trying to answer my last year of graduate school.

I literally sent out hundreds of resumes.

I posted my resume on and waited for the tidal wave of industry job offers to roll in.

My disillusionment came to an abrupt end when, of course, nothing happened.

I polished up a generic resume and uploaded it to dozens of industry job websites.

What I didn’t know was that 75% of resumes never even make it to the hiring manager’s inbox.

I had a 25% chance of getting my resume seen at all and only a few seconds to make an impression that would keep my resume from hitting the recycling bin.

I remember getting on Pfizer’s and Baxter’s websites, clicking the job opportunities tabs, and seeing all the industry job openings.

“Yes!” I thought, as new disillusionment announced itself.

This is going to be easy.

I’ll just upload my resume and have an offer by the end of the week.

There couldn’t possibly be that many other PhDs out there applying to the same PhD jobs, right?


The truth is, I had no idea what to expect during a job search.

I found out later that some companies receive over 2,000 resumes a day.

2,000 a day!

My generic resume was not going to stand out from 2,000 others.

How To Target A Resume To A Specific Job Opening

Resumes need to be targeted for a particular job role or narrow range of positions.

Otherwise they’ll be passed over.

Generic resumes that are non-targeted are unlikely to attract the attention of hiring managers or recruiters.

The only thing that stands out with a generic resume is that you’re not that invested in working for them.

It can give the impression that you are lazy and don’t know what you want.

A targeted resume is one that has been adapted for the job that the candidate is applying for.

In all cases, resumes need to be targeted.

Even if you are applying for a similar role at a different company, what that business is specifically looking for will be unique, and your resume needs to reflect the exact role that you are going after.

You may have a base resume that you adapt for different jobs, but you will need to adapt it in each case for the job in question. There are two main and important reasons for creating targeted resumes for each role that you apply for.

One is that it is very obvious to a hiring manager or recruiter when you send them a resume that you send to every job that comes up.

That’s rightyou’re not fooling anyone with your sneaky generic resume.

Since recruiters are looking at resumes all day, they can see the difference between a targeted one and a generic one that has been sent to many employers.

A non-targeted resume sends a message of, “I don’t care enough to put any real effort into applying for this job.”

This is NOT the first message you want to send to a potential new employer.

The second, and arguably more important reason for targeting your resume, is that your resume may first be scanned for keywords and phrases by an online algorithm, generally known as Applicant Tracking System software.

This means if the most important words and phrases are not on your resume, then it simply will not get picked up by the search engine or ever get seen by the recruiter.

If you’re uploading a resume online without first obtaining a referral, your resume and cover letter are reduced to a single line on an Application Tracking System software report like the one below.

applicant tracking system keywords | Cheeky Scientist | top applicant tracking systems

Why No One Is Responding To Your Uploaded Industry Resume

On average, 2,000-3,000 candidates apply to each and every position posted by a major biotechnology, pharmaceutical, or medical company.

A report by the Talent Function Group found that for each batch of 100 resumes uploaded to a job posting, 75 will be screened out by either Applicant Tracking Systems software or a recruiter and only 25 resumes will be seen by the hiring manager.

In the end, only 4 to 6 applicants will be invited for an interview, 1 to 3 of them will be invited back for a final interview, and 1 will be offered that job.

The odds are NOT in your favor, especially if you’re not networking and getting referrals.

The ways in which Applicant Tracking Systems software weeds out your resume are complex and diverse.

However, there are some common themes between these software packages…

For example, as seen on the image above, if you’re asked to enter a salary and the salary you entered is above the limit entered by the hiring manager, your information will be eliminated immediately.

The same is true if you have not been employed consistently over the time period you entered under your work experience (what constitutes “consistency” varies between companies, which is why it can be to your advantage to leave out your employment dates on a resume you’re uploading).

Your education is summarized into a small statistic that will NOT provide any information about your expertise or even what type of PhD you have.

Finally, your resume will be ranked, via a starred system or otherwise, in terms of how many relevant keywords you included in your resume.

As a result of all of this, the likelihood of your resume being read by a human being (or even skimmed for the average 5-7 seconds), is slim to none.

The only way to ensure that your resume gets in the hands of a hiring manager is by getting a referral and emailing your resume directly to the expectant hiring manager. 

How To Target A Resume To A Specific Job Opening

Every single resume you write should be developed based on the precise role that you are applying for.

This means you must examine the job advertisement (and if available, the job description) in depth to deduce exactly what the organization is looking for in a candidate.

If a job description is unavailable, you must network with professionals at the company to find out this information.

The key is to use the language — and more specifically, the keywords — that your audience (the employer) uses; not your own language and keywords.

Once you make a list of keywords, you can start looking at how your transferable skills can be linked to these words to demonstrate that you are suitable for the job.

A report by IT World suggests using keywords from the job description but cautions against overuse and recommends using a word cloud generator to help you find the right keywords to highlight in your resume.

Good targeted resumes include keywords or keyword phrases which a recruiter might type into a job website search engine to find suitable resumes for a role that they are hiring for.

For example, a person targeting a role in either marketing or project management may want to create two slightly different resumes with each one focusing on a different role.

In this way, the person can use project management language and focus on their experience of managing projects in one resume; and in the other, use marketing key terms and emphasize their marketing experience.

You need to target your resume accordingly, using the employer’s keywords in conjunction with your transferable skills.

The competition for industry jobs is intense. Hiring managers and recruiters are inundated with thousands of applications for a single job opening. Screening for qualified applicants is arduous, tedious, and overwhelming. To be efficient, the majority of large corporations have implemented Applicant Tracking Systems software with set algorithms to eliminate unqualified or inappropriate applicants electronically. After that, hiring managers or recruiters spend only seconds scanning your resume before deciding whether or not to advance you to the next tier in the process. This means that your industry resume needs to have specific formatting for both electronic and human screening to have the best chance of making it through for consideration for an interview.

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Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.

Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.

Isaiah is a Ph.D. in Anatomy & Cell Biology and internationally recognized Fortune 500 consultant. He is an expert in the biotechnology industry and specializes in helping people transition into cutting-edge career tracks.

Isaiah believes that if you feel stuck somewhere in your life right now, you should make a change. Don’t sit still and wait for the world to tell you what to do. Start a new project. Build your own business. Take action. Experimentation is the best teacher.
Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.
  • Matthew Smithson PhD

    This is literally a life-changing post! I remember sending out tons of resumes and even hand-delivering them to make sure they actually got there. What I didn’t realize was that everything I was taught was wrong! I was specifically told by the geniuses at school that you should NOT include a reference until after they’d interviewed you and asked for one. What an idiot I feel like for following their advice. Fortunately, I eventually got lucky and found a position, but I’d love to be able to hand out this article to every young PhD candidate I know.

    • Charisse Cappello

      Funny, I always felt guilty about targeting my resume to the job opening. I was afraid that they could tell when I dropped or downplayed certain skills while highlighting others. To think that they actually appreciate the clarity of targeting the resume! I have a feeling that I wasted a lot of time…

      • Dr. Isaiah Hankel

        Glad we could clear things up for you, Charisse. Targeting your resume is definitely the way to go.

  • Sonja Luther

    Wow! That’s overwhelming! Out of 3,000 applicants, they only actually read 25! I’m going to have to study this article.

    • Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      I know, the numbers are shocking, aren’t they Sonja?

  • Marvin D’Esprit

    SEO is really part of our lives now. Everything seems to depend on whether or not you’re using the right keywords. I wonder if this applies to dating?

  • Kathy Azalea

    No matter how many articles I see about how difficult it is to get someone to review your resume, it’s still a shocker when I see the actual stats! But it’s great that you’re giving us practical info about how to fill one out and get it past the screening. I can’t thank you enough.

  • Madeline Rosemary

    This is revolutionary advice! Leave out your employment dates on a resume? I’ve never heard of this idea. But it makes SO MUCH SENSE when you’re talking about the machine scanners eliminating it if there’s any gaps. This is so valuable to know. I never would have thought of half of the items on this list.

  • Harvey Delano

    This is great. I especially love the idea of using a word cloud generator to come u with compatible key words. 🙂

    • Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      Glad you thought so, Harvey!

  • Carlie Stevenson, PhD

    Gosh, it seems that no matter how much you know about applying for positions and creating targeted resumes, there are always more layers of expertise to learn about. That’s why I like CS: I like keeping up on the latest ideas so I stay relevant in my field and don’t have to worry about missing some of the changes. 🙂

    • Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      Thanks for commenting, Carlie. Glad we can keep you on top of all the latest changes.

  • Theo

    I can see I better get busy.

  • Julian Holst

    I thought so! I’ve been telling some people (who think they’re very smart) that you can’t use the keywords over and over and over until the whole resume looks stupid, but they don’t believe me. To be honest, I think that overusing those keywords in a really obvious way also plays into the category of not putting enough effort into the resume and coming across like you really don’t want the job that much. I have this devilish urge to “forget” to mention this article to them.

  • Ayesha Brown

    Great! Thank you!

    Applicant tracking systems are super important to consider when you’re job searching, these 8 tips really helped me when I started my job search. Really useful info.

  • CVScan

    For keyword matching, I would rather suggest using CVScan UK than world cloud generators as it’s not their main purpose. CVScan UK is a free tool specifically designed to compare a CV against a job description.