10 Common Nursing Interview Questions and How to Answer Them

Reviewed by Melina Theodorou

Illustration of a female nurse giving her CV to a male interviewer

When applying for a role as a registered nurse, it’s not simply the case that your prior qualifications and experience will seal the deal. As with any other job, your potential employers will first want to get to know you and find out about your motivations, behaviours and aspirations beyond what is on your CV.

To help with this process, we’ve compiled a list of the top nurse interview questions that you will likely be asked, as well as some examples of the most suitable answers.

So, whether you’re a student nurse looking for your first role or an experienced clinical nurse looking to specialise, these are the kinds of queries that you need to prepare for.

1. ‘What do you find most rewarding about nursing?’

As a nurse, it’s unlikely that monetary gain is your primary motivator. In such an emotionally driven working environment, the opportunity to make a significant and positive difference in people’s lives and help them when they are at their most vulnerable can far outweigh the pay cheque you receive for doing so.

This question is your chance to prove it and let your interviewer know why nursing is a calling for you. Talk about how you enjoy the challenge and unpredictability of the role, as well as how it enables you to help others.

2. ‘Why did you choose a career in nursing?’

This is a question that you are likely to be asked, especially if you’re newly qualified. Employers want to understand your motivations and your perceptions of what nursing actually is, and this is a great way to get to the bottom of what drives you.

Without a doubt, the most popular answer recruiters will hear to this question is: ‘I want to help people’. This isn’t a bad answer, of course, but try to give a little more context and put your reasons in a personal frame. For example, talk about a particular event or incident – either that you observed first-hand or from afar – that had a significant impact on you and made you realise that this was the career for you.

3. ‘How do you handle the stress of nursing?’

It’s no secret that nursing can be a highly stressful role – both physically and emotionally – and while the provision of relevant support is becoming an increasing priority among healthcare managers, nurses are still expected to cope with a lot.

This is especially the case in busy hospitals and departments – especially those that are understaffed – and employers will want to know if you’re robust enough to deal with these challenges. Of course, every individual will have their own way of doing this; not only should you explain how you switch off after a difficult shift but also that you understand why this is so important.

4. ‘Are you comfortable working in teams with other nurses, clinicians and health professionals?’

As with most healthcare professions, teamwork is an absolute core component of everything that you will do, especially if you’re going to be working in emergency or theatre nursing. Therefore, your interviewers need to know that you’re a team player and capable of taking instructions from senior practitioners.

Your interviewer may ask you to give a specific example to back your answer up, too, so it’s a good idea to have one in mind. This doesn’t necessarily have to be in a nursing context if you don’t have much experience. Still, it should demonstrate that you understand the importance of working together for a common purpose.

5. ‘Describe a time where you had to deal with a difficult patient. How did you handle it?’

If you haven’t already, at some point in your career you will encounter a difficult patient and, unsurprisingly, your interviewers will want to know how you handle such incidents.

You could either draw on a real example or, if you haven’t been in such a position before, explain what you would do. Make it clear that you would listen to and respect the patient’s point of view, and that you would explain politely but firmly why a particular course of action has been taken. Explain that you would report any complaints, if necessary, to the ward sister or manager, and that you would remain calm, professional and rational throughout.

In extreme incidents where you’re being abused verbally by a patient, explain that you would convey to the patient that this is unacceptable and that you understand the fine line between a legitimate complaint and a patient overstepping the mark.

6. ‘If you saw a colleague acting inappropriately or cutting corners, what would you do?’

Integrity is an important quality in any healthcare professional, and when someone starts to cut corners, overlook potentially essential details or act inappropriately with patients or staff, it can have potentially fatal effects.

Depending on the behaviour that you witnessed, explain that you would first approach the individual in question and speak to them about the incident. Maybe the mistake was genuine, or your colleague was under a lot of pressure and stress, in which case they might need help. 

However, if their behaviour doesn’t change or they dismiss your concerns outright, then you may need to consult with the ward sister or manager. The important thing to communicate here is that you do not accept a lowering of your professional standards and responsibilities and that you dare to say something when others don’t.

7. ‘What do you think is the hardest thing about being a nurse – and why?’

This is a particularly tricky question, as it not only showcases your perception of the job, but it also reveals what you think are your own weaknesses. Your answer can say a lot about your suitability for the position you’re applying for.

Of course, every candidate will have their own idea of what is the most challenging thing about nursing. A common answer is having to cope when things go wrong, and there is a negative patient outcome or having to overcome emotional attachments to longer-term patients. Your interviewers don’t expect – and, indeed, don’t want – you to be a robot, and it is important to acknowledge the more challenging aspects of the role without conceding to them.

8. ‘What are your longer-term goals and aspirations?’

A variation on the classic ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’, this question has two purposes. The first is to get an understanding of your commitment towards your personal and professional development, as well as your levels of ambition. The second is to achieve a practical idea of if the position will be beneficial for you.

Again, your answer here will depend on what your individual goals are, but it’s crucial to convey that you have one. Maybe you want to move into midwifery or a dynamic specialism such as emergency medicine; whatever it is, it should demonstrate that you’re determined to improve your skills and develop your career.

9. ‘What would you do if you had a clinical disagreement with a colleague over a patient’s care?’

This is something else that will undoubtedly occur in your career at some point, and it’s important that you handle such instances properly when they do inevitably happen.

Your reaction would, of course, depend on the circumstances. In a trauma scenario, for example, the time-sensitive nature of the patient’s condition would dictate that you need to be a little more robust and assertive than you normally would. In a more serene setting, though, you need to explain that you would perhaps take the colleague in question to one side and:

  • Put your point across in a calm manner
  • Emphasise that you only have the best outcome for the patient at heart
  • Ensure that you listen to the points that your colleague is making, too

Your interviewers want to know that you’re not afraid to speak your mind, especially to more senior nurses and doctors – respectfully and professionally, of course. Over the course of a long and stressful shift, mistakes can be made, and if you spot something that you disagree with, it’s in the best interests of the patient that you say something.

10. ‘Give an example of a time where you had to manage a busy workload. How did you do it?’

Multitasking and time management are perhaps two of the most important skills that a nurse needs to have, especially in busy wards. Therefore, you need to convince your interviewers that you are capable of organising and prioritising your workload in a stressful and fast-paced environment.

Again, your example doesn’t necessarily have to be nursing-related. If you’re a fresh graduate, you can talk about managing your university workload and clinical placements during exam times, for example. What did you do? How did you cope? And how would you apply what you learnt to a real-life ward? Make sure that you let your potential employers know that you’re capable of managing your time effectively and keeping on top of things.

On the whole, nursing is an in-demand profession all over the world and, provided you have the skills, suitability and, in some cases, experience for the role you are pursuing, you might find that the interview is something of a formality.

However, this doesn’t mean that you should neglect to prepare well or underestimate the process. Desirable posts will attract a lot of candidates, and the competition can be enormous. As long as you do the required research, present yourself well at the interview and follow the advice above, then there’s no reason why the role in question shouldn’t be yours.

What other questions are likely to come up in an interview for a nursing job? Let us know in the comments section below!


This article is an updated version of an earlier article originally published on 13 February 2015.