Federal Careers

While USAJOBS is not a traditional Applicant Tracking Software (ATS) system like most of the private sector uses, key words are still important. Whether you are applying for a position in the private, nonprofit, or government sectors, being able to identify and use key words is an essential skill. And it’s important not just to identify those key words, but also to use them in your resume.

ATS, widely used in the private sector, actually “reads” your resume and searches for key words. Applicants who submit resumes without key words are rarely found by ATS—and therefore not read by a real person. Real people do actually read federal resumes—if you have scored yourself appropriately on the occupational questionnaire.


What are key words? Key words are the “buzz words” or phrases in an announcement that address the knowledge, skills, abilities, and competencies for the job you are targeting. You can find them by carefully analyzing the job posting. Look at the job title, the specific qualifications (both required and desired), and duties.

For federal job postings, also look at the specialized experience requirements and language of the occupational questionnaires. Write down the specific language you see most often and use it in your resume. This is not the time to get out your Roget’s Thesaurus; mirror exactly the language you see it in the posting. If the posting says “cybersecurity” and spells it as one word, you do the same—even if you prefer spelling it as two words or hyphenated.
Use the identified key words in your summary, as well as in your description of your duties, and of course, in your achievements. Here are some ideas:
• In your summary: Cybersecurity expert, with more than 10 years’ experience…
• In your description of duties: Plan and direct cybersecurity efforts in …
• In your achievements: Improved cybersecurity throughout the agency by…

Be careful to not overdo your use of key words; you do not want it to look like your entire resume is one big keyword dump. That being said, be sure to include all (or at least the vast majority) of key words in your resume.

If you are using a cover letter, you should include a couple of key words in that document as well. Using key words will help the reader know right away that you have taken the time to actually read the posting and address their interests and needs.

Does using key words mean that you have to adjust or tweak your resume for every job posting? You bet it does! While people get jobs with poor resumes every day, the savvy job seeker takes the time to customize their resume to maximized their opportunity for success!!