Cover letters in the era of ChatGPT

Photo of Paul McMahon

Paul McMahon

Founder of TokyoDev

At first glance, ChatGPT seems like it is a powerful tool for writing a custom cover letter for a job (when I saw cover letter, these days this often refers to the body of an email or the text someone puts into a “message” field of an application form). For instance, I was able to get it to produce the following for a fictional position that uses Ruby on Rails and React.

Dear [Recipient’s Name],

I am excited to apply for the Fullstack Engineer position at FooBar Software. With [X] years of experience in Ruby on Rails and React development, I am confident in my ability to contribute to your team and deliver innovative software solutions.

In my current role at [Current/Past Company], I have successfully designed, developed, and deployed complex web applications using Ruby on Rails and React. I possess strong skills in both frontend and backend development, as well as proficiency in HTML5, CSS3, JavaScript, and database management systems.

FooBar Software’s commitment to innovation aligns perfectly with my career aspirations. I thrive in fast-paced environments, value effective communication, and embrace continuous learning. I am confident that my problem-solving skills, adaptability, and attention to detail will make me a valuable addition to your team.

Thank you for considering my application. I have attached my resume and would appreciate the opportunity to discuss how my skills and experience meet the requirements of the Fullstack Engineer position at FooBar Software. I am available for an interview at your convenience and look forward to the possibility of working with your talented team.

Yours sincerely, [Your Name]

If you’re sending a lot of job applications, maybe the above looks good enough. I’ll admit, at first glance it looks like a plausible cover letter. When you look at the details, it’s not great, but maybe it is better than nothing?

Perhaps if no one else was using it, that’d be the case. But at least when it comes to software developer positions, I’m seeing many people using it. I’ve seen things like two applications in a row from different candidates who have almost identical cover letters, which left me scratching my head as to if they were different people, until I realized ChatGPT generates a very similar cover letter if I prompt it to based on the job description. I’ve seen people literally sign off their cover letter “Yours sincerely, [Your Name]”.

This has implications even if you aren’t using it. If your cover letter looks like it could have been written by ChatGPT, it’s much more likely that an employer will not bother reading it. So now is a good time to step up your cover letter game.

Some people will argue cover letters are a waste of time. It’s true that not all employers will look at them. But some will, and it will be the first thing they look at. A good cover letter will get them enthusiastic about you, which will get them in the mindset of looking for why you could be a match when reading your resume, instead of the default of looking for a reason to quickly reject you. ChatGPT will never be able to do this, as a good cover letter is both specific to the company and position, and personal.

So how do you write a good cover letter. Here’s my recommend approach.

  • Keep it to two paragraphs. No one is going to read any more than that.
  • In the first paragraph, demonstrate enthusiasm for the company or position. Do this in a unique, personal way.
  • In the second paragraph, demonstrates what you can bring to the role. Again, something personal and specific is best. Rather than trying to cover everything, a single anecdote is better.

That’s it. This might be a bit abstract, but this Stack Overflow article has a great example.

Hello Stack Overflow,

I’ve used Stack Overflow for as long as I’ve been a developer, and I recently came across a post about the architecture of your products on Nick Craver’s blog. It made me think, “I really want to work with these people who care so much about what they do.” I’m super excited to hear about all the tools you have built to make developer processes more streamlined; that’s right up my alley.

At my current job I started out as a web dev, but I was constantly blocked by broken builds and the multi-step process for getting code out to production. I took it upon myself to fix this by prototyping a continuous integration system that eventually turned into the system our team still uses today. As we’ve started to grow, I’m focusing a lot more of my time on monitoring systems and currently evaluating some possible solutions.

I look forward to hearing from you soon,

Nick Larsen

Clearly, there’s no way this is written by ChatGPT (at least as of 2023), right?

Another example is the one I wrote back in 2006 to get my first job in Japan.

Dear Sir or Madam,

I am applying for the position of Junior Developer. In mid-August I am coming to Japan on the Working Holiday Visa, and while looking for potential jobs I came across ubit. Although I was not planning on applying to jobs until I arrived in Japan, I did not want to risk having the position close, as ubit appears to be my ideal company. ubit attracted me because it is a small company, with motivated and talented employees.

I have just completed my BSc in Computer Science, and am going to Japan with the hope of finding related work. Although my Working Holiday Visa is good only for a year, I am interested in continuing working in Japan by obtaining a regular working visa. I want to work in Japan because it is a very different culture from Canada, but has similar standards of living.

Last summer, I worked for [redacted], a company that develops web services such as message boards and web surveys. I improved and maintained the services using primarily php and mysql. The company took an anarchistic approach to software development, not using any software development methodology. Because of this, I felt though they made short term gains, their software quality and productivity suffered over the long term. Thus, I am excited to see that ubit emphasizes software development methodologies.

これまで3ヶ月日本語を勉強してきました。 私の日本語はまだまだ不十分ですが、英語と日本語を話す人と仕事をして、これからも勉強したいです。

Thank you, Paul McMahon

It’s certainly not ideal. If I was to do it again, I’d make what attracted me to ubit more specific, cut the second paragraph, make it more concise generally, and avoid saying anything negative about a previous employer. But still, it was good enough, and obviously not a template.

A good cover letter can be the spark that leads to you getting a job. Don’t squander it by going with something generic.

More about the author

Photo of Paul McMahon

Paul McMahon

Founder of TokyoDev

Paul is a Canadian software developer who has been living in Japan since 2006. Since 2011 he’s been helping other developers start and grow their careers in Japan through TokyoDev.

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