How the STAR Method Can Help You Ace Your Nursing Interview 

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The STAR interview method is a tool that helps job applicants answer certain types of interview questions.

Many nurses spend a lot of time fine-tuning their resumes, revising their cover letters, and searching for potential jobs. However, not enough nurses focus on one of the most important elements of the job application process: the nursing interview.

Nursing interviews are unique from other types of job interviews. A strong candidate must somehow convey advanced knowledge and nursing skill, professionalism and leadership, and the ability to work well both independently and as part of a team. 

This is a tall order, but with a little preparation, it’s completely possible. The key to succeeding in a nursing interview is to consider potential interview questions and prepare your responses before the interview begins. 

This article will explain the format of most nursing job interviews as well as effective ways to answer the most common questions you are likely to encounter. 

What is a behavioral interview?

Hiring managers often use behavioral interview questions to assess whether a potential hire will be a good fit for the team.

A resume and cover letter provide important information about background, skills, and educational experience. However, these resources rarely provide a holistic look at an individual’s approach to problem-solving, conflict resolution, or task prioritization.

Behavioral questions help hiring managers understand how a candidate might actually perform on the job. They are also an excellent opportunity for a candidate to showcase their skills and experience, especially those attributes that might not fit easily on a resume.

Some job applicants panic when they hear the tell-tale start of a behavioral question. With a little preparation, however, behavioral questions are an excellent opportunity to impress your interviewer and demonstrate how you could add to their organization.

Here are some clues that an interviewer is asking a behavioral question:

  • Tell me about a time when…
  • What would you do if…
  • Have you ever experienced…
  • Describe a situation when…
  • How would you handle…

What is the STAR interview method?

The STAR interview method is a way to organize your responses to behavioral interview questions. This is a great approach for nurses to use when preparing for interviews since it closely follows the SBAR format for giving report (Situation – Background – Assessment – Recommendations).

Like SBAR, the STAR method helps you communicate the most essential information in a concise and results-oriented way.

One of the risks of behavioral interview questions is responding in an unorganized way that fails to highlight a clearly defined skill or personal attribute. The STAR method can help you organize your response in a succinct, easy-to-follow manner that clearly illustrates your unique skillset. 

A STAR response follows this format:

  • S – Situation
  • T – Task
  • A – Action
  • R – Result

If you are presented with a behavioral question during an interview, try to follow the STAR method to ensure that your response is clear and results-oriented. 

How to answer behavioral questions using the STAR method

The STAR method is designed to highlight your role in a situation and how your particular response made a difference.

When structuring your response to a behavioral question, think about the STAR format:

  • S: Describe the general scene or background information. 
  • T: What was your task or assigned role? What was the problem?
  • A: What action did you take to resolve the problem?
  • R: What were the results of your action? How did your efforts improve the situation? If there was a negative outcome, what did you learn or how did you adjust to ensure a better outcome next time?

This approach ensures that you clearly outline the situation, problem, your role in resolving the situation, and how the problem was resolved.

How to answer difficult questions

While there are many “right” ways to answer a behavioral question, there are a few no-nos. For example, it’s not a good idea to respond that you haven’t encountered a particular situation or problem. 

If the interviewer asks you a question that doesn’t directly apply to your background, try to come up with a related situation that highlights the same skill or problem-solving ability, even if it’s not a perfect match.

For example:

Describe a time you experienced a conflict with a coworker. How did you resolve it?

(S) I tend to get on really well with my coworkers, and I was lucky to be part of an amazing team in my last position. (T) Miscommunications can sometimes occur, however. Once, we had a near-miss after a physician gave a verbal order that was recorded incorrectly. (A) I immediately shared the case with my manager, and we reviewed the situation during a shift debrief. (R) Now, it’s unit policy to only accept written orders. 

It’s important to highlight a positive quality or attribute in your response. If the interviewer asks about something negative, include how you overcame the situation, what you learned, or how you coped with the problem.  

This applies to questions like:

  • Describe your greatest weakness.
  • Tell me about a time you had a negative patient outcome.
  • How do you cope with the stress of a busy, fast-paced environment?

Remember that you are in charge of whatever response you give. If you have prior experience that perfectly applies to the question but can’t think of a way to highlight a positive side of the story, then you don’t have to share that example and can use something else instead.

Similarly, if the interviewer asks about your “biggest weakness,” be sure your response doesn’t relate to an essential part of the job or a quality that can’t be resolved. For example, if the job is for a remote case management position, it would be a bad idea to respond that you struggle with procrastination and staying on task.

Here’s an example:

What is your greatest weakness?

Ineffective answer: I sometimes struggle with procrastination and staying on task. 

Better answer using STAR: (S) I’ve worked in several positions where there was little oversight, and it was up to me to stay on task. (T) It was difficult at first, but I learned how to prioritize my tasks using a daily checklist. (A) I make sure to complete the most important task first, and I use time-blocking to ensure I have enough time for reports, emails, meetings, and unexpected tasks. (R) Since I started using this approach, I have never missed a deadline.

Common behavioral interview questions

Luckily, there are many common behavioral questions that you are likely to experience throughout your job application process.

Here are some of the most common questions you’re likely to encounter:

  1. Describe a time you had to work with a difficult patient. What happened, and how did you handle it?
  2. Have you ever been asked to do something that made you uncomfortable? If so, how did you respond?
  3. Have you ever had a conflict with a coworker? How did you resolve it?
  4. Tell me about a time when you went above and beyond for a patient.
  5. Explain how you have demonstrated leadership in a previous position.
  6. Describe how you provide effective patient and family education.
  7. Tell me about a time you experienced great stress or pressure. How did you handle it?
  8. What would you do if a patient asked you a question and you didn’t know the answer?
  9. Give an example of a time when you experienced a failure at work. How did you respond?
  10. Explain your approach to time management. How do you prioritize your tasks?

At times, it may not be obvious that the hiring manager is asking for an example. Remember that specific examples of past performance are the best predictors of future performance. When possible, use a real-life story to demonstrate why you would be perfect for this position.

For example, if asked how you ensure patient safety, it’s best to respond using specific examples rather than a hypothetical or vague answer. 

Less effective answer: I ensure patient safety by following the five rights of medication administration.

Using STAR: (S) Patient safety was a driving part of my work as an L&D nurse. (T) Even when patients arrive late in labor or during transition, I always take the time to ensure the right person receives the right medication at the right time. (A) To help my patients cope with pain while also ensuring we take the time to verify orders, I verbally coach them through breathing exercises while I confirm the medication and scan the electronic record. (R) It takes a few extra seconds to be thorough, but it’s worth it to make sure that my patients are safe.

How to prepare for an interview with behavioral questions

In order to use the STAR method effectively, you must prepare and practice several anecdotes and examples from your previous work experience before the interview. When the interviewer asks a behavioral question, you will be prepared to answer smoothly and without hesitation.

How do you know what sorts of examples to prepare in advance?

Look at the job description for clues. If the job requires someone who is organized and task-oriented, think about examples where you demonstrated these skills in a previous job. If the work involves a lot of customer service, be prepared to answer questions about previous interactions with difficult or tricky patients.

You can practice answering sample questions with a partner or by recording yourself using a phone. Even jotting down a few notes can help you build 3-5 stories that could be adapted for several different questions.

Examples of STAR interview responses for nurses

The best way to prepare for a nursing interview is to practice and prepare for potential behavioral questions using the STAR method. 

Here are some examples that could help you prepare:

  1. Tell me about yourself.

Nearly every interview begins with some version of this question. The STAR method can help you prepare a response that promotes your background, experience, and motivation. 

For example:

(S) My mom was a labor and delivery nurse, and I was so inspired by her stories over the dinner table. (T) I worked as a volunteer paramedic in college to pay my way through nursing school, where I fell in love with the fast pace and variety of emergency nursing. After six years in the ER, I knew it was time for a change. (A) I’m interested in a closer relationship with patients where I can follow their journeys beyond the ER and hopefully even prevent the need for those types of services if possible. That’s why I’m applying for this position in case management. (R) My experience working with a broad range of people, conditions, and disease states will enable me to safely and empathetically support patients throughout their care journeys.

  1. Describe a time that you made an improvement in your workplace. What did you do, and what impact did it have?

For a question like this, the goal is to highlight your individual action and impact. 

(S) As a pediatric nurse in an outpatient clinic, we saw many new parents who had questions about breastfeeding. (T) Many new fathers were looking for ways to support their lactating partners but weren’t sure how they could help. (A) With the provider’s support, I surveyed fifty new parents via an online tool I designed myself. This allowed us to identify the most common problems and questions within this population. Then, I designed a 90-minute class specifically for new fathers and support persons to help them understand the basics of breastfeeding and how they can provide support for their lactating partner. (R) Now, this class is a regular part of our clinic offerings and receives 5-star feedback from our attendees. 

  1. Tell me about a time you overcame a challenge at work.

If you are asked about challenges, weaknesses, or conflicts in the workplace, it’s important to demonstrate that you take responsibility for your own success and that you continually seek to improve. When possible, it’s a good idea to highlight skills that are part of the job description.

For example, if you will be overseeing a team of nurses in your new position, try to use examples that highlight your own leadership and mentoring experience:

(S) For the last four years, I worked as a charge nurse on a med-surg floor. We see many nursing students rotate through as part of their clinicals, and many new nurse grads start their careers in our unit. (T) One year, we had a new grad nurse who really struggled with his time management. He was caring and empathetic, and his skills were fairly strong for a new nurse, but he was often flustered, and as a result, he sometimes gave medications late. (A) I started asking him to come in 15 minutes early so we could sit together and review his assignment before shift change. I shared a shift planning template that I created when I was a new grad nurse and showed him how to plan his care. We focused on three goals: completing his assessments within one hour of starting his shift, giving all medications on time, and completing his charting by end of shift. I checked in with him regularly throughout his shift and made sure he had a strong nursing tech to support him with daily care activities and routine vitals. (R) Within a few weeks, he was feeling much more confident and was completing all of his assigned tasks within the appropriate time frame. A year later, he began mentoring new grad nurses and I saw him sharing the same care planning template with them.

Conclusion

The STAR interview method can help you ace your next nursing job interview. In order to successfully use this strategy, it’s helpful to prepare positive examples from your previous education and work experience ahead of time.

While there are a number of questions that you might be asked during your next interview, most will include questions about your conflict resolution skills, your ability to deal with challenges or obstacles, and your dedication to patient care and safety. If you prepare examples for each of these three types of questions, you will be well-prepared to respond to many potential interview questions.

While it’s true that interviews can be stressful, the STAR method can help you portray confidence and professionalism, no matter what questions come up during your next interview. 

Check out the Nurse Fern job board to find an opportunity that matches your skills and professional goals.

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