If you enjoy handling complex cases and treating patients with life-threatening conditions, you’re the type of nurse that critical care units are after. Although your job interview may include a few general nursing interview questions on topics like your work experience or your perceived strengths and weaknesses, much of what you’ll need to talk about will pertain to your experience as a critical care nurse.
To help give you a better understanding of what to expect in a job interview, we spoke to Nancy Freeland, MS, RN-BC, CCRN-K, senior nurse educator for Adult Critical Care Nursing at the University of Rochester Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, New York, and former member of the Board of Directors of the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN). Specifically, we asked Freeland to weigh in on some questions and answers that ICU nurses can expect to encounter during interviews. Here's what she shared with us.
The following are eight of the most common types of questions that ICU nurses are asked during job interviews. We've also provided tips for how to answer them successfully.
8 Common ICU Nurse Interview Questions (& How to Respond)
1. "What is it about critical care nursing that attracted you to the profession?"
This is your moment to gush about your enthusiasm for the work you do. You can go into detail about the inspiration behind your desire to be a critical care nurse, whether it was an experience you had during an internship or an interaction you had with a critically ill patient during your externship. No matter your response, Freeland advises you emphasize that your passion for becoming a critical care nurse, combined with your knowledge, organizational skills, attention to detail, and willingness to learn, all make you the nurse you are today.
2. "Can you describe a time when you had to adapt quickly to change in order to benefit patients in your care?"
As a critical care nurse, you know you have very little downtime on the job. So, when faced with a question like this, it shouldn’t be difficult for you to think of an example of a time when you had to think on your feet and make split-second decisions. Your interviewer will want to hear about specific strategies you’ve used to identify priorities, stay organized, and stay on time with your tasks. This will help you demonstrate your qualifications for the position.
3. "What, in your experience, is the best way to establish collaborative relationships with members of the healthcare team?"
It’s crucial for critical care nurses to have strong working relationships with every member of the healthcare team, despite different backgrounds, personalities, and skill sets. Freeland says your interviewer will be looking for answers that show evidence of your ability to communicate clearly and respectfully, as well as your ability to be an active listener when working with your team. You might explain that you like to paraphrase what teammates say to make sure you understand; you ask for clarification when you aren’t following their train of thought; and you focus on creating a respectful, collaborative, and judgement-free environment.
4. "How do you handle patients’ family members who have unreasonable requests?"
Relatives of patients who are in the ICU may not always interact politely with healthcare workers because they’re upset about the state of their loved ones. A patient who’s intubated may not be able to communicate their wishes, which, in turn, can put pressure on their family members. Your interviewer will want to know that, even under duress, you’re able to converse calmly, patiently, and compassionately with family members, and that you demonstrate empathy for the patient and their relatives at all times.
5. "How do you debrief from difficult situations?"
Certain situations in critical care units can cause higher-than-normal levels of stress. It can be difficult to resolve this type of stress on your own, and ignoring your emotions may lead to job burnout. Your interviewer will want to know that you’re able to seek support from your colleagues, approach a manager to share your concerns, or learn appropriate coping mechanisms during a group debriefing. If possible, provide examples of how you’ve done this in the past.
6. "Can you provide an example of a time when you realized a patient had difficulty understanding what you were trying to explain? What communication techniques did you use, and what was the outcome?"
The scenario you choose to share isn’t as important as showing that you can assess situations and communicate effectively. You can highlight different communication techniques you’ve used to help patients understand things, whether that means using different wording to explain something more simply, pointing or pantomiming to get a point across, or using yourself as a model to demonstrate what would happen.
It’s important for you to explain that you understand the nurse on duty in the critical care unit is often considered the go-to person for the patient or their family members to obtain information. Then stress how you work to make sure the family unit understands what to expect before the patient undergoes treatments or therapies.
7. "Can you share some constructive feedback you received at work and how it affected your performance?"
We all receive constructive feedback from supervisors, but how you handle it can be telling. Afraid that this will show a major weakness? Share a comment from your first few weeks on the job. It’s expected that you would get constructive feedback as someone who’s just starting out. Keep in mind that what your (previous) supervisor said is less important than how you handled it. Your interviewer will want to know that you have a positive attitude, a willingness to learn, and the ability to modify your behavior as needed.
8. "How do you handle the stress that comes with being a critical care nurse?"
Many critical care nurses are at their best while working under pressure, and they tend to enjoy the variety of situations that comes from being in an unpredictable field. If you’re such an individual, let your interviewer know that you flourish when you’re managing care for patients with sensitive and urgent needs. But although you may thrive in times of stress, it’s also important for an interviewer to know that you have coping mechanisms that can get you through even the hardest of times. If you have specific stress-reduction techniques that help you feel more resilient on difficult days, make sure to share some of those details in your interview.
Winding Down the Interview: Questions to Ask the Interviewer
When your interviewer wants to know if you have any questions, consider asking:
"Is this unit a Beacon Award unit?"
"What’s the turnover rate on your unit, and what strategies are being used to retain staff?"
"What are some of the strategies that the unit is working on to promote a healthy work environment?"
"What do you see as the biggest challenges for nurses transitioning to critical care as a new graduate, or for those transferring from a general care unit?"
"What opportunities are there for professional growth on the unit?"
5 Extra Interview Tips for ICU Nurses
1. Prepare, prepare, prepare.
Before the big day, hold a mock interview at home. Review the questions listed above because they should give you a good sense of the types of questions that your interviewer will ask. Then, ask a friend, trusted colleague, or family member to listen to your responses. Critique your own answers to make sure they’re on target, but don’t be overly critical. Make sure to emphasize your enthusiasm about the critical care unit you’re interviewing for in your answers.
2. Plan what you’re going to wear ahead of time.
You should dress professionally for your interview, but this doesn’t mean you need to wear something as formal as a suit. Anything that qualifies as “business casual” would be appropriate. You’ll boost your confidence if you wear something you feel confident in. Don’t let your accessories overpower your outfit, or they may overshadow your interview. For example, don’t wear a dangling bracelet that would constantly hit the desk during your interview, or wear a tie that’s busy or loud — these details can end up distracting your interviewer and take their attention away from what you’re saying to them. Similarly, try not to overdo it with perfume or cologne. If you have tattoos, you may want to consider covering them, if possible. Although tattoos and piercings are gaining more acceptance in the workplace, many hospitals still maintain strict policies against faculty and staff having visible body art of any kind. Just to be safe, consider looking up the particular institution’s policies ahead of time so you can dress appropriately.
3. Engage with your audience.
When you’re at your interview, take the time to shake hands with everyone you meet. Make sure to offer a genuine smile and look your interviewer in the eye while you answer their questions.
4. Emphasize your ability to thrive in a critical care setting.
During your interview, be sure to mention how you thrive under the pressure of the unpredictability of the ICU, never knowing what condition your next patient might present with. Your interviewer will want to hear that you’re flexible, able to think quickly, capable of making good assessments, and that you communicate well with others, all while maintaining a caring, empathetic demeanor.
5. Don’t forget the “thank you” note!
Sending a thank you note, whether by e-mail or regular mail, shows appreciation for the time your interviewer spent with you, and the gesture reaffirms your interest in the position. If your interviewer gives you their business card, you can address your thank you note to the address they listed. In your note, make sure to reiterate some of the top reasons you’d be a good fit for the position, and clearly restate your interest in the opportunity. If you spoke with multiple interviewers, make sure your notes are customized to each person.