Show Off Your “SSKA”- Resume Keywords Explained

I read an article today about using keywords when updating and/or creating a resume. While I’m certain the writer had good intentions to provide useful information, after reading through the negative comments left by other readers and further analyzing the article myself it became very apparent that the writer didn’t provide enough rationale to support the basic fundamentals or proper usage of keywords such as, “what, why, where, when and how” to use keywords to catch and keep the attention of your next employer.  It’s true, keywords add value to a resume but if you are just throwing words around without explanation, those keywords will undoubtedly be the reason your resume gets tossed into the “file” pile of the HR Manager’s recycle bin.  So with that said, let’s get down to basics…

What are keywords?

The simple answer; Keywords are what HR Managers like to define as “KSA” or knowledge, skills and abilities.  In every industry, every position and every workplace there are standard protocols in place for hiring the best talent.  HR Managers are looking for a specific set of criteria to fill their positions with the people who are most qualified to perform the job duties required.  These criteria can include soft skills, technical skills, transferable skills, industry skills, education, analytical skills…In fact the list is quite comprehensive because every employer wants their own version of “KSA,” which is daunting and sometimes frustrating because now the answer doesn’t seem quite so simple.  I do however have a relatively simple way to explain this…

Rather than looking at the big picture, let’s break this down into something more manageable.  What if we turn KSA into “SSKA” Skills, Strengths, Knowledge and Attributes…so, for every skill you present, you define it with your strengths (or experience) and then with your knowledge and finally an attribute.  For example: 

Someone working in an office environment may have SSKA that looks like this

  • Skill  = MS Office    
  • Strength = Word, Excel, PowerPoint (Your strengths should represent your experience)
  • Knowledge = Letters, Spreadsheets, Presentations
  • Attribute = Proficient

That was an easy example but truth be told, as long as you have a skill or six ;), this isn’t a difficult approach to creating your own list of keywords that will be useful in your next resume.  By the way, all of the words used in that example are in fact keywords.

How do I generate a list of keywords?

There are a couple of ways to generate a list of keywords but I think the most important thing you should do first is determine who your audience is.  In other words; what are the industries, companies and positions will you be applying to?  What is your job target?  Many of us have worked in various occupations but somehow I am almost positive that applying for a position as a flight attendant and using your keywords for an inventory clerk position will not add any value to your resume.  In which case, you will need to do a little more career exploration before you begin adding keywords to your resume.

Start with defining your job target first and from there…

  • Analyze your employment history for relationships between what you have done in previous jobs and how they relate to the type of job you are looking for now…but don’t stop there, use the SSKA example above as a guide.  By using this approach, you will be able to not only define your skills as keywords but you will also use keyword explanations that back-up your skills…For example;

Your previous experience indicates you worked as a sales associate for Canadian Tire then your SSKA will look something like this-

  • Skills = Retail Sales, Cashier, Stocking, Inventory Control, Quality Assurance
  • Strengths = Sales and Service, Customer Service, Cash, Debit and Credit Transactions, Shipping/Receiving
  • Knowledge = Tires, Radiators, Auto Parts, Auto Accessories, Auto Maintenance
  • Attributes = Efficient, Mechanically Inclined, Courteous, Diplomatic, Analytic

(Hint-Try using a table with four columns and label them Skills, Strengths, Knowledge, and Attributes and then add the rows to define them. Look at the example below)


  •  Then, analyze your transferable and soft skills as well as education and how you can effectively forge relationships between things like customer service, communication, coursework and certificates/degrees you have earned that support your keywords-(Same concept as the example above)
  •  And finally, research employer job postings and analyze what they are asking for that compares to your SSKA.  This approach will require you to read between the lines, as often times the employer is more descriptive in their job posting than you are in stating your qualifications through keywords…for example;

 If the employer is asking for someone to 

  •  Facilitate workshops, establish new business from networking opportunities and promote upcoming events with community partners, business associates and potential clientele…

What they are really asking for is someone who has

  • “Public Speaking, Public Relations, Networking, Special Event Marketing, and Relationship Management” in their background…

All of which are keywords!  But again, don’t stop there, as the above example only provides the skill.  Now you need to explain or back-up those skills with Strengths, Knowledge and Attributes.   Which leads me to abilities, as I’m sure you are wondering why I don’t apply the usual “KSA” to this methodology…it is simply because your abilities can be best explained through short descriptions you provide within the details of your employment history.

 Where and when do I provide keywords?

There are several schools of thought on this…one way is to “pepper” these keywords throughout your resume and possibly use them in the resume title, another is to use them in your summary or highlights of qualifications, another is to develop a profile statement that includes the most relevant keywords, and still another way is to make them invisible on a second page.  I must say, all of these ways with the exception of the last one are acceptable but I do have a preference that may alarm you…

Put them somewhere near the top in a table inside hidden borders.  The reason I prefer this is because the HR professional tasked with reading it sees it right away without having to read through a “laundry list” of duties and also because your keywords won’t get missed by the computer generated programs that read the resume before a human being does.   

One thing to keep in mind when doing this; it is important that you keep your keywords relational to your employment history and relevant to the job you are applying for, as over use of keywords is atrocious on a resume and not defining them further through the descriptions in your employment history is a recipe for disaster.  My general rule of thumb is to use no more than six and no less than four SSKA examples. 

Why Use Keywords?

Now that I have covered the “What, where, when and how…it is time for the why;

Your resume is a reflection of your SSKA, so why not let it be seen instead of making your next employer hunt for the information? Why make the employer read through endless paragraphs or sift through an over abundance of bullet points about what you did at previous jobs in order to present the facts they are looking for? Time is of the essence here and truthfully you have about 15-20 seconds to capture and keep their interest.  So make it simple for them to find the most important facts about your SSKA but also make sure your keywords are relevant to your job target and experience and most importantly that you can explain your keywords within the resume and expand on your explanations when it comes time for the interview!   

If you don’t capture and keep the attention of the reader right off the bat, what do you think your chances are of getting invited to interview?  Show off your SSKA!

Give it a try!  And…Best wishes on your next job!

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