Between the Terminator and every other Black Mirror episode, a robot takeover rightfully feels like the stuff of nightmares. But an A.I. invasion is slowly seeping into real life, as Roombas take over the world of sweeping dust, Alexa speakers co-opt the role of selecting music, and ChatGPT takes a whirl at making content no one else wants to write—like cover letters.
As with many things, the hype surrounding ChatGPT has stirred both excitement and dismay in the workplace. While some workers are worried A.I. will take over their jobs, others have found the tool helpful for them while they job hunt. Of the one-third of nearly 4,000 employees in a survey conducted by The Harris Poll for Fortune, 61% say they’re using the A.I. technology in their search—mostly to practice interview questions, but also for help writing their résumé and cover letter.
I don’t blame them; the idea of never having to write a corny cover letter again feels relieving, even if it’s a bit unnerving to rely on a product whose founder even admits to be in its early stages. There’s also the issue of whether it’s ethical to have a robot write your cover letter—it feels a bit like copying someone else’s homework. But would a recruiter even notice?
I recently tested out my theory, prompting ChatGPT to “write me a cover letter with the qualifications from the below job listing,” plugging in a position for a copywriter at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Like dull magic, a pretty generic cover letter followed:
Dear Hiring Manager,
I am excited to apply for the copywriter position at Brooklyn Academy of Music that was recently advertised on LinkedIn. With my six months of copywriting experience and intuitive sense for clear communication, I am confident in my ability to fulfill the essential duties and responsibilities of this role.
In my previous role as a copywriter for a marketing agency, I developed copy for a range of mediums, including emails, web content, social media, and digital ads. I worked collaboratively with clients to ensure that their vision was accurately conveyed in the copy, and I consistently received positive feedback for the quality and effectiveness of my writing.
I am highly skilled in grammar, editing, and proofreading, and I am committed to delivering high-quality work. Additionally, I have a demonstrated interest in performing arts and culture, and I am familiar with Brooklyn Academy of Music’s brand.
As a team player, I thrive in a collaborative environment, and I am comfortable receiving critique and feedback to optimize my work. I am highly organized and skilled in managing tight deadlines and prioritizing tasks, and I am self-motivated and proactive in communicating and problem-solving.
I am excited about the opportunity to work for Brooklyn Academy of Music and contribute to the development of copy for programmatic and development initiatives. Thank you for considering my application.
I showed three experts—a career coach, an organizational consultant, and an A.I. thought leader—the cover letter, but didn’t tell them a robot wrote it until after they read it. Turns out, they mostly didn’t notice or care, although they acknowledged it needed a few tweaks and that I would need to fess up if a recruiter asked if I had A.I. help. Their acceptance signifies that the cover letter, which was originally handwritten back in the day, has reached its latest stage of evolution. If we use the tool right, ChatGPT could render writing the cover letter as we know it dead.
This robot’s work, this robot’s work
The consensus among the experts: My ChatGPT cover letter was passable, but if I wanted to stand out among my competition, it would need some human modification.
After reading the cover letter I didn’t write, Octavia Goredema, career coach and founder of Twenty Ten Agency, told me, “Good job, Chloe.” The length and examples were good, she said, but there were a few redundant phrases. “It was a little formulaic, but it did the job for you.”
It also passed the test with Beena Ammanath, who said it read “very well” and that she wouldn’t have been able to tell it was A.I. generated if I hadn’t told her. While she might be slightly biased considering that she’s the executive director of Deloitte’s A.I. Institute, my third expert also found it “acceptable.” That would be Juan Pablo Gonzalez, a senior client partner and sector leader for professional services at consulting firm Korn Ferry, who told me my A.I. cover letter passed an A.I. content detector, which reported that it was 79% human generated content.
However, he noticed a few typos and phrasings that sounded off or too similar to the job description, which made him wonder if I wrote it or if I did so quickly since it didn’t sound like how most people talk.
That is to say: While ChatGPT can provide a solid foundation for a cover letter, it’s all a little robotic (pun intended). We can’t put our feet up fully just yet, as we need to build on the generative tool’s work, adding personal anecdotes and some flair. They can be used as a “point of reference” that should be customized, Goredema says. It’s fine to use for a first draft, but then you have to make it your own, Pablo Gonzalez agrees, adding that it’s a great starting point for those who are writing averse or scared of a blank page: “You’re never going to stand out if you just have the machine do it all.”
Otherwise, you could miss the opportunity to share something personal or what excited you about the role. He advises that workers using A.I. to write a cover letter do two things: Check for typos and ask if sounds like their voice.
He adds that you shouldn’t represent computer generated work as human work, but says it’s okay to enlist ChatGPT for help the same way you’d ask a friend to edit your cover letter. Besides, using A.I. while applying to jobs isn’t necessarily a new thing; people have been relying on templates and automated spelling and grammar tools like Grammarly for a while now.
“This is in many ways an evolution of sort of a human driven technology assisted process,” Pablo Gonzalez says, pointing to how people have long used templates for cover letters. “The twist though, is knowing when to use A.I., when not to, and how to use it.”
For example, if you’re applying for a writing job, Pablo Gonzalez suggests always writing a cover letter since originality is probably more important here. Which means that, as a journalist, I’m sadly not out of the cover letter woods yet, although software engineers may be more in the clear.
The self-written cover letter has been on its way out
ChatGPT eliminating the self-written cover letter for some workers (minus a few human adjustments) might seem drastic, but if you ask Ammanath, the Deloitte executive director who has nearly three decades in the workforce under her belt, it’s part of a natural progression. Cover letters used to be a “huge deal,” she says: A true letter once included references and an introduction giving context for the résumé.
But that evolved alongside technology. When people began emailing résumés, it often tagged along like an annoying little sibling. Its value and purpose waned as applicants began submitting their information via a company’s online job board, as it became more clear where and what they were applying for. But, like a sibling, it stuck around.
While the original form of the cover letter no longer exists, Ammanath says, it’s still become a “legacy.” A.I. just might be the next logical step for cover letters in the long line of the hand to typewriters to Word documents. Ammanath says that using a tool as long as it’s accurate “shows the appetite to learn and adapt.”
Automation has already been taking place on the employer side for a while now with applicant tracking systems, as Pablo Gonzalez points out. What hasn’t changed yet is who does the hiring; cover letter screening may be robot-oriented, but the one who signs off on giving a job offer is generally a human (at least, for now). And when people get involved it’s best to make the process more personal, says Pablo Gonzalez.
“You use all the technology you want, but at the end of the day, humans are hiring humans. That final decision is the person-to-person decision,” he says.
That means if an A.I. cover letter isn’t truthful or doesn’t sound like you, career coach Goredema says, it might catch up to you during the interview process, where a gap between how you present yourself and how you actually talk appears.
But for now, robots are meeting job candidates at the door, and it’s okay to say hi to them with your own generated A.I. greetings—personalized, of course.