When Brittany Castaneda-Thibault, BSN, RN, first started her job search she made sure that the first thing she mentioned in her resume and cover letter was her externship at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. She wanted recruiters and hiring managers alike to recognize that she had experience, albeit for one summer, in surgical nursing.

Castaneda-Thibault’s strategy worked. Before she even graduated from her University of Texas-Austin nursing program, she had snared a job as a cardiac surgical nurse at Baylor Scott & White Health in Round Rock, Texas.

“Yes, grades are important, especially if you want to go back to school,” says Castaneda-Thibault. “But you need to show everyone who’s reading your resume that you’re familiar with patient-centered care because you’ve worked in it. You have experience.” 

Indeed, in terms of getting noticed by a recruiter, what you do outside the classroom may be just as important as what you achieve inside. Granted, you’ll have to demonstrate that you know your academic and clinical stuff to be considered a quality candidate and potentially valued member of the nursing staff. But hiring professionals have their eagle eyes focused on a mix of factors. They want to see a well-rounded individual who’s not only prepared, but also professional and passionate.

As Ellen Lorenz, nursing talent acquisitions specialist for the North Shore Long Island Jewish Health System, says: “It’s not that they just went to school. It’s that they did other things as well. They made the most of their time as students.”

Be Prepared

Your recruiter will be measuring you against other applicants, so it’s important to be savvy in how you present yourself. You want to pull together all of the resources that could propel you into the job of your dreams—or at least one that’s a satisfying start to a nursing career. That means not only highlighting your achievements, but also demonstrating your knowledge of the institution’s strengths. Since every interview is a two-way conversation, the recruiter likely will expect you to have your fair share of questions. (Now is the time to bone up on the organization’s website.)

Castaneda-Thibault, for example, not only took advantage of her program’s leadership class to master everything she could about the job hunting process, but she also tapped the websites of each organization that granted an interview to learn more about the mission, surgical specialties, and even nursing models. “All of the questions that I couldn’t find answers for I wrote down and asked during the interview,” she says. “It was helpful in helping me look very interested in the hospital and what they did.”

When the spotlight shifts to you, your goal is to make everything you’ve done relevant to the job. Hopefully, your resume is a well-organized mix of academic achievements and other activities. How important is your GPA? It’s as relevant to your job search as a potential employer makes it. If your record puts you at the top of the class, highlight it. In fact, some organizations will be delighted to court you because they want the highest achievers.

Yet more often than not, recruiters are targeting the bigger educational picture in evaluating scholastic success. They’re interested in the content of your classes, the focus of your clinicals, and even the experience you gained from a practicum, externship, or volunteer or part-time job.

At Washington, DC-based Children’s National Health System, for instance, the emphasis is always on a broader evaluation than just one’s GPA. “We’re looking at the whole person, and your academic record is certainly not the whole person,” says Jill Board, MS, BSN, RN, a nurse recruiter, noting that whatever applicants did through their high school or college years involving children—teaching dance, babysitting a family, or even volunteering for a youth group—are profile-raising. “It jumps out at us if we see that you weren’t building a resume just to build a resume, but you really enjoy working with children. That’s important.”

Likewise, although Castaneda-Thibault’s GPA hovered at 3.5-3.6 during nursing school, she didn’t think it was her strongest suit. So she highlighted the points—her leadership roles, volunteer activities, and part-time work in addition to the externship—that demonstrated she was both well-rounded and prepared. She also kept her eye on the ball by applying only for those specialties—surgery, pediatrics, or critical care—that she really wanted. Admittedly, by targeting areas that are normally difficult for first-year grads, Castaneda-Thibault had fewer calls than her colleagues. Yet by parlaying her experience, particularly her Mayo Clinic training, she made a positive enough impression on managers to achieve her ultimate goal.

Be Professional

When it comes to putting your best foot forward, remember that etiquette counts. No matter how high your GPA is, it won’t matter if you don’t combine your academic achievements with common and business sense. “I can’t say enough about how you only have a few minutes to make a good impression,” says Lorenz. “It’s very important that you look put together—that you present a professional package.”

But it’s more than just dressing the part, even though what you wear signals that you’re either a serious candidate or not up to the task. (Bring out the suit!) Recruiters are attuned to factors you might overlook. The tone of your e-mail, the sound of your voicemail, and the way you behave during an interview, for instance, all resonate.

It’s fine to be a “happy warrior” or “hot babe” to your e-mail friends, but during your job search, you need to have a grown-up e-mail address. Likewise, your voicemail’s snappy intro—“Yo, the phone is here but I’m not. Leave your info.”—may fit you to a T personally, but when recruiters call, they want to hear: “You have reached Jo(e). I’m sorry I’m not here to take your call, but please leave a number and I will get back to you as soon as I return.”

As to interviews, at the top of the red flag and pet peeve list for many hiring pros are candidates who arrive late and don’t apologize for their tardiness. So whether you’re scheduled to talk on the phone or meet in person, be on time and on guard. It’s not only important to deftly navigate the formal interview, but don’t drop your defenses if you’re asked to shadow on the unit since you’re being evaluated there too!

For instance, as the market leader for Milwaukee, WI-based Medical Staffing Network & Allied Health Group, Susie Clementi has one goal in mind: Establishing a rapport with her nursing applicants so she knows more about them than their five-year plans. The downside, however, is that sometimes candidates get too comfortable. “They drop the professional façade to reveal who they actually are,” Clementi says. “That might not have been enough to lose the job, but it could be enough to lose the opportunity to interview further for it.”

Be Passionate

No matter how polished and impressive your resume, you’ll need to show recruiters more than academic qualifications for the job. From your cover letter to your interview, you want to demonstrate that you’re truly engaged in the specialty, are excited about the position, and have decided that this is the place you want to be. That’s not to say that you’re not open to possibilities. Even recruiters understand that you may have liked so many aspects of nursing school that you’re unsure about your career path, but don’t appear so anxious that you’re seemingly throwing darts at a board.

“If you come across like you’re willing to take anything because you just want a job, you’re not the kind of candidate we’re really looking for,” explains Lorenz. “We want people who are excited and passionate in what they’ll be doing. It’s not about taking any job. It’s about taking the right job . . .and having the right candidate for the job.”

Board agrees, noting that a cover letter is the first opportunity to cement your commitment in the mind of a recruiter. You do it by producing a letter that’s not just generic in its appeal but refers specifically to the job at hand and qualifications or interests you have for it. “I often tell people I’m only half joking when I say, ‘If you can make me cry, you probably will get an interview,’” she says. “Nursing is hard work and we want to see if someone is committed and feels that this is really what they’re meant to do.”

Case in point: Board recalls giving one aspiring applicant a second look after the woman called and asked what she could have done differently to land an interview. When Board suggested that she needed to offer more than just “the dry basics” in her resume and cover letter to gain a foothold, the caller mentioned how her experience as the mother of a sick child had inspired her.

Granted, that kind of information may not be appropriate for every position—you have to be measured in how you use any personal narrative. Yet as a former manager who had hired parents of children treated at her institution, Board saw the story as ripe for an effective cover letter since it showed her commitment to pediatric care. When the caller resubmitted the application and letter with reference to her story, Board was happy to schedule an interview. She won the job!

Final Thoughts

Searching for a nursing job can definitely create stress. Finding the right position takes time, energy, and emotion. But by knowing what recruiters might have on their agendas, you not only can reduce the levels, but also increase your profile as a standout candidate.

Chris Hinz

Chris Hinz is a freelance writer based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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