Surviving Panel Interviews

Dapinder Kaur, BSN, RN, was delighted when she was invited to a panel interview as one of 50 finalists for a slot in a prestigious New Graduate Nurse Residency Program in northern California. She showed up for the appointment eager to distinguish herself from the other three new grads in the room, and ready to answer tough questions from the four hiring managers. By the time she left the facility, she was shaken and appalled at the experience.

Back Stabbing

Kaur first heard about panel interviews when a representative from the medical center visited her nursing class at San Jose State University, San Jose, CA.

“She talked about the panel interview process during a slide presentation, and shared some questions they typically ask during these interviews,” she recalled. “I was on top of my energy level because I had just passed the NCLEX, and I thought I was ready for the meeting.”

When the four applicants were instructed to pair up, Kaur partnered with a male new graduate.

“I was told to take a minute and find out who the other nurse is, where he is from, where he did his preceptorship and why the medical center should hire him,” she recalled. “I learned he already had two clinical experiences and a preceptorship at this medical center.”

Kaur faithfully reported all she had learned from her partner, but felt undermined when it was his turn to speak. “He didn’t present the information about me the way I had told him, and wasn’t very supportive of my hiring,” she reported. “We then answered a series of behavioral questions, such as, ‘Can you think of a time when you were a patient advocate?’ and ‘Tell us about a time when you reached above and beyond in your care.’”

Kaur shook hands with the interviewers at the end of the session and was commended for doing that. “Everyone else turned around and shook hands after they saw that,” she said. “Even though I was uncomfortable during the panel interview process, I thought I did pretty good,” she said. “But the male new grad was able to share clinical examples from this medical center itself, and reflected the organization’s mission and values, so I’d bet he is working there today.”

Turning the Tables

David G. Epstein, MAS, LLM, PHR, IPMA-CP, IPMA-CS, CASS, director of human resources at Elizabeth Seton Pediatric Center in Manhattan, shared his opinion of the interview process that Kaur went through.

“I have heard about a new ‘panel interview with a twist’ – the addition of two or more candidates being interviewed at the same time – and sometimes even asking the candidates to interview each other. As an HR professional, I don’t like this process and think it is not a best practice,” he stated.

“But with the economic downturn and scarcity of jobs (particularly for new grads), some hospitals may feel they can get away with it because it saves time and money,” Epstein noted. “Five years ago, this wouldn’t have been practical, as a hospital was lucky if a candidate would come in for the interview.”

If you’re invited for this type of interview, what are your options?

“As a new grad, you have to ask yourself the question, ‘Do I want to work for an organization that conducts these types of interviews?’” Epstein recommended. “If you go through the process, make sure to stay positive. Think of the TV show The Apprentice. Would you want to work as a nurse in a hospital where they pit you against one another? I wouldn’t. And the nurses I know wouldn’t either.”

Epstein shared some advice for candidates who are instructed to critique other applicants.

“I would say the best way to respond is this: ‘I became a nurse because I care about people and am a team player. So I would prefer not to focus on the negatives. I know it’s tough to decide on a candidate, but know if you choose me, I will be the one who puts patients first.’ Think about it . any hospital that wouldn’t hire someone like this is not a good place to work anyway, and you should keep interviewing.”

Set Yourself Apart

Rachel Martin, BSN, RN, who landed a job as a pediatric unit staff nurse at a northern California hospital only 3 months after graduating from an accelerated bachelor’s of science in nursing program at Samuel Merritt University, Oakland, shared some tips for new grads who have to face a panel interview.

“I think bringing a packet that includes your resume, cover letter, letter of references, and copies of all licenses and certifications is key,” she said. “I had positive feedback doing this at both of my interviews and it really sets you apart because not many people actually do this.”

“Find something about your experience that will make them remember you,” Martin advised. “Especially with new grad programs, there are so many applicants you have to be able to set yourself apart. Be ‘the person who volunteered at Via West Campus’ caring for individuals with developmental disabilities, for example. Have some kind of word you can label yourself with that the interviewers will remember you by.”

Picture This

Jeanne Waller, employment manager at South Shore Hospital, South Weymouth, MA, talked about how difficult it can be to distinguish one candidate from another when job interviews run back to back in a short period of time.

“We had two clinical nurse specialists and two nurse managers interviewing 38 new graduates for eight positions throughout the hospital,” she said. “All the new grads came in, dressed professionally all in suits but pretty much the same look, with very similar resumes – all had worked as nursing assistants for us while they were in school and were all excellent. Even their names sounded similar – Megan and Mary, Kaitlyn and Kayla or Jenna and Jamie.”

After several interviews, the interviewers wanted to make sure they could differentiate between the 38 nurses, so they asked security personnel to provide them with photos of the candidates.

“Years ago, I thought photos on a resume were inappropriate, but in this particular scenario it was helpful to have them,” Waller noted. “I would think a photo attached to a resume, or on the resume, could be very helpful for group interviews, as well.”

Sandy Keefe is a frequent contributor to ADVANCE.