These days, if you want your resume to have any chance of getting into the hands of human hiring managers, you need to employ the right keywords to get it past automated applicant tracking systems (ATS). The problem with this high-tech-minded strategy is that resumes tend to all sound the same.
So how do you thwart the robots without sounding like one? One word: synonyms.
January 18 is National Thesaurus Day, a holiday that commemorates the birth of Peter Mark Roget, who first published Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases in 1852. A successful career shifter, Roget was a respected medical doctor before he wrote the reference work that would make him famous.
In honor of Roget and his dual career success story, why not seek out some fresh synonyms to replace those overused resume words? A vivid new narrative can convey a clearer picture of your value and help you stand out from other applicants. Should you need help writing or retooling the most important words in your resume, consider putting a free resume builder to work.
Step 1: Target and Replace (Some) Overused Words
Each year, LinkedIn tallies the most frequently used resume words from the past year. Heading up the most recent list of overused resume words were specialize, experienced, skilled, leadership, passionate, expert, motivated, creative, strategic, and focused.
It’s likely many of the words on this list are used frequently because they are the most sought-after qualities found in job descriptions. Any recruiter will tell you that you need to mirror the keywords used in job listings as closely as possible to make it past the ATS. But you also want to set yourself apart once hiring managers have your resume in hand.
Common descriptions of sought-after attributes eventually become clichés and lose their potency, especially for hiring managers who read a high volume of resumes. So how do you strike the right balance? The best strategy is to use most keywords from the job ad, but to also think of fresh ways to express those attributes so that you are not repeating the same 10-12 words in multiple sections of your resume.
Let’s say you want to communicate that you are “skilled” in a fresh way. A quick glance at an online thesaurus brings up the synonyms “adept,” “proficient,” “adroit,” “deft,” “astute,” and “apt.” Not only will employing a few of these give your professional narrative a bit of variety, it will also demonstrate your communication skills much more effectively than using a tired cliché like “excellent communicator.”
Step 2: Weed Out the Negatives
When ZipRecruiter analyzed the more than 3 million resumes on its site to see which words garnered the highest and lowest ratings from employers, it found that the following words prompted the most negative reactions from hiring managers: hard, need, first, me, time, myself, chance, develop, and learning.
These words sparked the most positive responses: experience, management, project, development, business, skill, professional, knowledge, team, and leadership. Of course, some of these positively assessed words are also used frequently.
Some words contain negative connotations; for example, “unemployed,” “ambitious,” or “seasoned.” Recruiters report finding certain phrases irritating as well, among them “best of breed,” “team player,” or “people person.”
Finally, recruiters caution job seekers to avoid business jargon, such as “synergy,” “wheelhouse,” or “hit the ground running.”
Step 3: Be Specific
According to Forbes, generic claims, such as “results-driven,” “responsible,” and “motivated,” simply take up space without conveying much. In addition, relying on subjective adjectives—smart, savvy, senior-level, strategic, insightful, talented, multiskilled, motivated, out-of-the-box, accomplished, or hardworking—can read as bragging.
Instead, refer to specific accomplishments that will lead hiring managers to conclude that you are talented and effective. Another strategy, this one from Inc.com, urges jobseekers to ditch overused resume words in the form of vague action verbs—managed, established, defined, performed—and replace them with success verbs like increased, reduced, improved, accelerated, eliminated, introduced, streamlined, and grew.
These success verbs are even more powerful when followed by a specific numerical value; for example, “accelerated production by 30 percent, eliminating costs by 10 percent.”
Step 4: Be Yourself
Using a thesaurus is an excellent way to replace overused resume words, but it comes with risks. Take the search for synonyms for “skilled” from Step 1, for instance. You might be tempted to use a replacement term like “artful” without realizing that the word has negative connotations and can also be a synonym for conniving—definitely not an impression you want to leave on a hiring manager.
A thesaurus is likely to list words that are similar in meaning, but not all will be exact matches for the word you are looking to replace, so be sure you are certain of all the possible meanings of the words you select using this process. Pick the words that you are most comfortable with and that sound like you. Your resume should convey your professional story in your own unique voice.