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Maybe AI can finally kill the cover letter

Illustration of a printed cover letter with colored words hovering around it.
Paige Vickers for Vox

Jobs still require cover letters. Apps like ChatGPT can help.

Grace wanted a better-paid job based closer to where she lived, but she dreaded writing another cover letter. And although her job as a land-use planner does require some writing, she felt a cover letter wouldn’t actually do a good job of showcasing it.

“It’s technical writing,” Grace said. “It’s not plucky ‘You should hire me because I’m amazing but my weakness is I’m extra amazing.’”

Instead, she took a friend’s advice and used ChatGPT, the text-generating AI software that’s gone viral in recent months. Grace, who asked that we leave out her last name so as not to jeopardize her employment, gave the AI the job description and fed it some qualifications she wanted to highlight. ChatGPT spat out an “adequate” cover letter that she gave a quick edit.

She ended up getting the job but she doesn’t think it was because of her cover letter. “I think they just looked at my resume,” she said.

Grace is one of a growing number of job seekers turning to AI to complete what can be one of the more arduous — and arguably unnecessary — steps in the hiring process. A recent online survey from job service site Resume Builder found that nearly half of current and recent job seekers were using ChatGPT to write their resumes or cover letters. LinkedIn, TikTok, and media outlets abound with info on the best ways to get a decent cover letter from the software.

Using technology like ChatGPT to apply for a job raises some thorny ethical questions, like whether you’re misrepresenting yourself to a potential employer. But job seekers see it as a necessary step toward getting ahead in a job application process that’s fraught with inefficiencies and unfairness. The hiring process, in general, is getting longer and longer, and companies themselves are using software to screen out employees — a process that feels like a black box. Consumer AI software can let job seekers feel like they’re fighting bot to bot.

It also forces people to ask if cover letters are even important these days, and if there might be better ways to design the application process so that job seekers don’t have to resort to an AI to write one in the first place.

Do cover letters even matter?

The main point of cover letters is to explain why your experience would make you a good fit for a position, but that’s also information hiring managers can glean from your resume or a phone call. And now that AI can make a pretty decent cover letter with the right prompts and a bit of editing, the exercise of writing one by hand can feel more pointless than ever.

I wrote a very basic prompt for ChatGPT and got back a not terrible cover letter.

The extent to which employers are asking for cover letters these days is unclear. Alex Alonso, chief knowledge officer at the Society for Human Resource Management, says that “most” professional jobs still ask for a cover letter. Recruiters we spoke to pegged that rate at closer to 10 or 20 percent. Data from Indeed, which hosts job listings for job listings that traditionally require cover letters and those that don’t, shows that just 2 percent mentioned a cover letter.

What we do know is that many hiring managers are not actually reading cover letters. Alonso says that hiring managers spend very little time, a couple minutes at most, reviewing an applicant’s qualifications before deciding whether or not to disqualify them.

While a cover letter can be a place for applicants to explain why they might be good for a role they aren’t quite qualified for, or to explain away a work gap or career change, it’s not likely many get to those details in that amount of time. Rather, most hiring managers — two-thirds, he estimates — are simply checking whether or not you included the cover letter they asked for, rather than judging the erudition of your prose.

“Most employers don’t really put a lot of stock in what goes into the cover letter other than to demonstrate that the person understood that they should have one,” Alonso said. “To use TikTok parlance: Yes, they understood the assignment.”

For the occasions when hiring managers do want to know if an applicant is good at making a persuasive argument or linking their skills to the job description, it’s also not clear cover letters do a good job of these things. For example, James Shea, a freelance writer who has consulted clients on using ChatGPT, doesn’t think that a cover letter, with its formulaic structure and braggy nature, is a good way of showcasing his writing talent.

“It’s a terrible form of communication,” said Shea. “I have a portfolio of writing that shows I can write. Do I have to write a formal, arcane cover letter?

Shea recently used ChatGPT as a starting point for writing some cover letters. He says he’s been using the generative AI application as a sort of editor, taking bits and pieces from ChatGPT’s output when he thinks the suggestions are good, then tailoring it to be better.

Applicants are not the only ones who don’t care for cover letters. It’s also apparent that employers themselves are valuing them less and less.

Experts say that requiring cover letters has been on the decline for a while. But whether or not the job explicitly asks for cover letters or someone actually reads them, many job seekers still fear skipping them, lest its absence costs them a job.

“I think cover letters have been utterly useless for quite some time now,” said Atta Tarki, co-founder of recruiting firm TalentCompass and author of Evidence-Based Recruiting. Still, if an employer asked for a cover letter, he’d include a very short one. “It’s an unnecessary risk not to put it in.”

The perceived need for cover letters also varies by industry. Tejal Wagadia, a senior technical recruiter, says it’s rare to see tech companies these days require a cover letter. She also urges hiring managers not to ask for them and to look at writing samples or portfolios instead.

“I’m all about candidates and job seekers not doing extra work if they don’t have to,” Wagadia said.

Still, she does receive cover letters from time to time, and she reads them.

What’s the alternative?

Job seekers are in the strange position of needing to write cover letters that are unlikely to be read but in some cases are important. So why not make the process a little easier?

Experts we spoke to said it’s probably fine to use ChatGPT to get a general structure or to get ideas, but that it’s important to personalize and edit your cover letter. A good rule of thumb is to give the AI the job description and your resume, and to tell it what skills of yours to highlight or what tone you’re going for.

It’s not necessary for you to disclose that you wrote your cover letter with the help of ChatGPT. After all, people have been using templates and writing services to write their cover letters for years. Just be sure to edit it enough that that doesn’t feel like the case. Alonso, from the Society for Human Resource Management, thinks that disclosing that you used AI could actually be beneficial, since it demonstrates to potential employers that you’re efficient and resourceful.

And if you can avoid a cover letter — or at least outsource some of the work to ChatGPT — there are far better uses of your time when it comes to actually getting a job. Wagadia says the most important document you submit is your resume, so make sure that’s up to date, well-written, and has a short summary that does some of the heavy lifting a cover letter is supposed to do, like explaining why your skills are good for a certain job.

“A resume should say everything that it needs to say to identify whether you’re qualified for a role or not,” Wagadia said. “As a recruiter, my first question is: Is this candidate qualified for the role that they have applied for and for the role that I’m recruiting for? If the answer is yes, whatever the cover letter says does not matter.”

Tarki said it’s much more effective to send a short email or LinkedIn message — two paragraphs — to the employer, saying why you’re interested in the job and offering any other helpful information. Networking and relying on common connections to make introductions or vouch for you is also a plus.

Austin Belcak, founder of job coaching site Cultivated Culture and creator of a video instructing people how to use ChatGPT to write a cover letter, advocates for spending time you saved on the cover letter doing things like researching the company for ways where you can add value, and networking. If you’re able to snag a referral from people who work at a company, he says you’re much more likely to get an interview than simply by applying online. He also suggests creating a pitch deck that would show rather than tell why you’re good for a role.

There are clearly many good alternatives to the dreaded cover letter. But until it can be replaced completely, people will continue to use available technology to do what they don’t want to.

Cigdem Polat Dautov became a software engineer to make people’s lives easier by eliminating redundant and repetitive tasks. Now, as she searches for a job, she sees using ChatGPT to write cover letters just like she’d use any other technology. She enjoys playing around with the software to see what it can yield, and then edits around its shortcomings.

“In the end, it’s a tool,” she said.

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