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How to get your first nursing job

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You’ve put the hours in and it’s time to move from the books to the bedside. Rebecca Coombes is here to help you get your first job

Interviews can be traumatic. Some people breeze through them, while others are reduced to a sweaty, nervous heap.

Experience helps, but if you are just starting out in nursing and have never faced an intimidating panel of questioners before, don’t panic - it is possible to apply a few golden rules and shine in interviews.

Just getting on to a shortlist is a reason to be cheerful. It means your CV has impressed a prospective employer. Many people fall at this first hurdle. Nurse managers often complain that many nurses do not tailor their applications to the job on offer.

Many trusts have their own application forms for a reason. They want you to answer certain questions, so make sure you give full and focused answers.

Mary Pennell, lecturer in palliative care at King’s College London, is an experienced recruiter. She is frustrated by applicants who have failed to read an advertisement carefully and work out what an employer is looking for.

“I want to see that someone has clearly read the job description. That may sound obvious but many people do not make the link between what the job wants and what they have to offer. I don’t want to know about your A-level in bee-keeping if it’s not relevant to the job in hand.

“I’m a busy person and want to know if this person has at least some relevant skills. If you are student nurse applying for a D-grade surgical job and you had one surgical experience in your second year, what made you want to come back to that area? Don’t tell us how much you love medicine or older people.”

Applicants shouldn’t be afraid of using emotive words such as “passionate” or “caring”. This is your chance to sell yourself and indicate what type of nurse you are.

Ms Pennell’s advice is to photocopy the original application form and use it for a couple of practice runs.

For many jobs you will be expected to submit a CV. But remember - it is only there to get you past the initial screening test and to an interview. There is little point in spending a fortune on a commercially printed CV. Instead, be prepared to spend time and effort rewriting your CV for each application.

“A good CV is like a good advertisement - it makes you stop for a moment and look at that product differently,” says Ms Pennell. “People try and cram too much into a CV. I think a 10-point font is the smallest you can get away with, and don’t use colour.

“I have also learnt that the fancier the font the worse the work. Something like Times New Roman is fine and easy to read. Don’t write in bold - it looks aggressive on the page, as if you are shouting at me.”

She also advises using a first class stamp for the application to show eagerness.

Before an interview, find out everything possible about the organisation and the job.

Many employers send out a job pack. You can also check out annual reports and chase up personal contacts in the organisation, or arrange an informal visit.

On the interview day, wear what is appropriate for the post and organisation. As far as Ms Pennell is concerned, “scruffy” candidates are a complete no-no.  

“You don’t have to buy a suit, but wear something neat, not too flashy, and clean. You are a professional person coming for a professional interview so you should act accordingly. Things like clean shoes reflect a pride in yourself.”

Being well organised on the day will increase your confidence and help you relax. Arrive early and find somewhere to sit and gather your thoughts.

It’s OK to be nervous - interviewers expect that. But, adds Ms Pennell, “don’t keep saying: ‘I’m really nervous, I’m not doing very well, am I?’ That happens a lot. You are a professional person so act like it. It’s about having confidence.”

Remember that the interview is a two-way process - you need to find out if the job and organisation are for you. For example, ask about your responsibilities and training. You will want to know about chances of promotion and salary - but don’t bring that up too early.

And don’t hesitate to ask for feedback if you fail to get the job. Finding out where you went wrong can even land you the job at a future date.

Five ways to strengthen your CV

  • Sell yourself. If your CV fails to impress, you will not be offered an interview.
  • Create a template CV. Make sure it is kept up to date by adding new achievements or roles. This allows you to respond quickly to a job advertisement.
  • Always tailor your application. Your template CV should be adapted to meet the requirements of the post for which you are applying.
  • Include two references - your current and previous employer.
  • Don’t leave any blanks in your employment history - include periods spent raising a family or travelling.

Making the perfect application

  • An advertisement can attract hundreds of applicants. You need to think carefully how to entice an employer to invite you to interview.
  • Analyse the advertisement and work out what an employer is looking for. Try to reflect those attributes in your covering letter - but don’t copy bits out of the advertisement.
  • Keep the letter to a maximum of one side of A4 - keep CVs to a similar length
  • Make sure you include everything that has been mentioned. If two references are required, supply them.
  • Choose your referees carefully. If it is a manager, make sure it is someone with first hand knowledge of your work, not just an impressive title. You must get the referee’s permission before sending off your application.
  • Do not include (unless asked for): salary details, a photo and references.
  • Pay attention to detail - check spelling and grammar, then ask a friend to double check.

Common interview questions and how to answer

  • Why do you want this job? Stress the positive aspects that have attracted you to the position. Don’t mention the negative parts of a current job
  • What qualities are required for this job? Remember what the job advertisement asked for, but don’t parrot the exact words. Add other relevant qualities such as communication skills, supervisory skills, problem solving and so on.
  • What can you contribute? This is your chance to shine. Talk about your past achievements and link them to the job you are applying for. Don’t give a life history or list your qualifications. Use achievements as examples to support your statements. For instance, if asked about attention to detail, tell them about how you ensured your patients received the correct medicines or your recording of vital signs.
  • How do you handle criticism? A good answer would be: “It’s important to get feedback on my performance so I can improve. Do you have regular staff appraisals and a staff development plan?”
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