Will AI kill the cover letter?

Will AI kill the cover letter?

Employers commonly ask candidates to upload both their resume and their cover letter to apply for a job. Most job seekers and job creators alike would probably agree that the resume is an absolute necessity for communicating a candidate's basic qualifications, but that the cover letter seems to be less essential. Yet people on both sides of the hiring process accept cover letters as a requirement for application, believing that they have always been, and always will be, part of the job-seeking endeavor. 

That sentiment may not be exactly true, however. The cover letter as a ticket to employment may be a rather recent invention, and the rise of artificial intelligence, particularly in the form of chatbots, may spell the end of cover letters altogether. So, this is a good time to look back at the cover letter's origins, examine the present phenomenon of AI-generated cover letters, and peek into the prospective future to answer the question, "Will AI kill the cover letter?"

A potentially brief history of the cover letter

The original term was "covering letter," which, according to Google Ngram, doesn't seem to make many appearances in historical texts until the late 19th century, and the abbreviated "cover letter" didn't enter the lexicon until the 1940s. Then, as now, it seems, the purpose of the letter was to explain what might not have been readily apparent in the documents it accompanied. But the earliest uses may not have had any relation to employment. 

According to the writer Stephen Lurie, the first use of "cover letter" as an employment device arose in the mid-20th century. It appeared in an ad for an industrial paint chemist position, for which applicants were to "submit resume with cover letter to Ind'l Relations Dept." 

Lurie attributes the rise of cover letters to the period's shift from a manufacturing economy to a service-sector one in which competencies and performance were more vague. Employees on the manufacturing line could point to hard numbers signifying the hours they'd put in and the goods they'd helped produce. But what could service-sector candidates indicate to validate their accomplishments? They had to illustrate. They had to use words to persuade the hiring manager that they could do the job satisfactorily.

Lurie's suggestion that the term originated in a job ad is flawed in that it presumes the history of the cover letter began with its naming. But his findings do seem to indicate that cover letters weren't exactly part of the traditions of the workforce. If the original "covering letter" didn't take significant hold until the 1900s, and even then, not with any connection to the working world, you can deduce that at least most job seekers in the early modern economy weren't much for self-promoting in the five-paragraph format.

Rise of the chatbots

The origin of AI-generated writing began in a separate history that eventually converged with that of the cover letter. You can trace it back to a rudimentary form in the 1960s known as ELIZA, a computer program that used natural language understanding to provide responses to keywords. The next big development in chatbots came in 1972. PARRY was a natural language program designed to resemble human thought processes, namely those of a person with schizophrenia, with the purpose of analyzing the program's processes to gain a better understanding of mental illness.

From the '70s to now, major milestones in the history of chatbots include:

  • Jabberwocky (1988), which used a form of contextual pattern matching to provide entertaining conversation.
  • Dr. Sbaitso (1992), a voice-operated program meant to emulate a psychologist.
  • Artificial Linguistic Internet Computer Entity (1995), abbreviated ALICE, which could converse via heuristic pattern matching.
  • SmarterChild (2001), a chatbot available through instant messaging applications such as AOL Instant Messenger and MSN Messenger.
  • Smartphone personal assistants such as Siri (2010) and Google Assistant (2012), originally known as Google Now.
  • Cortana and Alexa (2014), respectively a Windows and an Amazon version of Siri and Google Assistant.

Then came ChatGPT, the groundbreaking innovation created by the AI research laboratory OpenAI. After training on tremendous volumes of data, it can produce natural-sounding text that many people can't distinguish from human-written prose. Because of its capabilities, people have used ChatGPT for less-than-honest endeavors, such as completing their schoolwork, devising online scams, and writing cover letters.

"A better question, then, would be 'Do employers care if a cover letter is AI-generated?' The answer to that question will vary from company to company, and it's up to every business leader, hiring manager, and human resources department to come up with their own."

Enter the AI-generated cover letter

The oft-recommended best practice for crafting a high-quality cover letter is to tailor each one to the job you're applying for, and that is a long, painstaking endeavor. People generally don't have the time or patience for that, especially while they're currently employed. There's also the problem that writing well, especially in a formal voice that represents your expertise, is difficult. Even professional writers say that's true, so what chance does the layperson have at producing a succinct and readable piece of prose?

With AI-generated cover letters, your chances are quite favorable. You can tell the program to "write me a cover letter," and you'll get something pumped out in a matter of seconds. If you want to personalize it with your work history and accomplishments, you can add those details to the prompt. Altogether, you'd be spending just a few minutes on generating the prompt, waiting for ChatGPT to produce the text, copying and pasting it into a separate document, and then (maybe) editing it. For some, this sequence of tasks would be a piece of cake. 

Besides the fact that AI can write better than a lot of people can, the reasons why you might turn to ChatGPT to write your cover letter for a job are numerous:

  • AI-generated cover letters fulfill their main objective, which is to represent you as a candidate in terms of your qualifications and accomplishments. Provided that the letter is factual, AI generation doesn't change the essential details the letter presents to the hiring manager.
  • The point is to get ahead of the competition. The most competitive fields attract hundreds to thousands of applicants. Putting out higher numbers of applications increases your chances of landing the job you want.
  • Most job seekers consider cover letters to be redundant. As you learned earlier, the purpose of a cover letter is to explain your interests, skills, and accomplishments in relation to the job you're seeking. But the modern resume, which might include a professional summary, should sufficiently explain everything about your qualifications.
  • Employers use bots, so why can't job seekers do the same? Indeed, many companies, particularly the largest ones, use applicant tracking systems to screen documents for keywords. "So," you may think, "if it's all about stuffing keywords to get past a computer program, it's only fair that I use a computer to stuff those keywords."

So, will AI kill the cover letter?

Probably not. Though cover letters for employment may be a relatively recent phenomenon, they've been a mainstay long enough that most employers will continue to expect them. And as long as employers expect them, cover letters will remain a part of the recruitment and hiring process. 

A better question, then, would be "Do employers care if a cover letter is AI-generated?" The answer to that question will vary from company to company, and it's up to every business leader, hiring manager, and human resources department to come up with their own.

More tips about the recruitment and hiring process:

One useful function of cover letters is that they can explain gaps in your resume. But how important are those gaps anyway?

Job seekers might also be dishonest on their resumes, so it's important to be able to spot falsehoods.

AI's impact on recruitment and hiring goes beyond cover letters. Hiring managers are using the technology in a variety of ways.

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