Tips and strategies to ace your nursing school interview

February 9, 2021

Kristen Parillo

Interviewing for nursing school

A unique part of the application process for a nursing program is the requirement of a face-to-face interview before you can be accepted into the program. There are several reasons for the interview, but mainly it is to assess if the applicant meets certain personality characteristics that are desired in nursing. These characteristics are known in the field as emotional intelligence or “soft skills” which are difficult to assess in a written or online application.  

The traits that are being evaluated in a nursing program interview, and that are generally acknowledged as essential in making great nurses include:   

  • Caring and empathy 
  • Compassion 
  • Professionalism 
  • Critical thinking  
  • Reliability 
  • Respectfulness 
  • Resilience 
  • Cognitive flexibility 
  • Communication skills (oral and written) 
  • Willingness to engage in the pursuit of lifelong learning. 

Preparing in advance

One of the most important tasks before the actual nursing school interview is reviewing the program you applied to. An interviewer will appreciate a potential student who has a working understanding of key features of a program such as length of studies or what the current licensure pass rate is, both of which are posted online for prospective students. More importantly, having a working knowledge of the mission and vision statements of the school will better prepare you to answer questions as to why you would be a good fit for their program. It is also a good way to assess whether the school may be right for you.  

Professionalism

It is important to note that nursing is held to the highest standards as a career. Professionalism is at the top of desired traits when potential nursing students are interviewed. Ways to display professionalism in an interview are to ensure your appearance is neat and clean. Clothing should be free of stains and wrinkles. Outfits that are considered business casual are appropriate for the interview, meaning that items such as sneakers or jeans should be avoided.  

When you arrive, be punctual, polite, and formal. Punctuality is also a strong indicator that you are dependable and organized, so plan to be on time, or better yet a few minutes early. You can prepare for how to address the interviewer by looking at the college or university website or even your email to know what title your interviewer carries. For example, the term professor, if being interviewed by faculty, is often a preferred title when combined with the interviewer’s last name. Upon arriving, you may say “Good afternoon my name is – I am here for my interview with Professor Smith.”  

Nursing is so much more than task-oriented skills, it requires these soft skills to give good care to our patients and their families.

Personality

Why do nursing schools assess for personality types? If you have applied for a nursing program you may already have had to take an entrance exam such as the HESI or TEAS as part of your application. These exams assess your basic skills such as comprehension, biology, and math. They are also often configured to assess what type of learning style you have, and your personality type.  

Nursing demands a set of skills that a referred to as soft skills. Soft skills are often thought of as those that are inherent to the person and that cannot be taught. For instance, in nursing school, you can be taught how to change a dressing or hang an IV, but not how to be empathetic. Nursing is so much more than task-oriented skills, it requires these soft skills to give good care to our patients and their families.  

In the interview, the personality of the candidate is assessed to check that they possess the desired traits needed in a good nurse. These are known as the Six C’s of Nurse Caring: compassion, conscience, commitment, competence, comportment, and confidence.  

Compassion is a desire to empathetically view and communicate with others, even those who are different from yourself 
Conscience is honesty and integrity  
Commitment is not only to the patients or profession, but also to yourself and your own best interest 
Competence is engaging in lifelong learning and continuing to strive to the best at what you do.  
Comportment is the ability to work professionally with others in your field such as other nurses, doctors, pharmacists
Confidence is literally believing in yourself and having a good working knowledge of your strengths and weaknesses 

Although some of these can be developed over time, most are ingrained personality traits that cannot be taught, regardless of how many hours you spend in a classroom.  

Many of these traits can only be assessed in person and by asking open-ended questions. Reflecting upon her own interview one past student stated “I felt like [the interviewer] had already reviewed my qualifications and that wasn’t on trial. She wanted to know who I was and was more concerned with my heart.” 

Questions to anticipate  

The key question in any nursing school interview will relate to why you want to become a nurse. What other questions should you expect? This is a short list of potential questions that you will want to be prepared to answer.  

Have you had any personal experiences that moved you to apply for nursing school?
What has prepared you for a career in nursing?
Why did you choose this program?
Why should we choose you over other potential candidates?
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
How would others describe you?
What traits do you have that would make you a good coworker?
What personal qualities do you think make a good nurse?
Tell me about a time you had to care for someone else.
What do you have to offer to the field of nursing?

Be aware that the questions asked will be in a format called open-ended questions. This means they are not designed to be answered with a simple yes or no, but require a detailed response. These questions are also not designed to be a novel about you and your life. You should strive to keep answers from 2-3 minutes in length. Practicing your answers to questions like these beforehand will allow you to formulate intelligent and complete answers within an appropriate time frame.  

You may be asked to give examples of how you have dealt with difficult situations in the past, such interacting with someone who was frustrated or upset.  Or, how you felt being around people who were struggling emotionally. Or, if you have personally experienced the death of a friend or loved one. Personal experiences can often be used to help a potential nurse grow, hence the  life experiences of potential students are often explored during the interview.  

Keep in mind those that interviewers are often seasoned educators with years of experience. Be prepared and confident enough in your answers to stand out in the crowd. If you simply state “I want to be a nurse to help people” you have given the same answer that makes you just one more application. Think deeply and truly explore what being a nurse means to you. Is it a way for you to display compassion for others, or will it guarantee a paycheck and a career in which you will always have a job? Being financially motivated by the career is not a bad thing but should not be the sole reason for becoming a nurse. Nursing is generally considered a higher calling and there is a reason why it has been nominated for 19 consecutive years as the most trusted profession in the Gallop polls.  

Think about where you can see yourself within the field of nursing. There are over 100 specializations in the field – from oncology to hospice, to becoming a nurse anesthetist or nurse practitioner or nurse educator, just to name a few. Think beyond just obtaining licensure to where you would like to work and what your dream job looks like. This type of motivation will demonstrate to the interviewer that you have thought long and hard about your potential nursing career.  

You may also be asked to compose a small essay when you arrive for your interview. This essay will help assess your writing skills. Take your time and think about your answer before you start to write. Writing can demonstrate your thought processes, drives, organizational and communication skills. Keep it simple, but thoughtful, and be mindful of using proper grammar and spelling. Strong communication skills and excellent documentation are key features of a good nurse.  

Critical thinking 

The ability to apply critical thinking and the development of clinical judgement –  are also key attributes in nursing. Critical thinking is fundamental to being a good nurse, and schools will want to know that you can effectively utilize this type of reasoning. You may be asked to give an example of a complex problem that you have faced and how you came to a solution for the best outcome. Honesty also applies to critical thinking. You cannot solve a problem or learn effectively if you cannot admit to making an error. Questions related to critical thinking may include examples such as the following: 

Give an example of a situation where you had to choose between a few undesirable outcomes: how did you reason through it to come up with the best choice? 
Can you give me an example of a time that you had to think very quickly to come up with an appropriate solution?  
If you were to observe a coworker acting unethically, how would you respond? 
Describe a mistake you made and how you corrected it.  

Other desired traits of a prospective nursing student  

Nursing is a difficult career. It requires long hours and can be emotionally stressful. You will deal with difficult situations, distraught patients, and problematic families. How you engage in self-care may be a question asked during the interview as this can help a nurse avoid nursing burnout later in their career.  

You may be asked to reflect upon your response to a previous stressful situation. Being able to accept criticism is related to resilience which is another important attribute desired in nurses. Resilience is the ability to pick yourself up and dust yourself off even after a particularly trying situation. Be prepared to give an example of a time you were disappointed or upset and how you dealt with the feelings and moved forward.  

Autonomy is also particularly important in nursing school and those who appear more driven and set themselves up to succeed will be the more likely candidate chosen for the program. 

Nursing school is no easy task in and of itself. The coursework is rigorous and students are often required to achieve a higher grade point average than those in other fields of study. For example, if the passing score at college or university is 65%, nursing students may be required to achieve 78-80% to pass. Further, f their grades drop below a certain GPA, they may not be allowed to remain in the nursing program.  

Exams are high stakes, meaning that they can be defining factors as to whether you are able to succeed and graduate from the program. Students are often encouraged to not work, and to solely focus on the program to assure success.  

Be prepared to answer questions as to what steps you will take to help yourself succeed. This does not mean you should not apply if you need to work. Many students hold jobs while at nursing school. However, be prepared to answer questions about how you will combine your work and school schedules,  as you will be expected to make nursing school the priority. 

 

COVID-19 and nursing school 

It is important to understand that nursing is changing due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This will affect not only your interview, but also your future career. In nursing, there are many factors that, as a student, you may not have considered.  

One of the most important is whether you agree with mandated vaccinations. Previously students were able to decline vaccinations for influenza and hepatitis B which is a series of three scheduled vaccinations. The arise of the pandemic has led some states and schools to mandate vaccinations, including the Covid-19 vaccine when it becomes available.  

There are mandatory clinical requirements from CPR training to malpractice insurance, and vaccination is now at the forefront of the nursing school requirements. As a perspective student it is incredibly important to think long and hard about your feelings related to this topic: it takes significant medical documentation to get a waiver from this potential mandatory practice in most places.  

The interview process may also be different. As face-to-face interviews and meetings have become less common due to concerns of transmission of Covid-19, you may be asked to participate in an online interview via formats such as Zoom or GoToMeeting. If this is asked of you, the school will generally never use a platform that requires you to pay for software. Be aware that the previous tips for interview still apply. In addition, here are some tips for online interviews. 

Take a moment when you have been sent the link to upload any needed programs to your computer, tablet, or smartphone.   
Read the email with the meeting information carefully noting any necessary technological requirements such as certain browsers. Five minutes before the meeting is not an ideal time to download a new browser.  
Make sure that the room you are meeting in (your background) is quiet and without disruptions. 
It is important to also assure the background of your meeting space is tidy. Not everyone expects you to be sitting in space such as an office, however, organization is a key component of nursing. If your home or workspace is chaotic it does not create a great first impression.  
You should still be dressed in business casual and be clean and neat, regardless that it is not an in-person interview. Remember that looking the part will also bolster your confidence.  
If you have known issues with your internet or wi-fi, make the interviewer aware of that at the start. Also be prepared to answer questions about how you will plan for any online content in the case of poor internet. This can be achieved by utilizing local resources such as a public library if available.   

In conclusion 

Beyond answering questions from the interviewer, be prepared to ask your own questions. The interviewer is prepared to field questions about the program and expected outcomes. Demonstrate to them that you have put a lot of thought into your career choice and their school.  

Questions to ask may include: 

What makes this program stand out from others?
Am I able to review recommendations/reviews from previous students?
What type of support do you have in place to assure student success?  
Are there any career resources offered to help new graduates find jobs? 
Where do your students end up working after successful completion of their boards?  
Are you affiliated with any other schools for pursuit of higher levels of education? Additionally, do other schools transfer in credits from your program? 

It is as important for the program to fit you and your needs as it is for you to be a good fit for the nursing program. Nursing is an amazing lifelong career with incredible opportunities for those with the right motivation and drive.  

Tips from recent students 

“Be honest. The interviewer will be able to see if you’re being your true self. It’s the most important thing to be.” 

“If you’re truly going into nursing for the reasons you gave [the interviewer] you should be able to answer all questions they ask honestly.” 

“I would say be on time, be dressed appropriately, answer questions thoughtfully, honestly and with confidence, and know what you are getting yourself into.” 

“Don’t be afraid to take a moment to answer a question you weren’t prepared for. Take a breath. This isn’t a game of answering as many questions you can in the shortest amount of time. Pause and reflect.” 

“I had a ton of anxiety during the interview, but I tried to just take a few deep breaths when I felt like that.  Answer honestly, be yourself, and maintain eye contact.” 

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