STEM Resume Breakdown, Part 4 of 6 – How to Highlight Skills & Expertise

In part 4 of our 6-part STEM Resume Breakdown series, we’re going to discuss one of the most overlooked, yet important elements of a STEM resume that gets results—the skills section. To better understand why this section is important in helping you secure a fulfilling job, we will first need to take a brief trek to the world of applicant tracking systems (ATS) and the role they play in the hiring process.

From there, we’ll cover the 3 different types of skills (and why I recommend you aim for a mix of all 3). By the end of this post, you’ll walk away with 4 helpful tips on how to strategically identify, integrate, and balance keywords as skills, and optimize your positioning as a well-rounded candidate that employers would be excited to interview.

Let’s get started!

First, a brief look at ATS …

Today, 97% of large companies and over 80% of small- and medium-sized companies are using ATS to scan resumes for keywords and selection criteria that match the role they are looking to fill. Unfortunately, this is where most job seekers get hurt since many highly qualified applicants wind up getting screened out of roles.

If your resume fails to connect the dots between your qualifications and skills to the job target, it’s likely that your resume will never be seen by a human reader. That being said, your resume must read well for both humans and machines.

What does a ‘Skills’ section have to do with ATS?

One of the easiest ways to integrate keywords into your resume is by creating a ‘Key Skills’ or ‘Core Areas of Expertise’ section underneath, or as a part of your summary. One of the primary reasons that recruiters like skills section is because it makes it easier to pick out specific keywords and selection criteria without having to scan through large chunks of text.

To help you better visualize what this could potentially look like on a resume, let’s take a look at some examples. These samples that you’re about to view include the most important elements that we went over in part 1, part 2, and part 3 to show you different options for how you can position this information on your own resume. These examples were sourced from real Scientech Resumes clients. Any potential identifying information has removed or disguised to protect client confidentiality.

One of the most common and easiest ways to display skills on your resume is by simply organizing them in a column-like format, like the example above. Using the shading and border line techniques we went over in part 1, we are able to draw attention to specific information while adding a hint of style.

Recommendation: If you choose to organize your skills using this approach, I highly recommend using hard-set tabs instead of the actual column function. Not only will this technique help you utilize your resume real estate more effectively, but you’ll also avoid any potential ATS issues that can occur due to difficulties in ATS extracting information placed in columns. Even better, it’ll make it much easier for you to easily tweak and adjust this section as needed when you apply for different roles.

Let’s take a look at a second example that uses a different style.


In this example, we’ve positioned the ‘Core Skills & Knowledge’ section alongside the client’s summary, denoted by the 4 bulleted items. This is another effective way to utilize your resume space, although it requires that you know how to use the tables function in MS Word. Hint: Notice that I said ‘tables’ instead of ‘text boxes.’ I highly advise against using text boxes on a resume. Reason? You guessed it. ATS compatibility.

What does a ‘Skills’ section have to do with ATS?

At Scientech Resumes, we aim to position our clients as well-rounded, desirable candidates using 3 types of skills:

  • Technical/Job-specific: Better known as hard skills, or skills and knowledge that you gained directly from working in a specific job or industry. Some examples can include industry-specific certifications or licenses, knowledge of certain computer programs, or a degree or field of study.
  • Transferable: Commonly known as soft skills that are acquired in one profession but are beneficial to another. Examples of transferable skills include organization, communication, and how you lead and work in teams.
  • Adaptive: Adaptive traits refer to the practical, everyday skills that you use to perform within your environment. This can include your ability to make decisions, influence people, meet deadlines, or handle criticism.

In my experience, I’ve found that many job seekers, especially STEM professionals, have a tendency to overly focus on technical skills over transferable and adaptive skills. Now, technical skills are important for showing that you possess the basic knowledge and capabilities to do the job.

However, a 2014 national survey by Career Builder revealed that 77% of employers believe that soft skills are just as important as hard skills. This position makes a lot of sense for a couple reasons: 1) it’s easier to train someone in a hard skill versus a soft skill and 2) soft skills are the traits that govern human interaction. And what employer wouldn’t want the best of both worlds?

How many skills do you list?

While it may be tempting to list every skill that you possess, you don’t want to make this section too long. That would negate the purpose of enhancing your resume’s readability. Instead, you want to concentrate on emphasizing the skills and attributes that will be most relevant to your desired career target and beneficial to the employer.

This process may be harder for some and easier for others. If you’re currently working in a position that is similar to the next role that you want to target, you will have a much easier time in aligning your current skills and knowledge to your next job. On the other hand, let’s say you’re looking to change careers, transition to a different industry, or advance to the managerial or a high-level leadership role. In that case, you’ll have some extra work to do in aligning your skills and qualifications with your desired career target.

Here are 4 tips to help you identify your keywords and build out your skills section:

  • Start by studying the job posting. Look closely at the selection criteria to identify the qualifications, knowledge, and specific traits desired for the role. Write down or highlight as many relevant keywords from the job description that align with your skills, qualifications, and unique value.

  • Narrow down your list. Doing the exercise above may likely leave you with a long list of keywords. Review your list and compare to the job posting. Look for the words that are repeated and make a point to connect these keywords to your career story.

  • Note specific action verbs. While nouns are the most important, you can often uncover additional keywords by studying the verbs that the job posting uses. Recruiters love to strong action verbs because they’re engaging and they breathe life into the achievements presented in your resume. We’ll discuss this topic in greater detail in part 5 of our series.

  • Balance the keywords in your resume and cover letter. Don’t overlook the importance in the opportunity that a cover letter provides you with in introducing your resume and demonstrating your value to the employer. A general rule of thumb in the resume writing industry is to use your cover letter to sprinkle in the most important soft skills relevant to the role while emphasizing more of the hard skills in your resume.

Where else can you include keywords?

The short answer? Everywhere! Don’t stop at the skills section. A resume that gets results must have keywords woven throughout all areas of your resume as we illustrated in the examples above. Your branded headline, summary, skills, and your experience and education sections are all areas where you can incorporate industry language. Don’t forget about your cover letter, which offers you an additional opportunity to address how your experiences and qualifications can meet the employer’s needs.

That being said, I advise that you concentrate most of your keyword optimization efforts in top-loading your resume, such as your headline, personal brand statement, summary, and skills sections.

Where else can you find keywords?

There are many resources out on the Internet that can help you find common keywords used in your industry.

I recommend the following:

  • Company website
  • Google
  • O*Net Occupational Directory
  • Word cloud apps. One of my favorites (and easiest to use) is TagCrowd. With this app, you can copy and paste job descriptions into a text box. From there, the app generates a nicely organized word cloud to help you visualize word frequency within a specific job post. Plus there’s no sign-up required!

Whether you’re applying for a specific job in your industry or targeting a few different roles, it’s important to pay attention to the details. Keywords have a very broad and diverse range. Along the way, you’ll need to make some adjustments. Most of the time, you won’t have to change much. A lot of the effort involved in customizing your resume lies in adding, substituting, or removing specific keywords and skills for different roles.

It can take months of sending out a subpar resume to realize that you’ve lost time, money, and most importantly, job opportunities. If you’re struggling to optimize your resume with the right keywords that communicate your unique value, credibility, and expertise, please get in touch. Scientech Resumes helps job seekers and entrepreneurs position themselves for fulfilling roles within the science (incl. medical), technology (incl. IT), engineering, and mathematics fields.

Schedule a 30-minute, complimentary career discovery session to get some real-time feedback on your current resume and job search strategy. I’d love to help get you where you want to go, with greater results!


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