You’ve put a lot of effort into your job search. You patiently sorted through hundreds of nursing job postings, found one that matches your skills and interests, and submitted an application. Now you find out your hard work has paid off: You got a job interview!
Think of this as your chance to bring your nursing resume to life and show the employer just how great a fit you are for the position — not to mention for their team. But if you really want to dazzle your interviewers, you’ll need to be able to answer any kinds of questions they ask you — the most common of which are scenario-based questions.
What Are Scenario-Based Questions?
There are two types of scenario-based questions an interviewer could ask:
Type #1: Behavioral Questions
Behavioral questions focus on things you’ve already done (i.e. “Can you give me an example of the way that you communicate with patients who have a hard time understanding what you want them to do?”).
Type #2: Situational Questions
Situational questions expect you to imagine yourself in certain scenarios you may have never faced before (i.e “What would you do if the patient you were caring for couldn’t understand what you were explaining about the type of care that she was about to receive?”).
Why would an interviewer ask these types of questions, specifically? Well, the team that hires you will likely want to know how you respond in certain high-pressure situations. They want to see your problem-solving style and get a sense of how you react and respond to the specific challenges nurses tend to face. A great way for your interviewer to assess your response is by asking you situational and behavioral questions.
STAR: The #1 Strategy for Answering Scenario-Based Questions
When giving your responses in a job interview, it’s important to stay focused and on-point. If you've had trouble with this in the past, you may want to consider trying out the STAR interview technique. STAR stands for:
- S ituation
- T ask
- A ction
- R esults
By following this response structure, you'll be able to organize your thoughts in a more coherent way, whether you’re speaking from past experience or imagining yourself in a hypothetical situation. Here’s how to formulate a thorough response:
- Situation: State the specific situation, as you understand it. This way, it’s clear what you’re responding to. If you’re speaking from past experience, connect it to the one they’ve presented.
- Task: Explain the steps that would need to be done, in order, so you come across as organized.
- Action: Describe how you’d implement the steps.
- Results: Share the results you would expect to happen. If speaking from experience, also share what did happen.
If you’ve been asked a situational question but you’ve had experience with a similar scenario, you can answer it as a situational response and segue into the fact that you had something similar happen. Then, you can set up your behavioral scenario. This is a way to share your experience after answering the question to back up your point.
How to Answer Questions About Your Clinical Care Experience
This is perhaps the most common type of scenario-based question that arises during nursing job interviews. Your interviewer will want to know how you’d care for patients under different circumstances, including worst-case scenarios. You may be asked questions or given hypothetical situations like:
"A supervisor has directed you to take a specific course of care, but you disagree that this is the best way to treat the patient. How would you approach the situation?"
"How would you manage a patient who has been complaining of chest pain? What would you do if she suddenly wants to leave the hospital saying she feels better?"
"What would you do if a critically ill patient isn’t responding to the treatment he’s receiving while under your care?"
Your interviewer will get a sense of your clinical expertise, problem-solving skills, and critical-thinking skills when you explain what you would do and why. If you’ve treated patients in similar circumstances, it’s fine to bring your previous personal experience into the equation, although this isn’t necessary. Your responses will offer insight into your care philosophy and the way you think on your feet.
How to Answer Questions About Your Communication Style
Good nurses are excellent communicators. They need to be understood by patients and patients’ relatives, as well as by doctors and other members of the care team. You may be asked questions or given scenarios like:
"If your patient’s relatives don’t understand what you’re telling them about their child’s illness and treatment plan, how would you change your communication style?"
"How would you care for a patient whose opinions and choices related to her medical care are starkly different from your own?"
"What would you do in an emergency situation if the attending doctor misunderstood the patient history you just shared with him?"
When you answer these types of questions, your interviewer will assess your ability to communicate clearly, get points across easily, and identify when alternate communication styles may be needed.
How to Answer Questions About How You Handle Stressful Situations
Because stressful situations are often commonplace for nurses, your interviewer will want to know how you would respond to different stress-inducing scenarios. You may be asked questions or given hypothetical situations like:
"What would you do if your patient suddenly and unexpectedly has difficulty breathing?"
"If a patient’s mother is sobbing over her son’s traumatic injury right in front of him and you can see that her outburst is upsetting him, what would you do?"
"How would you manage patient care and complete your daily tasks if your unit is one nurse short and you have considerably more patients than usual?"
Your interviewer will want to know that you’re able to identify priorities, adapt quickly to change, stay organized, and delegate tasks to other members of the care team as needed so you can provide patients with the best care possible.
How to Answer Questions About Triage Scenarios
One common way for your interviewer to assess your problem-solving skills, experience, and confidence levels is by asking you to triage three or four hypothetical patients who have different health conditions. You may be asked questions or given scenarios like:
- "You have three patients in your care: Someone who is being treated for heart palpitations; someone who is experiencing a mental health crisis; and someone who is bleeding from a deep wound. How would you triage these patients?"
It’s important that you explain your reasons for triaging patients so your interviewer can better understand your thought processes. Your answer will reveal your clinical expertise and your values, which will help your interviewer determine whether you’d be a good fit for the position.
It’s not always possible to plan responses to scenario-based questions, especially if your interviewer is very creative or asks complex hypothetical questions. But it can be helpful to go into the interview with a few work-related stories in mind that you can share while responding to them.
Consider specific moments in which you’ve had to show your leadership, make quick decisions, overcome communication challenges, or work with a patient who had a special circumstance, and clearly think through the important details you would want to share.
Sharing details about a previous work experience can also be a good way to demonstrate your personality because it may be easier for you to relax and explain what you've already done than to imagine what you might do. But you can let your personality shine through when you answer any scenario-based questions, even without including personal anecdotes.
Always respond thoughtfully and honestly, and let your interviewer know that you’ve carefully considered every decision you’ve made when it comes to patient care.
Experts who helped with this guide include:
- Laurie G. Combe, MN, RN, NCSN, president-elect of the National Association of School Nurses
- Nancy Freeland, MS, RN-BC, CCRN-K, a senior nurse educator for adult critical care nursing at the University of Rochester’s Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, New York, and a former member of the Board of Directors of the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN)
- Elizabeth Rochin, PhD, RN, NE-BC, president of the National Perinatal Information Center
- Seun Ross, DNP, MSN, CRNP-F, NP-C, NEA-BC, director of Nursing Practice and Work Environment for the American Nurses Association
- Sarah K. Wells, MSN, RN, CEN, CNL, Emergency Nurses Association member and president-elect of ENA’s East Bay Chapter in California, an emergency department nurse in a community hospital in East Bay, and owner of New Thing Nurse, a professional and academic coaching company for the nursing community