You just got called into an interview for a nursing job—congrats! You’re probably thrilled, but also feeling a bit panicked, wondering What are they going to ask me? or How will I handle a question I don’t know how to answer? Worry no more—we’ve got inside information on common interview questions for nurses so you’ll be prepped for anything that comes your way.
First off, you’re going to get a lot of general interview questions such as “Tell me about yourself”, “Why is there a gap in your employment history?”, or “Why do you want this job?”. Be sure you know how to answer those basics with ease.
Second, while you want to present yourself in the best light possible, you don’t want to lie about your past experience.
“Every hospital, every healthcare [company]...wants nurses that are ethical and have integrity,” says Greg Musto, Chief Executive Officer at The Roman Healthcare Group who’s spent over eight years recruiting candidates for roles in healthcare. So if they see an inconsistency in your employment history or on your resume, “it draws red flags immediately.”
“I always tell our candidates, be 100% honest,” he adds. “Don’t hide a job that didn’t go well, because it’s going to come back up and it’s going to look like you’re being dishonest.”
Overall hiring managers are looking for several things in candidates, says Raymond Dacillo, Director of Operations at C-Care Health Services: “Their professionalism, attention to detail, their critical thinking, time management, and their communication…so our questions usually revolve around them.”
Here are some other common questions asked in a nursing interview, as well as some advice for how you can answer them (and pass the test with flying colors!).
1. Why Did You Choose a Career in Nursing?
Healthcare hiring managers care about passion—for nursing, for patient care and safety (and quality patient care), and for making a positive impact on people’s lives.
“Passion is probably one of the most important things. There are so many times where it comes down to two candidates, both equally qualified, [and] they will always take the candidate with more passion about why they’re doing what they’re doing,” says Musto. If a nurse isn’t in love with their field, Musto points out, they won’t work well with others, and they also won’t work well with patients.
How to Answer It
Explain what drew you to nursing from a mission standpoint. What do you love most about it? What gets you excited about the field? What about taking care of patients resonates with you?
Don’t be afraid to tie it back to a personal anecdote, either, such as a childhood experience or a relative who was a nurse. These three women’s stories about why they choose a career path in medicine might inspire your own pitch.
2. How Do You Practice Self-Care?
Nursing can be a physically and emotionally taxing career, so it’s important for interviewers to see that you know how to balance work and life. And that you’ll be able to take care of yourself—no matter how grueling the work gets—so that you can come back the next day ready to continue to perform.
“Every day you’re opening the obituaries and seeing a patient that you treated for 10 years, or you’re seeing that mom who had three small kids who died of breast cancer,” says Emily Hershey, BSN, RN, Executive Search Consultant of Clinical Nursing at The Roman Healthcare Group. So when she’s interviewing candidates, she wants to know how they deal with and overcome “compassion fatigue.”
Underneath this question, she says, she really wants to know: “How do you handle your emotions changing in a matter of 30 seconds, and be able to go from room to room? And then be able to go home to be with your spouse and your children?” Overall, good nurses have strong emotional intelligence—about their patients, sure, but also about themselves.
How to Answer It
There’s no right or wrong answer to this: Just explain how you’ve learned to cope with the stresses and exhaustion of the job. Do you exercise? Bake? Unplug with a good movie and some quality family time?
Bonus: Adding in a couple specific examples of times you’ve had to overcome an especially emotional situation or day can make your answer even stronger.
3. How Would You Handle a Crisis?
Musto sums this question up perfectly: Dealing with crises in other industries may be an exception to the rule, but in healthcare, “it’s the norm.”
This is especially the case for emergency nurses, who have to work speedily to get patients in and out of the ER and be able to change course at the drop of a hat, while also maintaining that compassion and quality of care.
How to Answer It
Musto says that questions like this one, as well as many of the other questions on this list, are asked because interviewers don’t just want to hear that you can handle stress—but that you’ve handled it before and came out the other side unscathed.
“Everyone wants behavioral answers, [but] not everybody asks the questions behaviorally,” he explains. “So you need to be prepared to give examples of your work.”
Think of a time when a crisis developed in a past job. How did you react? “I panicked and left” or “I hate stress so I just avoid it” or “I let my staff take care of it” won’t cut it. You want to come across as someone who can handle anything calmly, strategically, and proactively.
Hint: Try using the STAR method—Situation, Task, Action, Result—to outline your answer. It’s the best way to structure a response to just about any behavioral question you’re asked, such as “Tell me about a time when...” or “Give me an example of…”
4. How Would You Deal With Someone Who’s Not Satisfied With Their Patient Care?
Musto explains that this often has to do with patient satisfaction scores. Hospitals and healthcare centers can lose millions of dollars on a poor rating, so they want to hire nurses who will guarantee their patients continue to be pleased with their overall experience.
Of course, it’s not just about money—compassion plays a key role in this question, too.
Finally, says Dacillo, “We ask these questions to find out how their problem-solving skills [are] and how they can address confrontation.”
How to Answer It
As with the previous question, you want to show that you can maintain stellar patient care (and a level head) in even the most difficult of situations. Building off a past experience can help in this, or you can choose a hypothetical situation and explain step-by-step what you would do to solve the issue.
“Usually what I like to hear is they’re [actively] listening to what the patient or family member is saying, and [can] explain to them that they understand their frustration and they’re going to review their case and speak with other colleagues,” says Dacillo.
5. How Do You Handle Working With Other Nurses, Doctors, and Staff?
Nursing can be a highly collaborative field, and hiring managers want to see that you can get along well with the rest of the team no matter what’s thrown your way.
How to Answer It
Very important: Don’t just say “I’m a huge team player.” Show how you’ve been one by giving concrete examples of ways you’ve positively worked with and contributed to a team.
Also, make it clear you actually like working with doctors and other nurses. Talking badly about old colleagues or emphasizing how you’re always right and everyone else is wrong probably won’t go over well with the interviewer.
6. How Would You Handle a Disease Outbreak?
This isn’t just a behavioral question to test how you’d deal with this scenario—it’s also a skills-based question.
Yes, your resume may show you’re qualified in certain areas. But your interview is just as important of a place to flex your expertise—especially if it’s not clear on your application you can do the work.
“Outbreaks are huge these days, because antibiotics resistance is huge,” says Musto. “More and more things are coming into our country that antibiotics can’t cure or have a hard time curing.” A qualified nurse is expected to be trained to notice the signs when something unusual is happening in a patient and to know how to proceed with care.
How to Answer It
Walk them through a hypothetical situation (or a real one if you have experience dealing with an outbreak before) and what steps and precautions you’d take, leaning on your training to explain what is and isn’t procedure, why you’re taking each step, and how you’d work with others to solve the problem.
7. If You Saw Someone Administering Improper Medicine/Not Washing Their Hands, What Would You Do?
What they really want to know, says Musto, is if you’d do something. Because it all comes down to a patient’s safety. Someone who’s willing to confront or report another colleague—no matter at what level—to protect a patient has the integrity that makes for a great nurse.
“What they’re looking for is collaborative skills, so not just coming down on somebody…but really winning them over with the right personality in order to change behavior,” he adds. Being a standout nurse isn’t just about doing the right thing on a small scale, but about being able to influence and create positive change on a larger scale. Plus, knowing how to successfully give feedback to others shows you know how to work with and lead a team.
How to Answer It
Draw from past personal experience—whether dealing with this direct issue or a similar one where you had to confront a co-worker. Using the STAR method again, outline what the situation was, what your role was in it, what action you took (and why), and the result of that action.
The goal? To show that A. you’d take action and B. you’d do it in a way that would encourage the person to listen to you, change their behavior, and be more thoughtful going forward.
8. Do You Have [Skill/Certification]/Do You Have Experience Doing [Procedure]?
Again, not everything is completely clear on an application, so many interviewers like to check your hard skills, whether that’s your experience working with certain healthcare record software, inserting IVs, or performing CPR. They also want to ensure you have the proper licensing needed to jump in and get started right away (versus needing to take extra courses or get extra training), Dacillo explains.
How to Answer It
Hopefully this should be pretty straightforward to answer, yes or no style. But don’t just stop at saying “yes”—prove you actually know how to do it (and do it well) by giving examples of when you put this skill into practice on the job.
“Whatever’s on paper is easy to write down, but to explain it and provide examples is a different story,” Dacillo says.
And if the answer is no, don’t lie. Instead, admit to what you don’t know and focus on what skills you do bring to the table.
Hint: Use the job description to prepare for the kinds of skills and certifications they might ask about.
A Few Other Notes About Nursing Interviews
Hershey notes that while being prepared and having well thought-out, confident answers are crucial to passing your nursing interview, it’s also important not to forget the basics, such as showing up on time, dressing appropriately (no, you don’t have to wear scrubs), and sending a thank you note afterward.
“Appearance is huge for us. In fact, our interview actually starts in the waiting room,” Dacillo adds. First impressions mean everything, so you’ll want to nail yours.
Be sure to bring some questions of your own—and not just “How much does this pay?” You should be interviewing them to see if it’s a good fit, too!
Dacillo loves being asked the question, “What do you think is the goal/mission of your organization?” because it shows that this is someone who’s here for the long haul and cares about working for the right kind of company.
If you need more tips, read our guide to everything to know about nursing interviews. And lean on your network for support. If you know of people who’ve encountered nursing interviews before, they can provide you with some questions they’ve faced or help you prepare appropriate answers or stories.
And remember: No matter how you choose to phrase your answers, Musto emphasizes that being a nurse is “not just a numbers game” in terms of treating patients and getting them out the door. Even if your job is to sit in an office and not interact with anyone, compassion still matters: “A nurse is truly an integral part of the healing process, so having nurses [who] understand that and how to relate to patients and the people around them and be compassionate is crucial.” If you weave that thread into everything you talk about, you’re likely to hit the right note.
Photo of doctor and nurse talking courtesy of monkeybusinessimages/Getty Images.
Previously an editor for The Muse, Alyse is proud to prove that yes, English majors can change the world. She’s written almost 500 articles for The Muse on anything from productivity tips to cover letters to bad bosses to cool career changers, many of which have been featured in Fast Company, Forbes, Inc., CNBC's Make It, USA Today College, Lifehacker, Mashable, and more. She calls many places home, including Illinois where she grew up and the small town of Hamilton where she attended Colgate University, but she was born to be a New Yorker. In addition to being an avid writer and reader, Alyse loves to dance, both professionally and while waiting for the subway.More from this Author