Should ChatGPT write your CV?
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Should ChatGPT write your CV?

Artificial intelligence is already making it easier for workers to put together a job application. The jury's still out on whether it's also making it easier for them to get the job.

Nearly half of recent hires used AI to apply, according to a survey by Resume Builder released in May. The same month, Resume Templates released its own survey results, showing that 1 in 5 Gen Zers looking for a job has used ChatGPT to create a resume or cover letter.

I've discussed these findings with managers, professors and mid-career professionals. The reactions range from "That's cheating!" to "That's smart."

"The rules around this are super-unclear to everybody," says Monica Parker-James, associate dean for industry relations and career services at Boston University's Questrom School of Business. That leaves applicants and employers to use their own judgement -- and weigh for themselves the pros and cons.

First, the cons. An AI-written cover letter will sound generic. That can be fatal to one's chances of getting an interview. The output might sound like business-speak, but that doesn't mean it's good.

People who receive AI-generated cover letters say they sound eerily alike. Mohammad Soltanieh-Ha, a clinical assistant professor at Questrom, says he's received emails for open positions that were clearly written by ChatGPT -- they're all "five paragraphs long and the language is very similar". And I know one editor who uses ChatGPT to assess article submissions; if the writing or ideas sound remotely similar to what the large language model spits out after a similar prompt, it's an automatic rejection.

I know from experience that it can be quite challenging to edit turgid, jargon-filled prose into something zesty and original. So rather than using ChatGPT to generate a draft, says Soltanieh-Ha, write your own, upload it to ChatGPT and ask for a critique.

I tried this, using a couple of cover letters I had lying around, and was low-key astonished by the results. These letters, by their nature, are often formulaic and stilted, but still, it surprised me that the ChatGPT-ified versions sounded more natural than the original drafts.

That doesn't mean applicants should take every suggestion offered by the LLM. It can be a bit too enamoured of corporate-ese; when I asked it to improve my resume, it changed a section saying I had "launched" and "hosted" podcasts to say I had "spearheaded" them, which tells a recruiter less about my specific skills.

Where generative AI may be strongest is in helping applicants prepare for the job interview. ChatGPT can generate a list of common interview questions based on the specific job description. It can also give advice on answering tricky ones like, "what's your greatest weakness?"

(The LLM's recommendation: acknowledge a weakness; show what steps you've taken to address it; highlight your progress; connect it to the role for which you're applying.)

The right way to use the tool, experts agree, is as a sparring partner to hone your own thinking.

As for employers, recruiters may want to emphasise interviews and projects -- work the candidate has already completed, whether at a previous job or in school -- more than application materials. In fact, recruiters may need to spend more time talking with candidates as written applications start to sound more alike, says Pedro Amorim, an associate professor at the University of Porto and co-founder of LTPlabs.

And any who oppose AI use by applicants should make that clear in the job posting. If you're planning to ask finalists for a writing sample, and want to make absolutely sure ChatGPT isn't involved, you could ask them provide it in your office -- with paper and pen. If that sounds silly (and I have to say it does), you'll just have to accept that some candidates will get a little technological help.

But I don't think it's cheating to use AI to apply for a job. People have long used templates to write resumes and cover letters, a laborious process that doesn't always produce great results. We have tools today that work better, and candidates who don't use them -- or don't, at least, learn how to use them -- may be left behind.

After all, many recruiters use technology to screen job applications. It seems only fair that the candidates, who might have to apply to dozens of jobs to get an offer, be able to use efficiency-enhancing technology, too.

But candidates should only use AI if they're willing to be honest about it. According to the Resume Templates survey, 1 in 3 candidates said a hiring manager has asked about their use of ChatGPT. It would be a bad idea to lie; moreover, the tools to be able to tell whether someone has used generative AI are coming, says Nick van der Meulen, a research scientist at the MIT Sloan Center for Information Systems Research.

Attitudes about new technology can shift quickly. I am old enough to remember when you had to ask Microsoft Word to run spell check (now it's automatic). It did not take long for my teachers to shift from "It's cheating to use spell check" to "Always use spell check." We're not there yet with AI, but we're getting closer: According to a recent Korn Ferry survey, 80% of professionals say ChatGPT is a "legitimate, beneficial work tool".

It's also a legitimate, beneficial tool for people searching for work. ©2024 Bloomberg

Sarah Green Carmichael is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and editor. Previously, she was an executive editor at Harvard Business Review.

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