Project Management Keywords in CVs

We all know how ‘modern’ recruitment works in the UK.


Keywords are king.

They have to be.

Recruitment systems that hold hundreds and thousands of CVs have to be filtered in some way.

It’s just like Googling. You have to start with some basic keywords of what you’re looking for.

It’s a start. It’s a way to reduce the number of records to something manageable.

Something manageable that a human can then deal with.

Humans want to deal with the ones that are more likely to be the right person for the job.

Recruitment works exactly like that.

It’s no secret.


Play the Keyword Game

Recruitment is all about the keywords – it’s a game.

Get the right keywords in the CV (and in the right context!) and match what the recruiter or job advert is asking for.

Those are the rules.

In a recent recruitment drive for a Senior Project Manager – Digital Transformation we decided to share some insights of the game to some of the people who applied for the position.

Here’s a basic overview of the job to give you the general idea:

‘We are seeking a Senior Agile Project manager who can take up a 6 month contract which is tasked with the delivery of the UK Export Finance (UKEF) Digital Portal which is a priority project and a cornerstone in the wider UKEF Digital Programme.

In role you will be working with a third-party development agency, and in an Agile environment and take on the responsibility of leading this delivery.

Technical experience of building a Digital Portal into a secure, government, landing page is desirable and you will be able to show experience of delivering in both an Agile and PRINCE2 environment.’

Keywords for Project Managers

We had a lot of responses.

So we had to whittle those down to something manageable.

First up, let’s see who applied and had the word “Agile” in the CV:

  • 87% of CV’s contained the word ‘agile’

So that doesn’t help us a lot.

Take a look at the other obvious ones:

  • 47% of CV’s contained ‘senior project manager’
  • 22% of CV’s contained ‘digital transformation’
  • 12% of CV’s contained ‘agile delivery’
  • 9% of CV’s contained ‘agile project management’
  • 8% of CV’s contained ‘agile project manager’
  • 1.5% of CV’s contained ‘senior digital project manager’

So we shared these stats with the people who applied.

We thought it might help them with future applications.

If they understood a little more how recruitment works at the moment, they could make some tweaks here and there in the CV.

Feedback from Project Managers

Here is the first piece of  feedback from a Project Manager when shown the stats about the keywords:

It is a pity that people do not get an opportunity to progress at all past a recruiters idea of what words should be stated! Do you know what a Senior Project Manager for Digital Transformation actually does? Or have you ever been one, to know that your 2 candidates were the best two? Or just that they know how to play the keyword game!!!!

And here’s another one:

I just wanted to mention that this feedback is the best I have ever received in my many years as a contractor.

And another:

It’s interesting to see such stats. Did you get a chance to review my profile ? or was it screened out?

And finally:

Clearly, there is a competitive pool of Senior PM’s/Programme Managers out there in the market place and hence anything a prospective candidate can do to raise their profile or demonstrate experience, etc., is helpful.


That’s all we ever hope to be, giving useful advice for project practitioners when it comes to the project management marketplace.

So would you welcome feedback like this for an application you made for a job? How about knowing before you applied just how well placed the keywords were – or not appearing at all?

Let us know what you think in the comments below.

project-management-careers-clinicLooking for advice in your project management career? Why not try the project management careers clinic. Want to know how your CV performs for keywords? Book a career clinic and receive an overview of your CV as part of the service.

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  1. An interesting article but now asks the question – Where do cover notes/letters fall into the application scanning process if at all? If my cover letter clarifies precisely where, in the Senior Project Manager – Digital Transformation example above, I have the experience in agile, digital transformation etc and uses those terms does this add to any scores from the CV? If the Cover note does not form part of the scan is there any point in applicants putting any effort into them?

    1. Hi Martin – the cover note tends to be treated as a seperate document in recruitment databases and that doesn’t get keyword scanned. A common mistake I see is a good overview in the cover letter – which may use all the appropriate words – but then when the CV is opened – the same keywords are not there.

      My recommendation is – make sure whatever you write in the cover note – is clearly reflected in the CV too. Cover notes still do get read by some recruiters (it’s a personal preference) but personally – I would spend the time I would have spent on a cover note, tweaking my CV for each role I’m applying for.

  2. So keyword stuffing means “I have not worked as a X” means you turn up in a search for X and then might turn up in the shortlist. Surely we need a system of openly scoring CVs against skills and length of experience. By putting it in the open we do not get people unfairly eliminated.

    1. We certainly need a new business model in recruitment full stop! In your example yes you’ll appear in a list but of course the CVs are then still being reviewed by someone so the application will not go any further.

      Interestingly recruitment databases call these “keywords”, “skills” – which couldn’t be further from the truth. And again the database does pick up length of overall experience but obviously not in the different nuances of project management techniques etc

  3. What will happen when most of the CV are stuffed with the advert key words? How will you filterout then?

    To me it is a system that dismisses candidates that can do the job and shows how desperate the job market has become. Don’t believe the hype that the UK is out of depression as the facts on the ground show otherwise.

    1. Exactly Ash – the system is broken, the business model for recruitment on a mass scale is broken. Yes it’s like trying to find the needle in the haystack BUT the initial scanning does help – especially in project management – because there are so many people who apply for Project Management roles that in fact have very little experience. We’re not talking about 100 very closely matched candidates – there’s perhaps only 5 in there that are experienced and qualified to do the job.

      To answer the question – if you just stuff a CV with keywords from ads without the actual experience to back it up and get an interview – what’s the point? Who’s time is being wasted?

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