Searching and applying for nursing jobs


Throughout my nursing career I have often had to search and apply for a new position. I have also been in management positions where I have had the privilege of recruiting and selecting nursing and allied health staff. I’ve come to understand that searching and applying for a new job is an important skill we all have to learn. So here are some of the things I’ve learned along the way.

Searching for a job: This is the easiest bit. The best place to search for jobs is of course on the Internet and many employers are requesting that applications be sent electronically. I have found places like, NSW Health employment site and individual Local Area hospital sites all enabled me to set up a personal account. All employment websites provided me with the ability to browse and choose the types of positions I was looking for and request email alerts be sent to me as new positions came up. I could also have my CV, cover letter and other important stuff stored in their system. However, I always preferred uploading my own CV, cover letter and other documents from my  own files ready at a moment’s notice.

You will find that there are two different ways of applying. If the ad is through a recruitment agency, they will only require a CV and cover letter; if the job is through a specific health service, there will usually be a person named to contact before applying.

Applying for a job: So you’ve found a job you like the look of and think you could do. First thing you do is read the advertisement carefully. Sometimes all a recruitment agency wants is a CV and cover letter and that’s easy, you can upload online and wait to hear back from them. They’ll let you know if you are suitable.

However, some positions require you to make some sort of phone or email contact with the contact person listed on the advertisement. You must do this. This is where you will find out if there’s a formal application process that involves a package being sent or, more commonly, emailed to you. Do not apply for this type of job until you have received the package, read it and thoroughly understand what you have to do to make your application acceptable to the interview/culling panel. The interview/culling panel will usually have a document that lists the criteria and a tick-box to check off  to see if you have provided all the items and relevant information requested in the application package. This tick-box gets you an interview!

Now read the Position Description and the Selection Criteria carefully. Look at where it’s based, the salary level and the duties of the position. Can you do this job? Do you like the sound of the job? If you do like what you read, then go to the selection criteria.

Never underestimate the importance of the Selection Criteria document and don’t think that your CV replaces it. These are two very different yet equally important parts of applying for a job and nurses have missed out on interviews because they haven’t provided answers to the selection criteria. Answering the selection criteria is your first interview – the written part.

On a separate document headed Selection Criteria, write each criteria as a paragraph heading and then briefly answer how you meet each of the criteria in order. Don’t give theory! Don’t use generalisations. Give an example and be specific. If you find that you are having difficulties answering the selection criteria and can’t give examples, then this may not be the job for you. If you are a new grad, then you will give examples of work experience. Keep your answers short and to the point. Don’t waffle as your application will be put on the “too hard to read” pile. Remember that your application may be one of 20 or 30. So make it easy for the culling/interview panel to read and remember.

Your CV: Your CV is also very important. This and your answers to the selection criteria is what will get you to a face to face interview. Your CV needs to be brief, succinct, businesslike and objective. This is an example of a format:

  • Name, address and contact details. Whether you are male/female and your DOB is not important, so don’t include it.
  • Qualifications – dates obtained.
  • Professional affiliations – that is what nursing organisations  you belong to. This is important particularly if you have a specialty. It shows a commitment to knowledge and maintaining currency in practice.
  • Education – Formal under grad and post grad  nursing education as well as any other certificates, diplomas and short courses you may have done. Primary and secondary schooling is not as important but many people add it if they believe it provides extra evidence to support your application
  • Specialty area(s) of practice
  • Employment history – this needs to be a clear, concise and chronological account of where you have worked. Start with your current position, stating what you were employed as an EN, RN, CNS, CNC, etc and work back in time. Under each position briefly list what your job entailed and the skills you acquired from that position. Dot points are fine – long rambling descriptions will lose your audience.
  • Publishing & presentations – if you have written papers or presented at seminars or conferences list them.
  • 3 refereesYou do not need to add your hobbies, interests, philosophical beliefs or any other information that does not pertain to your nursing career. Having been the reader of many applications I find this information irrelevant and irritating. It may also lose you a face-face interview if you come across someone who dislikes certain of your non-nursing activities and beliefs. I’ve seen it happen!

The cover letter

This is written to the contact person, kept short and businesslike and briefly states what position you are applying for and the documents you have enclosed in your application. These enclosed documents should be your CV, document addressing selection criteria and names of your 3 referees.

The referees

Ideally your direct line manager should be your referee, however, we all know that this is not always possible so find someone who is in senior management and who can vouch for your work. The other referees should also be persons who you have worked with and can vouch for your nursing skills and clinical experience; this could be a CNC, CNE, NE, NP or university lecturer. Personal referees are not appropriate or only included if you have 3 other work referees.

Preparing for the interview

Prepare, prepare, prepare! The face-face interview can be like an oral exam and first impressions count for everything.

Buy yourself an interview outfit. Your “interview outfit” needs to be smart and business-like, gives a message of confidence and says that you understand that first impressions are important. If you wear makeup, make it natural and hair tidy. Jewelry too should be minimal – you have no idea how distracting jangling, brightly-coloured bling distracts the panel! Like it or not, grooming and clothes are very important.

Read everything you can about the agency, organisation or unit you are wanting to work in. Go to their internet site, read and familiarise yourself with their vision, missions, goals, achievments, core business beliefs and principles. read the annual report and figure out who’s who in the zoo, look at the organisational chart, how money is obtained, demographics, people and organisations who support the organisations. You need to understand where you are going to be working and you might find you don’t actually like it! Maybe your beliefs clash with theirs – after all you are interviewing them as well. You need to know if you and your potential employer are going to be a good fit!

I always found that if I prepared myself with a written script for my interview and practiced answers I always did well.

Going into the interview

When you enter the room smile, make eye contact as you are introduced to each member of the panel, greet each politely and follow their lead regarding shaking hands. Generally if someone stands up for you they will shake your hand. Take the seat they offer you an get ready. When you answer the questions make appropriate eye contact with the person who asked.

Usually there will be some water for you. Use it when you have to think about a question it gives you time and refreshes you; ask the panel to repeat questions if you need to; ask if you have given enough information to questions; if they prompt you it’s because they are interested in getting something out of you they think you might know. The panel know you are nervous, that goes without saying, but if you prepare yourself the interview will go much more smoothly.

Here are some common questions and answer techniques:

  • Always be ready to highlight your key strengths and your ability to perform a task by answering in the following way: Describe a situation – What you did in the situation – What results you achieved.

  • Don’t use generalisations when you answer a question – be specific and give examples to back up your answers
  • Keep focused on the question and give bottom-line answers; if you think you’re not answering a question ask the interviewer if you’re on track
  • Always give positive answers
  • Balance out answers about the effectiveness of your clinical practice with quantative data if possible; or use phrases such as “the majority of feedback expressed….” or the satisfaction level was estimated as…..”. You won’t always get questions that need this type of response but best to be prepared. This is more a management level question for those of you thinking about management.
  • Always consider what are the opportunities and challenges of the position you are applying for and be ready to give talk about them as well as how you would positively address an opportunity or challenge
  • Be ready to talk about any key achievements in your current role – list them proudly
  • Be able to list 3 of your key strengths and give examples of how you have demonstrated them in your current position
  • If you’re unlucky enough to get the “what are your weaknesses” question; don’t list weaknesses in any way except to say something like “previously I had trouble with ‘such and such’, but I have gone to lectures, staff development, worked on it in my last performance review etc and have learned….” All anyone wants to know is that you are reflective and can learn.
  • Be able to tell the interview panel what attracted you to the position; that means you talk about the vision and goals of the organisation; furthering your expertise; working in a multidisciplinary team; your special interest in a clinical area. Don’t tell the panel “I love children” or “I love helping people”. This might be true, but it’s not relevant and it’s one of those lines that make the interview panel “glaze over”. Saying something like “I always have been interested in providing the best possible care for my clients/patients”. This is a much better way of saying you love to help people.
  • Always be prepared and ready to answer questions about how to work in a team, how to resolve conflict and how to communicate. Always add that if you have any difficulty in resolving anything yourself you would look up policies and go to your direct supervisor for advice. Always show you understand protocols and how you are able to work in a team.
  • Always show that you understand OH&S, human resources and following policy and the organisations codes of conduct.
  • The panel will ask if you have any questions and you should really show that you’ve thought about this position and have a couple of questions ready. Don’t ask about salary or benefits though, if you get the job you can ask all that then!

    Think about the position you’re applying for and ask relevant questions such if it’s a new position; how many people in the team; when would the organisation like the successful applicant to start; things like this that give you a better idea of what you’ll be doing.

  • Be ready to give them an idea of a starting date; make sure your referees are ready to be called and when it’s over thank them for the opportunity to be interviewed and shake hands if it seems appropriate.

    nice job

    Finally – GOOD LUCK!

Anything else you want to add to our new nursing graduates or those thinking of moving on from their current workplace?


  1. searching and applying for nursing jobs What a bloody excellent article. This is the best advice for nursing interview techniques i have ever come accross. well done and a huge thank you to the author. Nathan

  2. This is brilliant! Thankyou, have been searching for over an hour and found everything was pretty useless. Thank god I came across this, I would have finished an hour ago.

  3. What do you do if searching for a job and have been out of work for a period and the only referees you have have negative things to say about you?

  4. I have been a house-dad for the last 15 years. My kids are now quite independent and I am currently doing a Cert IV in Disability which I am enjoying very much. I am seriously considering a Bachelor of Nursing next year. I know the study will be very challenging but I am confident I can do it. My only worry is that I am 59 years old and so will complete the degree when I am 62. I am concerned about reports of ageism and I worry that I may not get a job. I also live in regional Victoria where they have not quite caught up with big city thinking. What do you think? Should I just go for it and hope for the best?

  5. I’m an RN but have been out of the workforce for about 2 years having my 2 babies. I absolutely want to return to work (even casual) early next year. The biggest stress I have is that I have no current referees. My last permanent position ended in 2013 and my referees were from this position. After that I worked casual in a large tertiary hospital, I went on maternity leave whilst casual and informed the hospital when I hoped to return. When I came back after I did my first shift they told me I wasn’t on the books and had in fact been terminated while off having my little one. I understand this can be the nature of casual work but I never received any notification or communication that this was happening. I would have returned to work earlier! So because of this I wasn’t able to organise references at all. I worked all over the hospital in all settings and as one of a large number of casual staff. My previous referees have proved elusive for me to contact. Dying for some advice on how to overcome this!


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