Job Interview Mistakes to Avoid

best nurses may be poorly skilled at interviewing

Many prospective employees make the same mistakes during interviews, here is how to avoid them

Many of us have been there; after the thrill of scheduling an interview for a position we would love, nerves set in. We begin to lose the confidence of a professional and worry we will be unable to perform at our best. Dozens of scenarios run through our minds, with questions that leave us feeling ill-prepared. Will we fail? Will we make mistakes that could be avoided if we knew what to expect? What should we expect?

Unfortunately, the best nurses may be poorly skilled at interviewing, especially as jobs in urban areas become harder to acquire. Nurses may look great on paper, and be highly skilled when facing clinical tasks, but be underwhelming when responding to a variety of human resource queries. Additionally, they may have started a career when nurses were told “they would always have a job”, prior to the latest merges, layoffs, restructuring, right-sizing, and reconfiguration of healthcare to meet changes in pay structure and patient needs. Nurses who expected to retire from their positions now may find themselves combing the market as new hires, and it’s a bit intimidating.

Of course, the obvious mistakes in a job interview would be ones a new graduate could predict; being late (naturally!) or inappropriately dressed on arrival. Even if you just completed a shift, it would be unsuitable to arrive in scrubs unless covered by a professional jacket or crisp white lab coat. If you carry a cell phone or pager, assure they are turned off prior to the interview, that includes turning off vibrate mode. If for an unforeseen reason, you cannot arrive on time, or will be more than 15 minutes late, call ahead and reschedule the interview. Apologize. Do not forget this step or blow off the interview as this will follow you throughout a job search. The job market becomes limited, and prospective employers may talk.4

Once arriving at an interview, body language and demeanor become important. I have become less interested in applicants who appeared apathetic, tired, or bored while being questioned. I wondered if they were excited about the position, or just marking time, waiting for another position to open. Worse, if they appeared angry or frustrated or sullen in any way, and it showed, I wondered if they needed more time to deal with those feelings.1

If you had a horrible commute on the way, possibly got lost or didn’t allow enough time to locate a parking spot plus hoofing it to the office, don’t let it show. Similarly, if you had a bad day at work, or an argument with a spouse, take a moment to inhale deeply to compose yourself prior to entering the room. Offer a firm handshake and a friendly smile, as well as a warm greeting. Think of a patient who touched you in a positive way…your face and eyes will reflect the warmth and the lovely memory, and the thoughts will refresh your mind.2

Once in the interview, you should be prepared to be the best candidate. Don’t assume, as many nurses do, that you are the only candidate for the position. There are likely to be several. Be prepared. Many nurses arrive without the means for follow-up. Have a business card to swap with your contact information and take one of theirs. If you don’t have one, they can be purchased easily through online vendors or retailers such as Office Max. Be knowledgeable regarding the job position, and have a few questions prepared. Having no questions of your own is a mistake; it demonstrates that the applicant has not done their homework.2

Do you have a working knowledge of the hospital/clinic/system’s history? Have they recently merged with another system or laid off C-suite employees or a specialty service in order to add another? What type of aggregate populations do they serve? Are they known in their region for delivering superb cancer care, neurological services or pediatrics? Having a head-ups on the type of specialty care the facility advertises as their area of expertise would be a must for an interview. Knowing the facility has achieved Level I Trauma status would be a boon for a nurse interviewing as an experienced Med/Surg clinician who was working on certification versus an inexperienced nurse without those aspirations.3

One mistake to avoid is elaborating on the reason for leaving a previous employer. Be succinct, especially if the reason for leaving was negative. A simple “it didn’t work out” should suffice, or “it wasn’t a good fit”. If more questions are asked, you can elaborate at a follow-up interview. You may hint at a lack of growth opportunities, or a lack of professional support, but avoid saying too much during a first interview. What would be worse would be to say anything negative about a former employer or health system before you are considered a serious candidate for the position; your words might be repeated.4

When arriving for an interview, be prepared for questions about yourself. You might be asked about a time when you caused conflict on the job, either with a patient or a nursing colleague or boss. What would you do differently if you caused conflict at this institution? Why?5

What are your values? How do you integrate those values at work? What drew you to this position and how does it represent those values to you? Be prepared to not only answer questions like these but also to have questions for the interviewer so there are no long silences in between questions. When I interviewed applicants, I was always impressed by those that could surprise me with their questions. The ones who wanted to know the goals of the institution for the future were impressive. Those who spent time between my questions nervously examining their cuticles or staring at their lap seemed disinterested in learning anything about the job. They seemed poised to leap out of the chair, leaving me wondering…would they treat the position the same way?1

Nurses who are interested in nailing an interview want to know everything they can about the position, and the institution they might be joining. Will the institution become Magnet certified? Will they have nurses sitting on the hospital board? Are nurses currently performing research? What types of issues are being studied? What is the median length of time nurses are employed? What types of situations do nurses discuss regarding job satisfaction, if that information is available? Do physicians and nurses work collaboratively, etc., etc.?

Finally, the nurse should be prepared to answer a question that might be asked towards the end of an interview: what is an area of weakness? Most applicants are asked about their strengths, and what they might bring to the position, but the interviewer could be undecided. They might decide to pull out the ultimate ace and ask about areas of opportunity. This is the time an applicant needs to shine, and demonstrate a weakness as a growth area, perhaps a recognized educational plan. Maybe you have already signed up to learn heart sounds, or to take a research class. Whatever it is, have a plan. You’re being tested. This is a chance to acknowledge that successful nurses identify their education needs on a continuum, rather than by rote.5

You can describe yourself as a dedicated professional with sound values who recognizes growth areas and cements them into established career goals, which is exactly what led you to this interview. See? 

All possible job interview mistakes have been averted. I think you might have nailed it!


  1. “CNBC managing editor reveals the 11 most common job interview mistakes.” Goudreau, J., April 3, 2017.
  2. “The 10 biggest job interview mistakes (and how to avoid them).” Joyce, S., accessed December 23, 2019.
  3. “9 reasons you are failing your interviews.” Wright, D., August 15, 2017.
  4. “Never make these mistakes in a job interview.” Koenig, R., November 3, 2017.
  5. “The 10 hardest nursing interview questions and answers.” Krischke, M., 2019 AMN Healthcare, Inc.

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